A 21st Century Education Framework: Digital, Adaptable, Transdisciplinary, Ecosystem
Simone Merani, firstname.lastname@example.org
Education, particularly foundational STEM education, has contributed to significant positive impact on society, human life and individual economic empowerment. Prior to this pandemic, it had become clear that our globalized world is evolving and distorting politically, socially, culturally, and technologically at a rapid pace and the challenges have complex, complementary, and opposing dimensions. In response to this, over the last three decades, education system planners have leveraged metaphors like, ‘STEM pipeline’, ‘leaky pipeline’, and interdisciplinary. There have been significant strides also in digital delivery of college education but most people earn their credentials in traditional, in-person situations. This pandemic has brought into sharper relief the growing inequity of access, economic inequality and the erosion of faith in scientific truths complicated by political and cultural factors. Human-driven climate change will result in natural disasters and pandemic scale events in the future, each time significantly disrupting all our systems including education systems, further exacerbating this challenge, threatening to put years of hard-won progress at risk. The need for a digital-first and hybrid-adaptable creation and delivery of education content from kindergarten through college in preparation for a work life that will resemble similar attributes factoring in age requirements as well as local environments. This necessitates expanding the metaphoric model to an ecosystem or a mosaic that enables people with a diversity of skills and life experiences to collaborate on solving multi-dimensional, large-scale problems with transdisciplinary, non-linear training and thinking. The result could be an education system designed for resilience and equity at scale.
The pipelines were intended to highlight a potential scarcity of Ph.D. scientists and engineers additionally describing the ways in which minorities and women, in particular, become underrepresented in the STEM fields. This ‘leak’ is defined by social and cultural forces that corrode the pipeline and keep talented minority and female individuals from realizing their full potential and has proven to be a complicated, multi-factor problem. The conflation of the two metaphors brought attention to the lack of STEM diversity but was driven by the perceived scarcity of Ph.Ds. with fewer women choosing to major in these fields rather than by the underlying premise that scientific research should be driven by more people than mostly white men. A woman, with a physics undergraduate degree, who chooses a career in science policy would be considered a drip-out, a drop-out. Unfortunately, girls face different gender norms regarding expectations, access to resources and opportunities, and the stigma surrounding their right to education. The disequilibrium starts meaningfully in middle school where the leaky pipeline metaphor refers to how girls are less likely to be interested in science than boys. This lack of diversity is markedly visible in the STEM field, with fewer women choosing to major in these fields. Conversely, women in the biological and life sciences represent more than half of the students earning PhDs, yet many fail to achieve tenured faculty positions as women in science are more likely than their male counterparts to put an emphasis on life-work balance. Recently, the NSF has started using the term “pathways”[i] in place of pipeline to refer to the different routes that people can take to achieve a STEM career.
All efforts to increase STEM diversity and foster a more inclusive and accessible environment are laudable and have given rise to many innovative programs to mitigate these disparities such as creating healthy and diverse STEM education programs for students before they enter college and the professional world. National Girls Collaborative Project[ii] is a national, umbrella organization dedicated to change the gender gap in STEM and works with organizations like Girls Who Code[iii] focused on addressing the gender gap in technology and changing the public perception of a programmer. Global organizations like Million Women Mentors[iv] are focused on preventing the opting-out of women from STEM careers while, Scratch Foundation[v] wants children, particularly minority children and girls, to opt-in the wonders of programming.
Local organizations include Girls Empowered in Math and Science (GEMS), a student-run program in the Bay Area with a mission to ignite interest in STEM for girls aged seven to eleven. With the support of the San Jose Public Library, this organization holds student-run in-person, hands-on science workshops to introduce young girls to basic science concepts by leveraging an effective hybrid mentorship/role model concept where pre-teen girls see girls, a few years older to them, convey their enthusiasm for science in ways that they can relate to easily. Women in STEM (WiSTEM), an organization that I am also involved with, hopes to empower high-school girls to visualize success in STEM fields by creating mentor (successful professional women in STEM) experiences, workshops with women guest speakers, and lively student moderated discussions. As has been mentioned, that intertwined with equity in STEM is the broader challenge of gender equity that surfaces not only for women in STEM professions but in all aspects and walks of life. FEM (Feminism) club, is a club at the Harker School which derives its mission from the simple idea that ‘Women in Power Empower Women’ by advocating for the right for women to have a voice at the largely male, white, political groups across all levels of government.
After the initial shock of the pandemic to the education system, generally funding-strapped school systems, leveraging federal emergency funds, have made great efforts to bridge this gap. GEMS and WiSTEM adapted and transferred group activities to an online setting. In the case of GEMS, instructional videos for the science experiments were created; zoom meetings were conducted to explain scientific concepts to the young children. I observed that the children had more trouble paying attention to the presentation online, but they were still curious about the science behind the experiment. In WiSTEM, online discussions and workshops lost their interactivity due to the size of the group and were less effective while one-on-one mentorship sessions strengthened connections between mentor and mentee. Smaller attention disassociation was observed in FEM club panel discussions since the audience was smaller of motivated and passionate high school students. The key first-hand takeaways were that digital content retroactively and reactively retrofitted is substantially less effective particularly if audience age and local situations are factored in. A digital-first, hybrid and adaptable content creation and delivery needs to be comprehensively planned ground up.
A recent Mckinsey report[vi] summarizes that the pandemic “widened preexisting opportunity and achievement gaps, hitting historically disadvantaged students hardest. In math, students in majority Black schools ended the year with six months of unfinished learning, students in low-income schools with seven. High schoolers have become more likely to drop out of school, and high school seniors, especially those from low-income families, are less likely to go on to postsecondary education.” It further asserts that the impact on student mental health, reduced secondary and advanced education opportunities, constricted career opportunities impacting their family’s future prospects are all ripple effects that will need continued and extensive study. It further states that a holistic reimagining of the education system for the long-term to address the complex factors and priorities including listening to students and parents to design programs that meet the academic and non-academic needs is imperative. Recently, the Surgeon General issued a rare advisory regarding the teenage mental health crisis.[vii] In addition, this article highlights key criteria and requirements that must be considered in reimagining the education system from elementary through high school to college focused around addressing the inequity of access and opportunity. Education is critical to mitigating income and wealth inequality, in essence, to the perseverance of the idea of the ‘American dream’ for the 21st century.
[i] https://www.nsf.gov/nsb/publications/2015/nsb201510.pdf (page 5)
[vi] https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-and-social-sector/our-insights/covid-19-and-educati on-the-lingering-effects-of-unfinished-learning
Simone Merani is a current senior at The Harker School in the Bay Area, California. Her interests lie in the intersection of STEM and social policy. She has devoted her time in high school to scientific research as well as in social research and policy with hands-on experience in various school organizations like WiSTEM, GEMS (as the current Director of Curriculum), and FEM (as the current President of the club). Her travel to Costa Rica and remote volunteering at a Costa Rican NGO exposed her to the need and challenges of online learning in third world countries. Her interactions and experiences through the above organizations have heightened her awareness regarding the scale of the problem which requires sustained and substantial efforts with a new framework for the education system built around the right principles.