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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.

Vanessa Nelson is the Vice President, External Relations with Let’s Talk Science

The global careers landscape is in constant evolution. Many of the careers that were on the cutting edge of innovation 20 years ago are being replaced as technology advances. Careers in genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and green energy were not on my radar as a teen in the 1980s – except as the product of science fiction. So how do we, as parents and adults, ensure youth have the knowledge and confidence to take chances and seize opportunities? Most importantly, how do we provide them with the learning they need now to thrive in the future?

Demonstrating Relevance – influencing pathways

As the mother of two young women (both now studying in postsecondary STEM fields) I recognized early on that their engagement with STEM topics was directly linked to classroom experiences. They were most engaged when teachers helped them understand how STEM influenced the world around them and how they could apply learnings to solve problems. I also learned the value of my own influence in shaping their perceptions of STEM.

The Spotlight on Science Learning Report - Exploring Parental Influence, a study done by Let’s Talk Science with the support of Amgen Canada, identified that youth place a high importance on their parent’s opinions when choosing education and career paths. But it also identified that while 88% of parents felt they could help guide their children’s learning, only 28% were actually discussing the value of a STEM education with their children. Why the disconnect?

I had a naive understanding of the school system and the impact of course selection and pathways on my kids’ futures and am among the 64% of parents who feel that science should be mandatory throughout high school. But I am also among those who are not aware that few provinces require a grade 12 science course for graduation. So as STEM skills become more critical, STEM education is becoming a choice – a choice that we have the opportunity to guide and influence.

Today’s youth want to follow education and career pathways that solve global issues. By mapping STEM learning and skills to their interests, schools and parents can help youth understand the value of science and technology. Imagine being a teen looking at vaccine development in the context of Covid-19. Imagine using climate science to explore the mitigation of fossil fuels using new green technologies.

Canada 2067, a national consultation with youth on a vision for STEM education, found youth are eager to connect STEM learning to real life problems. They want mentorship and guidance from adults and an environment that encourages engagement through teaching practices and curriculum that create collaborative learning opportunities.

Responding to their needs

We need to connect youth to STEM in real time. Through partnerships like the Royal Society of Canada, Let’s Talk Science connects the scientific research community with educators and students to help demonstrate the importance and relevancy of STEM learning. Outreach programming delivered by post-secondary volunteers at more than 50 universities and colleges provides hands-on, relevant learning opportunities in classrooms and communities across Canada. National science projects connect classroom science to real-world issues. Career exploration resources and job profiles allow youth to discover the breadth of opportunity available and explore new careers.

The Need for Continued Change

As my own children have moved into post-secondary STEM studies, I often think about those who face systemic barriers or a lack of role models and positive influencers and wonder how we can ensure that all youth in Canada are encouraged and supported in STEM learning. The world needs a STEM community with diverse perspectives, talents and lived experiences to address the planet’s most pressing issues. However, long-standing systemic inequalities have prevented full and meaningful participation by many audiences, including women, Indigenous peoples, people of Colour, people with disabilities, and people who identify as LGBTQ2S+. Additional barriers such as language, geography, access to technology, and financial status also limit participation. Uptake of secondary school STEM courses remains too low and educators continue to lack resources, training and support.

We must face the unconscious biases that exist to diversity in STEM, including racism, gender discrimination, poverty, and the school curriculum itself. Canadian curriculum does not include enough diversity, and the focus on Western Science is ubiquitous and entrenched. Our responsibility is to help children understand this so they can help affect change from within.

Looking Forward

In the last year, public recognition of the importance of STEM has increased dramatically. COVID-19 and the rapid rise of disinformation have shone a bright light on the importance of scientific literacy and effective STEM communication. And the need for innovative climate change solutions is reflected in a growing conviction that more must be done to improve STEM education.

While my children are on their ways to careers shaped by STEM, it is critical that we ensure every child has access to unleash their potential. We must support, encourage, and develop meaningful learning opportunities that unleash and develop creative genius and critical thinking skills, and continue to invest in STEM education both in schools and at home, as it will pay dividends for generations. Our future depends on it.