Monday, January 14, 2013

The Tide of STEM

The American Association for the Advancement of Science's Annual Meeting is coming up soon, and it prompts me to speak to an ongoing challenge my peers and I face, as well as our common passion for what we see as the path to resolution. The challenge is the lack of qualified workers for technical positions, one of the few areas in the economy with significant growth. While there are multiple paths to address this challenge, including good old fashioned employer training (which I believe every firm can always improve on), technical training for US Veterans, updating our immigration laws or simply moving work to where there are available resources, most of the industry would agree that increasing focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education is a critical element in our future success.

At the past Data Science Summit, the demand for Data Scientists and the shortage of those who fit Steven Hillion's description of "equal parts engineer, statistician and investigative journalist / forensic reporter" was constantly part of the discussion. James Kobielus speaks of how the term "Data Scientist" itself has a long lineage, and ultimately the skills of a Data Scientist are built on the fundamental principles of the Scientific Method. Tomorrow's Data Scientists are the STEM students of today, those learning the Scientific Method as well as foundational mathematical skills, and starting to develop domain expertise in key scientific areas.

Industry, Education, and Legislative leaders are working today to help drive greater consumption of STEM education among the youth of today. Thought leaders like EMC's Howard Elias are advocating for leveraging technology to "flip the classroom" to transform STEM education. EMC's Academic Alliance has already started to tackle the challenge, including developing Data Science curriculum, and has already reached over 150,000 students across the 1000+ Universities in over 60 countries that form the Academic Alliance.

Multiple organizations, including NACME and the STEM Education Coalition, are working to help prioritize and drive STEM education initiatives. Still, no one would argue that success has been fully attained, and most feel that much more effort and focus is needed.

My own experience with STEM education was driven by excellent educators. Initiatives to increase the number of STEM teachers, such as the AFCEA Educational Foundation's scholarship program are targeted at providing this experience to more children. I know that I would have been much less likely to have entered a technical field, or to even take the same delight in technical curiosity, were it not for many excellent STEM teachers growing up. To this day, I still note with enjoyment the occurrence of a fairly non-traditional holiday, the birthday of Robert Bunsen at the end of March. In high school, this birthday was an occasion for our chemistry teacher to lead a field trip to his farm, where we tapped trees for maple syrup. Sugar being a powerful incentive, we barely noticed that we were learning about evaporation, filtration, reverse-osmosis and other things that would never have seemed quite as compelling coming out of a textbook. I truly hope that we can find some way to similarly make STEM education sweetly successful in the future.

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