Cultivating a STEM-Savvy Workforce

Today’s world is a global marketplace driven by technology. Rapid advances in technology have changed both the work we do and how we do it. With the new affordances of the “cyberinfrastructure” we now have access to vast amounts of information online. We also have very sophisticated tools, such as visualization tools that help us see things that are not visible to the naked eye—for example, what protein folding looks like—that we can use to advance medical and scientific research. We have access to large scale data bases that allow us to develop computer models of patterns and trends that have changed the ways we conduct research. These new tools have not only changed what we do but also the way that we work—how we collaborate, discover, innovate, and invent.

In a recent project, my colleague Joseph Ippolito and I worked closely with industry professionals from national laboratories and research institutes to describe the work done by scientists and engineers who use these sophisticated tools as “computational thinking enabled” (CT-E) professionals. With the support of a grant from the NSF, we developed a profile that defines what CT-E professionals do when thinking computationally, identifying their major job functions and the work tasks they perform.

Two thoughts struck me as we completed our work on the profile of CT-E professionals. First: To create a pathway to these careers, students need to come out of our education system not only armed with the CT-E knowledge and skills they need to use these new tools but, also, with real hands-on experience using these tools in low-risk learning environments. Second: Our high school science classes don’t do a lot with computer modeling. So, where do our students begin to connect their interest in technology with science learning?

One example can be found in NSF’s ITEST program—funded to explore what it takes to develop a robust pipeline to STEM careers. My colleagues and I worked with many ITEST projects that teach middle and high school youth how to use sophisticated technology tools to develop games, search in large-scale databases, conduct environmental research, etc. allowing them to begin to develop foundational CT-E skills and experience. However, the majority of these students have these experiences in out-of-school time programs.

Right now, it seems that many of the most intensive uses of cyberinfrastructure by youth are still occurring outside of K–12 formal curriculum. EDC is working to address this issue with initiatives such as our Oceans of Data Institute, our new NSF Computing Education for the 21st century grant, our work with the Massachusetts Computing Attainment Network (MassCan), and EDC's new partnership with The Boston Foundation to expand and promote computer science education and teaching. However, nationwide there’s a strong need to integrate more experiences with these tools into the formal curriculum. How we rise to meet this challenge will determine whether our youth grow into an innovative, creative future workforce that is ready to help our country build a strong economy. Are we preparing them to be the scientific and engineering leaders of tomorrow or the followers?

Joyce Malyn-Smith is a national expert on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce development. She has a deep knowledge of how learners develop skills to prepare for productive and rewarding work life. And, she has a special interest in the innovation economy and how technology and informal learning can spark creativity and cultivate and sustain students' interest in STEM careers. From 2003 to 2013, she served as the PI of the Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) Learning Resource Center (LRC) funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Currently, she is the PI of an NSF-funded initiative to refine and test a "computational thinking enabled" (CT-E) career workshop model.