Greg Evans is a professor in the department of chemical engineering and applied chemistry at the University of Toronto. Brian Frank is associate dean (teaching and learning) and DuPont Canada Chair in Engineering Education at Queen’s University
Another week brings another public call for education reform – the latest comes from Dave McKay, president and CEO of the Royal Bank of Canada, with the bank’s report Humans Wanted that urges Canadian educators to “find new ways to support and unleash the skills of Canada’s youth.”
In many ways, we agree with Mr. McKay’s findings on the importance of evolving postsecondary education dramatically and quickly and it’s wonderful to see RBC speaking out. However, as we make major changes to how we deliver education in Canada, especially in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines, we need to tackle a related foundational issue: research.
Any major shift in postsecondary education must be underpinned by research evidence. Fortunately, research is something that Canadian universities are very good at. However, in Canada, there is a conspicuous absence of funding for research into STEM education across the wide range of federal research funding programs. No funding is available for professors in science and engineering, such as ourselves, to study the effectiveness of changes to both what and how we teach. This evidence can’t be borrowed or bought, as the research must be discipline-specific and conducted in a Canadian context to address uniquely Canadian needs.
In this field, Canada is way behind. STEM education research should be a prerequisite and key enabler of change, yet very little is underway. The United States, for example, has traditionally allocated approximately US$100-million annually through its National Science Foundation for research to improve undergraduate STEM education. At a time when the nature and role of postsecondary education is undergoing substantial transformation, no equivalent funding exists in Canada. Because this research is situated between traditional research domains, such as physical sciences and education, and thus outside the eligibility criteria of the federal tri-council granting agencies, it has fallen between the cracks.
Fortunately, a change is in the air. The 2018 Federal budget emphasized the need for interdisciplinary research while, in 2017, the government created the Canada Research Coordinating Committee to develop new interdisciplinary initiatives and programming. This may open a door to supporting the type of foundational research that is needed to enable and guide postsecondary STEM education reform.
Mr. Mackay’s report raises many valid critiques of Canada’s current postsecondary education, but also highlights some of the positive initiatives that are under way. Our own engineering faculties have introduced innovative learning opportunities to broaden the professional competencies of our graduates. In disciplines such as engineering, technical knowledge is still the essential foundation, but it is no longer sufficient. Professional competencies such as communication, team skills, leadership, management and entrepreneurship have changed from secondary “nice to have” embellishments to core educational components.
Research is needed to contextualize these competencies in terms of the rapidly changing labour market and how our engineering graduates will apply them in the work force. Further, we need scholarship to create and evaluate the more active and holistic learning approaches needed to teach these competencies, so that they complement technical knowledge. For example, lessons on teamwork or entrepreneurship need to happen within a practical context and are best delivered alongside technical knowledge, rather than in isolation. Thus, before we integrate new instructional approaches based on practical and relevant applications, we need research to inform, support and evaluate the transition.
Finally, the world is shifting from a “knowledge-based” society to a "learning-based" society. Students no longer graduate with a knowledge base that will serve them throughout their career; this model became obsolete decades ago. Students can now expect to learn continuously, both individually and from others, throughout their careers – this makes the processes of learning and teaching key competencies in and of themselves. Change will be the constant throughout the longer careers they will enjoy, particularly given the accelerating pace of technological advancement.
When faced with new challenges, today’s graduates will not tackle them with knowledge they already have – they will need to recognize what more they need to know, how to learn it, how to apply it, how to assess their progress, and how to change their strategy as needed. Career success will become less about what people know and more about how easily they can acquire new knowledge. Providing an enabling educational foundation to support this life-long learning requires a major fundamental shift that must be guided and supported by research.
All in all, while Mr. McKay’s report provides a valuable starting point, it is just a beginning. For the necessary educational evolution to proceed in a deliberate way, research is essential to informing and evaluating widespread reform.