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Jun 25, 2019

The State of STEM: Educating Canadians for the Next 50 Years

June 25, 2019

What skills and competencies will young Canadians need to successfully navigate our increasingly complex world? And what steps need to be taken by all stakeholders to ensure that young Canadians have the opportunity to study and choose between the full diversity of potential career paths?

For the past few years, the Mowat Centre has been involved in Canada 2067, an initiative catalyzing a national conversation aimed at responding to these questions. Led by Let’s Talk Science, Canada 2067 is a national initiative designed “to shape the future of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning, focusing on Kindergarten to Grade 12.”

This initiative has already produced a series of youth summits, a national leadership conference, stakeholder consultations and interactive online opportunities for public engagement. Last year, it reached an important milestone with the release of Canada 2067 Learning Roadmap, an outcomes document that summarizes the key findings to date from across the initiative’s various parts.

Mowat provided the research support for developing the Learning Roadmap. The core of this effort consisted of reviewing about 30 STEM education policy reports published in the past decade or so. These reports were produced by international organizations such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), STEM-intensive industry associations such as the Information and Communication Technology Council of Canada (ICTC), parliamentary committees, ad hoc groups of experts, scientific bodies such as the United Kingdom’s Royal Society, and government education departments.

We supplemented this review through consultations with academic experts and other stakeholders to produce the Canada 2067 background report, The Evolution of STEM Education: A Review of Recent International and Canadian Policy Recommendations. This document, soon to be published by Let’s Talk Science, is designed to align the insights gathered through our research with the six critical pillars of STEM learning which have provided the organizing framework for Canada 2067.

Source: Let’s Talk Science (2018). Canada 2067 Learning Roadmap.

In so doing, we were able to feed the insights gleaned from our research into the Canada 2067 process and ensure that this conversation incorporated Canadian and international STEM education policy experiences and best practices when and where applicable.

What did we find?

In the Background Report we identified three themes that echo throughout the 30 reports we reviewed:

  1. The importance of increasing the quantity and quality of graduates from STEM disciplines.
  2. The need for broadening the knowledge of STEM fields held by citizens to better equip them to meet the demands of increasingly technologically advanced societies.
  3. The necessity of refocusing education systems away from the reproduction of set bodies of knowledge and towards the development of critical thinking, problem-solving skills and other related competencies among all members of society.

While some may see tension between these themes, we believe that they are best understood as parts of a single continuum with a progressively widening focus.

Each of these themes also carries with it its own challenges. For example, while children seem to naturally gravitate towards STEM in primary school, when they reach their teenage years a perception that STEM subjects are too difficult, boring, nerdy or otherwise unattractive, seems to take hold. This results in many students self-selecting out of elective STEM courses in secondary school, often because they don’t identify with the stereotypes that surround these subjects or lack the self-confidence to pursue what they see as more difficult subjects.

Unfortunately, opting out makes it very difficult for students to re-enter STEM later in life with the result that we see lower quantities and qualities of STEM graduates than we would see absent these negative perceptions. This is especially concerning given that these factors disproportionately discourage girls and students from other traditionally underrepresented backgrounds (i.e. Indigenous, racialized, low-income, rural) from pursuing STEM studies and careers.

The need for highly qualified STEM graduates capable of driving innovation is easy to see in our increasingly technological society and economy. But most of the reports we reviewed also noted that the importance of the wider population possessing a good level of scientific literacy is also increasing. This is because understanding and rationally discussing many of the pressing public policy challenges that societies are confronting – from the ethics of genetic engineering to climate change – requires a basic understanding of STEM concepts. Consequently, the fact that many students are opting-out of STEM subjects in high school presents an obstacle to societies’ ability to make optimal collective decisions.

At a more general level, many of the reports emphasized how STEM education was important not just for how it helps seed the innovations of the future or for enabling societies to overcome the critical challenges we currently face. Many of these reports also highlighted how STEM education can also be an excellent way of developing the more fundamental competencies that are essential to success across all fields of endeavor. These competencies – critical thinking, problem solving, communication, collaboration, creativity and innovation – are ones that are applicable not just to careers in STEM fields or debates about public policy questions involving scientific issues, but rather to all domains of life.

While children seem to naturally gravitate towards STEM in primary school, when they reach their teenage years a perception that STEM subjects are too difficult, boring, nerdy or otherwise unattractive, seems to take hold.

Areas of Consensus

The 30 reports we reviewed focused on a wide variety of education systems from across Europe, North America, Australia and East Asia. Given this, it was striking that, in addition to the three themes just discussed, there were also several areas of consensus on how best to advance the objectives captured by these themes.

The strongest consensus related to the central importance of teacher education and professional development. There was wide agreement on the importance of students being educated by education professionals who had themselves been specifically taught how to deliver STEM education – even in the early years of education. There was also agreement that this pre-service teacher education needed to be supplemented over time by sustained professional development opportunities supported by collaborative communities of teachers both within and among schools.

Another area of strong consensus concerned teaching methods. Many of the reports highlighted the importance of moving away from models of instruction focused on the transmission of set bodies of disciplinary knowledge from teacher to students. Instead, approaches that integrate more experiential and inquiry-based learning were widely recommended.

Similarly, there was significant agreement around the need for STEM education to become more interdisciplinary and to take better advantage of the opportunities offered by new information and communications technologies (ICT). ICTs were especially spotlighted as a way of fostering students’ creativity and problem-solving abilities as well as helping them to improve their digital literacy.

Other recommendations around which we found significant consensus in the reviewed reports include:

  • Embedding careers education within curricula, at all levels, so as to improve students’ awareness of the connection between STEM disciplines and the wide range of career opportunities that STEM education opens up.
  • Collaborating with partners outside of the formal K-12 education system, including the private sector and community organizations.
  • National leadership and collegial coordination among stakeholders.
  • Paying particular attention to the early years of education.
  • Addressing the inequities in participation and achievement, including inequities between boys and girls, students from different socio-economic backgrounds, and between Indigenous learners, and students from other minority groups, and non-minority groups.

Interestingly, there was one prominent area where a consensus did not exist. The reports we reviewed diverged significantly on whether expanding the breadth of STEM education ought to be prioritized or whether increasing the depth of STEM education ought to be the main focus. Some studies, often cognizant of scarce resources, recommended that learning opportunities targeted at those already interested in STEM subjects be strengthened. Others suggested that such an approach would be counterproductive because it would reinforce the perception that STEM is exclusive and only for a select few who possess abnormal skills or interests. These latter reports emphasized the importance of prioritizing “STEM for all” and the accessibility of STEM studies.

Where to next?

While these six areas of consensus – and one area lacking in consensus – represent the highlights of our research, there were also a number of other interesting findings that are worth exploring in greater detail. More practically, since the Canada 2067 initiative is focused on providing ideas for how Canada’s education systems can evolve to meet the changing needs of STEM learning, we also filtered the findings of our research through Canada 2067’s six-part analytical framework to generate a series of recommendations.

These recommendations are addressed to every part of the education ecosystem – students, parents, teachers, administrators, governments and education academics – as well as business and other community partners. Critically, these  recommendations – all of which can be found in the Canada 2067 Learning Roadmap – are just that, suggestions designed to spark and advance conversations on how to ensure that Canada and Canadians are equipped to overcome the challenges and seize the opportunities that will define the next 50 years.

In other words, this roadmap is meant to be a living document, one that changes over time as suggestions for course corrections are voiced and incorporated. Our hope is that all Canadians get involved and add their voices to this ongoing process so that we can continue this important and exciting journey together.



Andrew Parkin
Michael Crawford Urban

Release Date

June 25, 2019

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