In today's rapidly evolving world, investing in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education has emerged as a powerful tool for driving economic growth and social progress. A 2022 United Nations Policy Paper on STEM education and inequality in Africa points to the critical role in science and technology and innovation in achieving sustainable development and economic growth. Without an adequate number of high-quality citizens educated in STEM, Atkins and Mayo (2010) paint a gloomy picture of the innovation economy and economic opportunities. By equipping learners with the requisite skills and knowledge, STEM education not only opens the door to gainful career opportunities but also encourages innovation as a viable pathway out of poverty. This blogpost will explore the long-term economic benefits of early investments in STEM education and how such decisions can transform marginalised communities.
Early STEM Exposure key to Fostering Creative Thinking Skills
Leaning into the concept of tabula rasa in relation to child development that suggests that people are blank slates from birth and can become anything as shaped by their experiences at an early age, early exposure to STEM education is critical in igniting curiosity, fostering a love for learning, and building a strong foundation for future success. Practical Education Network (PEN) recognizes the significance of starting STEM education at a young age and has integrated this approach into its hands-on teacher training model.
By equipping teachers with the necessary skills and resources, PEN ensures that STEM concepts and activities are introduced in an engaging and relevant manner at the basic school levels. Through a teacher-focused training approach, educators learn how to make STEM education come alive for young learners, connecting it to their everyday lives and demonstrating the practical applications of these subjects. This early engagement not only cultivates problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity but also helps break gender stereotypes, encouraging girls to develop confidence and positive attitudes towards STEM.
One of the strong cases for this is the Nova Star Academy in Kasoa, who implemented PEN’s franchise model in 2018 - a comprehensive training on hands-on teaching for STEM teachers and assistance with setting up laboratories with locally available materials. All of their twenty-two (22) final year students who took the 2021 Basic Education certificate Examination (BECE) scored a ‘One’ - the only subject for which such results were realised in that year. In the words of the school’s founder, Mr Robert Baafi, the students’ attitudes towards Science greatly improved alongside teachers’ confidence in delivering practical and meaningful Science lessons. Forty percent of the students are now pursuing Science courses in Senior High School. By starting STEM education early, PEN continues to lay the groundwork for a lifelong passion for learning, empowering young minds with the skills they need to have fulfilling futures.
Bridging the Skills Gap and Fostering Innovation for Economic Empowerment
This Fourth Industrial Revolution era presents both opportunities and challenges. One of the major challenges is the widening skills gap, where traditional skills are becoming outdated, and new demands for digital literacy, soft skills and technical expertise are emerging. Recent reports show that certain skills are gradually becoming obsolete while the demand for others remains unmet by the current workforce (World Government Summit, 2019). What accounts for this gap?
The reliance on rote learning and memorisation in STEM subjects is one of many deeply rooted reasons for the skills gap. What this means is that while we may have a year-on-year increase in STEM graduates, many of them lack interpersonal and critical thinking skills to thrive in dynamic situations. Soft (interpersonal) skills include attributes like collaboration, critical thinking, adaptability, and effective communication. Unlike technical skills, soft skills are universally valuable and adaptable across various industries.
Quality, practical STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education plays a crucial role in nurturing these essential soft skills. Practical STEM education encourages teamwork, allowing students to work together on projects, fostering communication skills, and teaching them to respect diverse perspectives. Through hands-on learning experiences, students develop their abilities to collaborate, think critically, and solve real-world problems.
The jobs of tomorrow will require individuals to navigate complex, interdisciplinary challenges, often in an agile and collaborative environment. Practical STEM education equips students with the skills needed to thrive in this new landscape, ensuring they are well-prepared for the ever-evolving world of work. Quality practical STEM education can help in bridging the skills gap that exists in many industries by steering away from over reliance on rote memorisation to driving learning towards inquiry, curiosity and critical thinking. Innovations such as Practical Education Network’s Teacher Roadmap - a 2-year long training programme that equips teachers to deliver STEM lessons by training them on hands-on learning techniques using locally available material and improving their confidence to deliver effective and impactful lessons - can break this cycle by providing improved and meaningful access to high-quality education and empowering young people to take on the future.
Fostering Innovation for Economic Empowerment
Quality STEM education has the power to transform the next workforce into high-order thinking individuals who are poised to tackle society and industry’s most pressing challenges. It comes as no surprise that the African Union underscores the importance of quality STEM education in its Agenda 2063, given its central role in Building stronger links with industry, matching workforce needs, and aiming to improve skills and job opportunities. Many top global companies like PwC and McKinsey promote technical expertise, creative problem solving and innovation as some of the most desirable traits for a workforce that is well-equipped to meet the demands of this age. By providing students with a strong foundation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, learners are better prepared to enter and thrive in the job market. This is especially beneficial for students in marginalised areas who already grapple with lack of access and inadequate resources.
When it comes to innovation, investing in STEM education can create a pool of skilled professionals who contribute to scientific research, technological innovations, and advancements in various industries. STEM is the driving force behind technological advancements that improve our experiences and redefine what is considered possible - resulting in groundbreaking world solutions. A country with innovators attracts huge investments, creates lucrative job opportunities, and drives economic growth, benefiting both individuals and society.
Additionally, STEM careers are known for offering higher wages and greater earning potential. Data from Bankrate’s study which sought to determine the most valuable college majors by looking at the median income levels and employment rates of American workers in 2021 showed the top twenty-five percent (25%) of such careers and jobs being in the STEM field (Bankrate, 2021).
Investing in practical STEM education is a powerful strategy for uplifting marginalised communities and breaking the cycle of poverty. By bridging the skills gap, fostering innovation and entrepreneurship, empowering marginalised communities, closing the income gap, and driving technological advancements, STEM education paves the way for long-term economic growth and social progress. Governments, educational institutions, and stakeholders must recognise the transformative potential of practical STEM education and allocate resources to ensure equal access and quality education for all. By doing so, we set the stage for a future where individuals leverage STEM to drive economic growth and create more fulfilling and secure futures for themselves and society alike.
The Author is Edith-Casely Ndidi Fordjoe, Communications and Partnerships Officer at PEN.