Angèle Beausoleil is an assistant professor of business design and innovation at the Rotman School of Management and academic director of the Business Design Initiative, both in Toronto.
One of the greatest lessons from the past year, if not the past 20 years, is that the health and agility of our human, economic and ecological systems are critical for survival and prosperity.
We’ve witnessed widely varying success in national and regional responses to the spread of COVID-19. Even on a personal level, many have embraced safer ways of working and living such as Zoom meetings and food delivery, while others have resisted mask wearing, travel bans and other basic mandated safety protocols.
Even as stock markets rebounded on the backs of the Big Tech companies, many businesses shut down and our schools juggled new protocols, teaching platforms and mental-health programs. The challenges of the pandemic are far from over, and are a wake-up call on a number of vital issues, including the design and resiliency of our work force.
It’s time to refocus on the people and educational programs that will result in resilient next-gen scientists, policy makers and teachers. And we can start with future-ready programs such as STEM, and more importantly, STEAM.
STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. STEAM introduces art (liberal arts) into the mix with a capital A.
STEM was originally introduced in the 1990s and, promoted by the U.S. National Science Foundation, was a direct response to the poor global ranking of U.S. students in STEM disciplines. This new curriculum aimed to boost American prosperity by improving readiness for knowledge-intensive jobs dependent on science, technology and innovation, and in turn develop a 21st-century work force that can compete globally.
STEM education programs and policies were effectively introduced for students from kindergarten to Grade 12 in the United States. Meanwhile in Canada, where education is provincial turf, we resisted the federally mandated STEM model.
Our education system is the top-ranked publicly funded system among OECD countries, and enables fair and equal access to the majority of our citizens. But “well-educated” doesn’t directly translate into “most innovative.” Canada’s innovation ranking has dropped to 13th place from ninth among 16 peer countries over the past eight years. Those numbers suggest our work force isn’t exactly ready for the future.
STEM programs in our high schools are not uncommon, but as we embrace the curriculum, we should look seriously at expanding it to STEAM.
What’s the difference between STEM and STEAM? A STEM grad might help build an app that allows for speedy contact tracing of COVID-19 infections. A STEAM grad might build one with a fun, well-designed interface that’s easier to use and which ultimately enjoys far greater adoption.
One answer to how we might tweak our education system may lie in the example of Shad, a STEAM-based entrepreneurship program growing in popularity across Canada. Shad ensures that promising high-school students have an understanding of sales, marketing and other social science disciplines in addition to the core STEM components.
Originally known as Shad Valley, the charity program’s pilot started in Aurora, Ont., in 1981 and has grown into Shad Canada, with more than 19,000 alumni and close to 20 university campus partners. Each year, Shad provides the opportunity for hundreds of students from across Canada and internationally to attend a month-long summer program, in-residence at Canadian host universities.
The program engages students around STEAM and entrepreneurship through labs, seminars and hands-on workshops. It amps up regular learning by challenging students to produce creative solutions to big, juicy societal and business challenges.
And Shad is paying off. Alumni include 32 Rhodes Scholars and an assortment of successful chief executive officers, academics, social entrepreneurs, health care professionals, best-selling authors and artificial-intelligence innovators. Alumni include tech-savvy Dragons’ Den luminary and Clearbanc founder Michele Romanow, Kik Messenger founder Ted Livingston and NASA’s Darlene Lim.
Shad students tackle a different design challenge each year. In 2018, the theme was around helping Canadian communities become more resilient against natural disasters. A year later, the challenge was how Canadians might reduce waste.
The Shad program can be viewed as a future work force strategy that encourages young minds to develop an innovative mindset built on creativity, risk-taking and ambition to succeed in the global marketplace. It boldly teaches arts, design and business alongside science, technology, math and engineering.
Business leaders take note. While the Shad program can’t on its own deliver a healthy and sustainable future-ready work force, it can be a source of inspiration to industry. Companies need to rethink and reimagine their traditional R&D and STEM-focused initiatives, and insert more arts and design into their strategies, operations and business models. A first step might be ditching the idea of departments as silos or single disciplines, investing instead in their integration or blending.
Science fiction author William Gibson wrote prophetically 30 years ago that the future would be characterized by inequalities in both science and humanity. Unfortunately, he was right.
The struggles of the past year range from the heavy toll of the pandemic on those of little wealth to the uneven distribution of vaccines across the world. Perhaps we can write the future with inspiration to a new way of learning and working by borrowing from STEAM and Shad. And maybe we can start by tweaking the acronym to include entrepreneurs, so that STEAM stands for scientists, technologists/engineers, entrepreneurs, artists (designers) and mathematicians.
Would a slight shift in semantics nudge our society toward a more creative, empathic, resilient and healthy future? It’s worth a try.
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