Preparing STEM Graduates for the Unknown

How do you educate and prepare students for jobs that don’t yet exist?

It’s not easy, but, as it turns out, it’s far more common that you might think. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, two thirds of current students will work in jobs that do not presently exist, with most of those jobs expected to be in fields of science, technology, engineering and math. But it is not only what they’ll be doing, it’s where they’ll be doing it that’s important.

What might be even more surprising to some is that trends predict that by 2030, 75 percent of global STEM graduates will be concentrated in BRICS nations — Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa — compared to 8% in the U.S. and 4% in Europe. The time to teach flexibility, adaptability, and global accountability is here to stay.

Earlier this year, I wrote about how programs within university and college settings have been racing to keep pace with rapid social and technological change. They are responding to the exploding demand for skilled workers in the STEM fields, even without knowing sometimes what the eventual job will entail. Today, as I leave Rio de Janeiro after meeting with nearly 200 Latin American leaders in STEM education, this especially rings true. I had the privilege of speaking at IME (Instituto Militar de Engenharia) earlier this week, and was reminded that although we can’t exactly know what future STEM jobs will look like, we know that there are certain skills that will be essential to future graduates’ success.

IME Panel, June 20, 2018

The reality is that in Brazil, India, the US and all around the world, we wrestle with the same issues affecting not only our future but our everyday lives. STEM professors and leaders like the ones I met in Rio understand it’s not just the domestic trends that impact the way they teach and operate their institutions — it’s the external, global factors that are changing the trajectory of the entire STEM field in new and unexpected ways.

When I speak to colleagues all over the world, themes like sustainability, ethics, pollution, inequality of access, diversity and inclusion always come up. We also discuss what innovation looks like and the dynamic changes we see in our field and where the lines between disciplines increasingly blur. We understand that students today want to know they can make a difference in the world and to our planet.

We see this early in a student’s career, and we must ensure that they have an opportunity to learn, practice and understand the potential social and environmental impact of their work, as part of their educational experience. I also see the intense interest in helping students understand the many ethical dilemmas that often face STEM professionals. Students will never be prepared to deal with these challenges issue unless we talk about it in the classroom and give them an opportunity to discuss different viewpoints.

Apple CEO Tim Cook, expressed this well when he spoke to graduates at Duke University’s commencement ceremony earlier this month. During his speech, he commented, “no generation has ever held more power. And no generation has been able to make change happen faster than yours can.”

With technological growth, collecting more personal data than ever before, cybersecurity professionals will need to become ever more sophisticated in their attempts to protect against cyber-attacks in self-driving cars, virtual assistants and cloud computing. It is these students who will hold the power, these students who will hold the keys on advancing solutions to complex issues like cybersecurity.

Cook went on to say, “The pace at which progress is possible has accelerated dramatically. Aided by technology, every individual has the tools, potential, and reach to build a better world. That makes this the best time in history to be alive.”

I agree. Innovations happening right now in higher education around the world are making the experience of learning more exciting and impactful than ever.

With hands-on learning experiences in labs, opportunities for students to work in collaboration with companies to solve real-world problems and a strong focus on ethics and teamwork, higher education institutions are introducing new ways to teach students how to operate in an increasingly complex global environment.

Over the course of the next decade, STEM professions will look entirely different. However, our STEM students don’t need to wait in preparing themselves with the tools required to enter an uncertain future. As the global accreditor of STEM programs, we are confident that our accredited programs do and will continue to play a critical role in ensuring that we prepare STEM graduates for a for this rapidly changing job market. By collaborating with fellow accreditors and other organizations, we can do our part in building a better and more connected world.

Executive Director & CEO of ABET, the global accreditor of college and university programs in the STEM disciplines.

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