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Five questions with Bonnie Schmidt, president of Let’s Talk Science

Bonnie Schmidt, president of Let’s Talk Science, says fostering curiosity is critical to helping students achieve their full potential in a rapidly changing work force.

Geoff Robins/Western University

Will Canada's youth thrive amid major shifts in the economy driven by the rapid advancement of science and technology? Bonnie Schmidt, president of Let's Talk Science, believes the answer lies in a national strategy with input from academics, parents, industry leaders, government officials and community groups. The non-profit Let's Talk Science, which offers science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs for educators, is developing a 50-year plan called Canada 2067 to help meet the needs of the evolving work force.

What's the future of work in Canada?

There's growing complexity and a new kind of skill set. We need people who are going to be able to respond to rapidly changing needs that are driven by technology advancement, who can understand how to put a service element to it. We're out of the age of being able to create classrooms of young people who have the same reproducible skills as we did in more of an industrial-age economy. We will need to be able to respond to market pressures, to look at invention, innovation and the changing face of technology. We need to be thinking about how to prepare young people so they can respond quickly and adapt to a global economy.

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How do Canadian kids stack up when it comes to science education?

Over all, I think our kids have tremendous capacity, and for many years, we've actually been in the top tier of the international tests. From a Let's Talk Science perspective, what we're trying to do with Canada 2067 is to bring the country together to think about what we can do collectively to make sure we're learning from each other and staying at the top. With international tests, I worry about putting too much emphasis on performance numbers, but what they do tell us is that our kids are capable.

What would be the result of staying with the status quo in STEM education?

We're going to miss an opportunity to show the innovation capacity that I believe is almost latent in this country. We have young people who have a very strong and positive value set. They want to make a difference, they want to help people, they want to solve problems and they want to be in positions where they can make decisions. We need to be smart about understanding how skill sets are changing so quickly and how we actually come together to prepare them.

What are the practical answers to these questions?

Some have to do with pulling together more experiential opportunities. We need to foster curiosity. One of the challenges that we have is reversing the trend that shows that when our young people go through the school system, they begin to lose that curiosity. They miss the opportunity to see what the future potential can be if they stay within some of the different disciplines. How can we foster that so as young adults we're asking really good, rich robust questions and seeking to solve them? I think that really lies at the heart of innovation.

How can Alberta and its business community help advance the educational evolution you prescribe?

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It's really important that industry and education and community groups come together with parents, teachers and kids to have these kinds of conversations and work together. We're moving toward an era in which teachers are also becoming coaches, mentors and facilitators to help guide students. We need to have richer conversations and connections between industry and education for experiential learning opportunities and work-integrated learning. We need to bring the resources of the community into the classroom, where there might be experts in certain areas that can help teachers build connections with young people. It's really a recognition that we all – every one of us in Canada – have a role and responsibility to ensure that our young people are best positioned for success in the new economy.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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