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Julie Misener is Executive Assistant to the President, Let’s Talk Science

Let’s Talk Science and the Royal Society of Canada have partnered to provide Globe and Mail readers with relevant coverage about issues that affect us all – from education to the impact of leading-edge scientific discoveries.

“Are we there yet?”

It’s one of the most common – and frustrating questions parents face. The easiest thing can be to just shut the question down but if kids don’t receive meaningful answers, they stop asking questions altogether. In a post-pandemic world facing a climate crisis, we need youth to develop the ability to question the status quo and hone the innovative skills needed to move quickly towards a prosperous, equitable, and sustainable future. So how can we inspire curiosity and help kids learn to ask great questions? Engaging kids in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) can get us there.

What a World with More STEM Looks Like:

Imagine overcoming the next pandemic faster and with fewer negative outcomes because citizens understand the science and embrace public health guidance. Imagine the growth of green jobs that build a sustainable, climate-stable world as innovation and problem-solving skills improve. Imagine a level of scientific literacy where “fake news” is recognized as exactly that.

Prosperity also comes with STEM learning. Although the career landscape is changing quickly, STEM skills benefit all jobs. And, according to Statistics Canada’s 2016 census, the average income of a STEM graduate is more than $15,000 higher than graduates in non-STEM fields.

STEM Education Helps Solve Critical Global Challenges

STEM is more than an acronym for four areas of study. It includes a diverse set of skills needed to think about and solve problems in an increasingly complex world. These include fundamental skills that we use every day like critical thinking and problem solving as well as an understanding of scientific methods, numeracy, digital literacy, and how to look for patterns, find connections, and evaluate information.

STEM also encompasses practical or technical skills like using a particular piece of machinery in a specialized career or skilled trade. Finally, advanced STEM skills allow for discovery and innovation including those needed for advanced research, the invention of new technologies, disease prevention, and solutions for sustainable development.

STEM learning develops characteristics and skills that enable us to take risks; find innovative solutions to real-world problems; think critically; communicate effectively; and collaborate. These skills are essential to success no matter what you do! Certainly, we gained a greater appreciation of these skills during COVID, particularly in addressing the many challenges of a pandemic.

Building Back and Inspiring Future Leaders

There is an opportunity to improve STEM education in Canada as we look to address a COVID learning gap of as much as 16 months. While younger children tend to gravitate naturally to STEM as they explore the world, this seems to change as kids reach their teens. Most students in Canada disengage from STEM courses in high school and this is often because they see these subjects as too difficult, boring or nerdy. In fact, more than half of all students graduate high school without a senior level math or science credit. Doors close as a result and, for example, five out of six are not eligible to apply for engineering. Although Canada ranks at or near the top of OECD rankings for post-secondary education, just 18.6 percent of working-age Canadians graduated from STEM programs in 2016.

On the flip side, demand for STEM graduates is strong – between 1989 and 2019, Canada saw a 7.5 percent increase in highly-skilled occupations and declines in mid- and low-skilled ones. Increasingly, employers are having difficulty filling STEM jobs especially in technology and skilled trades.

Investments in STEM Education will Pay Dividends for Generations

Engaging youth in STEM education that is accessible, diverse and inclusive will help them develop the cross-cutting skills needed to navigate the challenges of rapid change and disruptive technologies. Exposing children to the possibilities of a variety of STEM careers and providing them with role models and information about pathways to get there will keep them engaged. Supporting educators with professional development opportunities and resources will make STEM education more relevant and engaging.

Building scientific literacy and the competencies that come with STEM education will help us arrive at a prosperous, sustainable future. And it all starts with asking great questions.