Opinion: Scaling up STEM literacy and careers

Science World president and CEO Scott Sampson on how B.C. will become home to Canada's first learning ecosystem teaching the science, technology engineering and math skills that are critical to the economy

Credit: Courtesy of Science World

Scott D. Sampson is president and CEO of Science World British Columbia

B.C. will become home to Canada’s first STEM learning ecosystem

We live in a time of unprecedented change, with digital disruption rapidly transforming 21st-century societies. Increasingly, the Canadian marketplace is dominated by novel, knowledge-based jobs requiring high levels of literacy in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). Here in B.C., the tech sector now employs over 100,000 people, about 5 percent of the province’s total workforce. As the knowledge economy grows, these numbers will rise dramatically.

Yet technology-driven businesses are already struggling to fill many roles that require literacy in STEM. Many argue that the greatest obstacle facing the growing tech sector is a burgeoning talent gap.

Today, STEM education in North America and elsewhere is struggling. One study found that 60 percent of students who enter high school interested in STEM fields change their minds by graduation. Lacking mentoring, students, especially girls, tend to lose interest in STEM. Today, only 22 percent of Canadian STEM jobs are held by women. Failing to prepare the next generation to be STEM-literate threatens the prospects of our youth, our economy and the places we live.

So what’s the answer?

More and more, education is no longer confined to classrooms. Learning is taking place any time, any place and at any pace. In the future, children, youth and adults will tap into a rich diversity of community resources to search out and explore learning pathways matching their skills and passions. To kickstart this future, a “STEM learning ecosystem” movement has emerged in the United States, grounded in deeply collaborative, cross-sector networks of learning opportunities.

British Columbia is about to become home to Canada’s first STEM learning ecosystem. Dubbed Symbiosis, this network will connect children, youth and adults with a diversity of mentors, resources and technologies, based on their areas of interest. Sub-initiatives will focus specifically on supporting girls and Indigenous youth.

Symbiosis will concentrate on a trio of impacts:

1) Dramatically increasing the number of qualified STEM mentors in B.C.—from teachers and scientists to technologists and entrepreneurs;

2) Connecting this diversity of mentors with children and youth through networked opportunities, from classroom visits and on-site shadowing to volunteering and internships; and

3) Creating a digital hub that interweaves communities, hosts a library of resources and extends learning through virtual offerings.

Science World British Columbia is spearheading Symbiosis, and organizations from many sectors have expressed strong interest in collaborating—among them K-12 education, higher education, industry, government and non-profits. Several of these organizations are founding members of the BC Science Charter, which formed in 2013.

Symbiosis will launch in fall of 2018 with two pilot communities: East Vancouver and Prince George. Other communities will be added in subsequent years, alongside a prototype of the digital hub. The vision is that within five years, every child, teen and young adult throughout B.C. will have access to quality STEM learning opportunities and pathways.

In short, Symbiosis has potential to be a game changer for education and the economy, merging classrooms with communities while providing people across British Columbia with a vast, cradle-to-career learning resource. We look forward to working with the B.C. business community to bring this bold initiative to fruition. If successful, the resulting learning ecosystem could become a national model for scaling literacy and careers in STEM-related fields.