STEM Education Can Fix Our Future! But Wait, Can It Actually?

STEM Education as the “Fix All” Solution for the Future

Christy Lum
Sep 19 · 8 min read
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Source: UN calls for more investment in STEM education for girls

In 2016, the New York Times published an article aptly titled, “A Rising Call to Promote STEM Education and Cut Liberal Arts Funding”. In the same vein, The Globe and Mail delves into an essay that is all-in for the possibilities of STEM education in the workplace of tomorrow. STEM Education has become quite the buzzword in the education sector, and coming from a background in UX Design and Full Stack Web Development, I will argue that the benefits of STEM education could largely benefit the children and youth of today.

However, the skeptic in me hesitates to label STEM Education as the “Fix All” solution for our future. With technology becoming better, faster and stronger every day, and with children being exposed to technology the minute they enter into the world, the way we approach STEM education is more crucial than ever before.

“After millions of dollars of investment into coding and STEM education globally, the number of underrepresented communities in the tech sector has barely moved.” — Tara Chklovski, founder of Technovation

Take Tara Chklovski’s stance for example. She is the founder and CEO of Technovation, the global tech education nonprofit that inspired girls and families to be leaders and problem solvers in their lives and their community. In a recent article published in 2019, she argues that prioritizing STEM and coding won’t fill the biggest gaps in education. In fact, she goes as far as stating that over the past decade, “after millions of dollars of investment into coding and STEM education globally, the number of underrepresented communities in the tech sector has barely moved”.

This is alarming. And as a young, asian woman in tech, I would have to say the issue of gender and racial diversity in STEM fields is an issue that remains close to my heart. Call me biased, if you will.

Over the course of this article, I will do my best to outline the following:

  • The Importance of Re-Framing STEM Education: Learning to code versus learning to be curious

The Importance of Re-Framing STEM Education

Learning to code is so much more than learning just that: how to code. To me, learning how to code brings with it a multitude of life lessons that youth may or may not come across any other way.

These lessons look like grit, embracing failure, learning how to learn, and accepting the fact that perfectionism in simply unachievable. There are always ways to make your code more efficient, more readable, and more robust. These are the classic pro-STEM arguments (as seen in this article by the Globe and Mail) that you hear in the field, and for good reason.

It’s easy to take STEM education at face-value. Coding robots, creating machines, writing small programs and maybe even coding some games or a website before graduating from high school. The world of STEM education is rapidly evolving, and so educators must pivot quickly in order to adopt these mechanisms and incorporate them into their lesson plans.

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Source: Amazon to fund robotics and computer science courses in more high schools

In the age of COVID-19, where online learning has taken the education sector by storm, is it possible to gain the same value of learning from a traditional education with the remote-learning model? Is it as simple as downloading an app to teach children how to code? Is it as easy as watching some video lessons online for a couple hours before it’s time to play? It’s not quite a straight-forward answer. There are so many different ways that children and youth learn, it makes it quite an impossible endeavour to try and solve that problem with an app or website.

The important thing here is to reframe the way we approach teaching STEM. When I worked as an Education Assistant at Stratford Hall’s IDEA Lab, we taught Design Thinking and kept the design process at the core of all our lesson plans and activities. Asking questions like, “What is another way we can solve this problem?” versus “Write an algorithm that takes this robot out of the maze” cuts to the chase of the core learning concept.

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Source: Christy Evelyn Photography — Sound testing by building simple music makers out of everyday objects

As an exercise with the Kindergartens, we ran a clapping activity done in partners. If one partner claps the wrong sequence, rather than getting upset that they weren’t able to complete the activity, they had to celebrate and say “Hooray! We made a mistake! What can we do next time to get better?”

Ultimately, we should be training our youth to be curious and creative, a generation who embraces failure rather than hides from it.

What’s Currently Missing in STEM

The skills that coding education currently gives students is very technical, which is great! But not for everyone (says the visual learner, who very much does not have a technical, logical brain). Coding does not, and never will, come easy to me. This brings me to wonder if I would still be in this place if those brain connections were built earlier in my life.

