Peanut Butter Meets Chocolate: The Future of STEM Education

GUEST COLUMN | by Karen Panetta

Big data and machine learning will become standard operating arenas for future STEM experts, but how do we prepare for it?

STEM education now has access to vast amounts of real data — being captured live from social media and satellites — to explore and investigate for inclusion into the curriculum.

This brings new challenges, but also unprecedented possibilities to use technology to teach technology.

What Are Students Motivated By?

Students are motivated by connections to real-world events and personal interests.

Access to data that has significance to current events—coupled with simulation—will allow students to explore and experiment with data to gain competencies in everything from statistics, acoustics, and digital forensics, to modeling, data visualization, environmental science and engineering design.

“Learning will be based on current global events and the data students will use to explore and learn will be real.”

How STEM Was

For years, the strategy for teaching and promoting STEM was conducted in silos, where K-12, college and university education and professional career development each focused on its own community without looking at transitions, bridging the gaps or passing the “STEM baton” from one life stage to another.

Tremendous strides have been made in each focus area, yet it is still a relatively new concept to combine great accomplishments to create a cohesive life-learning recipe.

Separately, each works well, but together something more profound can be accomplished.

Something More Profound

This “Peanut Butter meets Chocolate” approach will bridge the learning gap between science and engineering — and math and technology — by emphasizing applied, integrated STEM learning that has both academic rigor and applied technological synthesis. It is a holistic approach that creates pathways for K-12 to college and university, all the way to the finish line of a professional STEM career by fusing and integrating the learning experiences throughout.

Here, the role of technology will be crucial and will redefine the classroom.

The Classroom of the Future

The classroom of the future will utilize virtual “maker-spaces” that allow students to design, innovate and establish collaborations/teams with other students from around the world.

STEM education will evolve to appreciate that there is no “one-size-fits all” approach to developing STEM curriculum and training. It will be the students themselves that will be forging that future by the way they use technology to learn and work.

Consider Another Evolution

Consider the evolution of engineering design methodologies.

For many years, engineers were taught to design, implement and test, as a set of sequential processes.

Then, the methodology evolved to include testing as an integral part of the entire design process, from start to finish.

This became feasible due to cost-effective software tools, nanotechnology and rapid prototyping technologies that allowed anyone to fabricate digital designs almost anywhere.

Redefining STEM, and a New Generation

Now, another transformation in the design cycle is about to embark and it will redefine STEM education.

Unlike previous generations, STEM designers will have to think beyond the “intended” uses of their innovations and design in safety and security protections to detect and prevent malicious misuses of technology. A new generation of cybersecurity natives is about to be born and STEM education will be integral to making it happen.

Cognitive science and human factors will become important skills for this cybersecurity generation, since it will be a necessity for students to understand how people think and understand the motivation behind trends and behaviors. These interdisciplinary skills will be essential for validating disparate sources of information on the internet, and for anticipating disruptive behaviors.

What Will Be Standard, Every Day Homework Assignments

To prepare the cyber-generation, educational events like hackathons will become standard every day homework assignments that require students to test their theories and skills learned against other students in real time.

Learning will be based on current global events and the data students will use to explore and learn will be real. For instance, the IEEE EPICS/NASA GLOBE programs use data from satellites coupled with virtual reality for simulation and experimentation.

The Internet, wireless communications and access to cloud computing services will provide instant access to big data sets, cost-effective immersive technologies and training on just about any STEM topic.

Not Just for Those Good in Math and Science

Training and education will be customized to the learner, thanks to machine learning and allow more inclusive populations of individuals to join in on learning STEM topics. STEM will no longer be a career option only for those individuals who are good in math and science.

Instead, STEM skills will be required for all disciplines and a career option for anyone, anywhere.

Karen Panetta, IEEE Fellow, is Dean of Graduate Engineering at Tufts University.


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