As we enter the fourth industrial revolution, the conversation about the future of STEM education must centre around both what we teach and how we teach it.

But, even before we review the way we teach, we need to ask ourselves which STEM skills will be the most critical for humans to have in the future?

You may think that only a crystal ball can answer that question, but we do at least know part of the answer. In a world where more and more jobs are being automated, students need to possess skills that machines are unable to possess. So-called soft skills such as: judgement, empathy, persuasion, the ability to collaborate and communicate, and be flexible, adaptable and resilient are just a few of the skills that machines are unable to replicate.

Give a man a fish and he can eat for a day; teach him how to research and he learns throughout a lifetime

Of course, subject knowledge is still important. Students must understand the fundamentals in their discipline.

However, there is growing agreement, up and down the educational spectrum that subject knowledge alone is insufficient. In the internet age, a vast amount of information is free. Arguably, with the right motivation, students no longer need a university education to learn and acquire deep knowledge on a subject from the comfort of their own home. The crucial skill then is whether a student can critically assess the reliability of a source of information. Education needs to add value. Showing students the real-world application of their knowledge and giving them the skills to learn will help prepare them for the future.

 How higher education is closing the skill gap

There is some exciting work going on within higher education institutions to create a more synergistic approach to STEM learning.

Among the vanguard of innovators is Professor Sha Xin Wei, founder and director of the Synthesis Centre at Arizona State University. Here science, social science, humanities and the arts are fused together to solve real-world problems.

The centre asks students to solve massive, complex problems like ‘what will life be like in Phoenix if there is no water?’ or ‘How can we help stroke patients to aid their own recovery?’

Students venture into unchartered territory, discovering for themselves answers that no one knows. It requires them to work collaboratively, not only with each other, but also with organisations and individuals external to the university.

Another example of exemplary STEM teaching is the Red House – a think-tank at Georgetown University.

Red House describes themselves as using ‘iterative research and design processes to explore the expanding contexts of liberal and professional education […] and the ways in which higher education can renew its greater purposes and ultimately serve the common good.’ They are creating courses that have formational as well as knowledge outcomes. Micro-credentials are built-in to capture and accredit skills that have previously been unacknowledged – skills in the areas of learning to learn, empathy, resilience, wellbeing, and integration.

What these institutes have in common is an approach that values self-determination. They require students to be active drivers of their own education rather than passive recipients. They hope to teach their students to become better people, with the capacity to make a noticeable, positive impact on the world.

Innovation for all, not just higher education

Of course, it is easier for higher education institutions to be innovative. As independent institutes, they have the freedom to set their own curricula and syllabuses, and determine their own methods of pedagogy and assessment.

The need for a ‘new education’ is not restricted to Higher Education. It is equally important for the primary and secondary sectors to evaluate whether current subjects and methods of teaching are fit for the 21st century. Policymakers and strategists are beginning to understand where they think we need to go. Before we make any reforms, however, we need a cultural rethink about what education is for.

As Justin Edwards, CEO of the CCEA, Northern Ireland’s Awarding Body told us for our Qualifying the Skills of the Future report: ‘We’re struggling to reform from the 1860s when our structures and infrastructures were established. It requires tricky cultural change and often a real departure from the way things have traditionally been done.’

Re-organising learning outside of subject silos may be a complete reversal of the status quo, but it is hardly a revolutionary idea: ‘from the ancient world to the 1800s knowledge was interrelated and connected. ‘Socrates and Aristotle were not described as mathematicians and writers but as philosophers. Leonardo da Vinci was a painter, but he was also an engineer and a scientist.’[1]

While the scale of change required seriously hampers the pace of change, we are beginning to see a gradual awakening in the UK, viewing STEM education through fresh eyes.

Wales: an example of best practice

The Welsh curriculum in development at the moment, for example, owes much to Wynne Harlen’s ‘Principles and Big Ideas of Science Education’ according to Philip Blake, the CEO of Qualifications Wales. These ‘Big Ideas’ are the outcome of ten international experts in science education working together in a bid to promote STEM to students in developed nations throughout their schooling.

These principles present a road map for science education based on 10 principles and 14 big ideas (ten ideas of science and 4 ideas about science). It offers a progression from small ideas about specific events, phenomena and objects to more abstract and widely applicable ideas and the significant aspects of pedagogy that are required for 21st century worker. In this way, it advocates anchoring data to unfolding themes.

Like the Synthesis Centre and the Red House, Wynne Harlen et al’s 10 principles emphasise social responsibility, collaboration between teaching professionals and with wider industry, real-world application, and the development of scientific capabilities, as well as knowledge.

Wales’s journey of educational reform is well thought-out and is in many ways courageous. However, against a backdrop of such complex and profound changes in the world around us, we must question whether any policymakers, anywhere in the world, are acting fast enough or radically enough.


[1] Implementing a cross curricular approach 4 July 2016 David Roy