If I were to take myself back in time to my Grade 9 self, I would say my impression of STEM would look a lot like my Technical Education classroom. Try to picture a classroom that’s more like a garage or workshop: bandsaws, screwdrivers, hammers, small LEDs, wires, clamps, sanding devices… you name it! Computer Science on the other hand looked like groups of kids hanging out in the computer room at lunch, playing games (Call of Duty probably) or coding small RPG games. For a concert band student in pre-AP classes, both of these options looked less than appealing to me.

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Source: Literacy Skills in Career and Technical Education Classes

Perhaps it’s simply about re-framing the perspectives that parents and students have of STEM. This line of thinking is echoed by a study conducted in 2013 which investigated the Expectancy-Value Models for STEM across high school students (Grade 9) of different racial backgrounds. Their conclusion presented the need for ways to improve perceptions and awareness of science and mathematics courses.

In my opinion, this could take the form of bringing in people of colour from STEM fields to speak at schools. This could be accomplished virtually as a livestream with a moderated Q&A period to invite students to ask questions.

This could also look like greater financial support for minority communities in order to increase access to STEM education for families with lower income. When I worked on the Community Engagement Team at Science World as part of their Super Science Club (SSC), we brought the fun to the schools who could benefit the most from it. As it stands (before COVID-19), SSC now brings “the wonder of science” to more than 20 schools and community centres.

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Source: Super Science Club staff show elementary students how to code Robot Mice

More initiatives like this could bring greater accessibility to STEM along with it, and maybe shift the traditional mindset of what STEM education is to what it could be.

How Hackathons and Bootcamps Turned A Designer into a Developer

While I was being trained as a UX Designer, my favourite part was getting outside of the design bubble and putting myself into the context of my users. I loved the process of research, to learn alongside my users, to talk to them, and get to know them. This interactive experience made my experience as a designer all the more fulfilling and richer.

However, life and work got in the way of pursuing a career in UX Design head-on. In the midst of doing work in event planning and communications, I somehow found myself participating in Hackathons alongside a gymnasium full of developers in my spare time. My first hackathon was the cmd-f all-female hackathon run by nwPlus at the University of British Columbia. Marketed as British Columbia’s “first and largest all-female* hackathon to explore new technologies and celebrate women* in tech”, it seemed like a very safe environment to venture into a hackathon for the first time.

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Source: Behind cmd-f 2020

To say I was blown away by the resources, positive learning atmosphere, and the good vibes from everyone in the room that day is a massive understatement. I was thrilled to be welcomed into this new community and immediately fell in love with the dev culture.

A hop, skip and a jump later, I soon found myself applying for Lighthouse Lab’s Web Development Bootcamp. A 3-month intensive course that will teach you all the in’s and out’s of development, or at the very least, how to learn how to code.

As a current student who is currently on Week 9 of the bootcamp, I can say that I personally took a big dose of imposter syndrome every day for the first three weeks of the experience. I cried at multiple points during the program, and took many stress naps. They did not lie that it was a 12-hour a day, full-time program.

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Source: Lighthouse Labs Press Release

However, coming this far in a completely remote-learning model, I can say that I am a very different person compared to when I first started. The coding lingo I hear coming out of my mouth when I communicate my problems to mentors and instructors surprises me every time. The speed at which I can solve problems that I first deemed to be impossible is slowly getting faster the more I practice writing algorithms. Learning JavaScript, Ruby and Rails, and React.js, in addition to demystifying back-end development, were skills that I never thought I would add to my arsenal of tools under my belt.

The Bootcamp curriculum that Lighthouse Labs has constructed works, I can tell you that. Coming out of my design bubble into the world of development was scary and uncomfortable, but I am a better version of myself, and a much happier person because of it.

I would like to thank Lighthouse Labs, and all the other stepping stones along the way that have led me to where I am in my own STEM education journey. Looking back at my Grade 9 self, I was the most technology illiterate person. Now I’m excited to take a dive into the tech sector with grit and gumption.

Happy coding all! You can find me on LinkedIn or feel free to snoop my portfolio 👀

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