Failure a must in future-ready STEM education

Failure a must in future-ready STEM education

Mei Chen

When we think about preparing our children to be ready for ‘the future’, most people will be thinking of the long-term future - we hope that our children will have successful careers in well-paying jobs, which likely requires a qualified degree from a reputable university. And in order for our children to gain admission into a reputable university’s degree program, they likely will need to do well in their academic studies at Secondary school, which will be built upon a strong educational foundation at Primary school and Kindergarten. So, how can we prepare our children for the future?

Of course, there is no right or wrong answer, however through my years of experience working in the STEM industry, and in Silicon Valley, I have seen how technology can affect various industries and also project new career pathways, long before it becomes apparent in public society. For example, whilst I was working at Microsoft, my team was already working on developing new web systems that would not emerge into the mass market until 10 years later. At another stage in my career, I worked with NASA on their GPS tracking systems - technology that is much more advanced than the GPS we might use in our everyday lives.

That doesn’t mean that I’m advocating for everyone to work in STEM, however. That is just one piece of the puzzle. Learning how to be ‘future-ready’ actually requires students to develop problem solving skills and know how to apply their learning to other issues. Learning how to use technology or how to code comes after. With robots and artificial intelligence taking over many industries and jobs, and new innovations making it easier for people to take advantage of technology innovations without having to be technologically-minded (for example, it is now possible to develop entier apps without prior knowledge of computer coding language) it is more crucial than ever for students to hone in on their unique capabilities and ‘human’ skill sets to stand out from the crowd.

Why failure is a must

Fail! Primary students should be able to fail and learn from their failures. We should encourage all younger students to not worry about doing things wrong, or not getting the results they expected. Learning at this stage should be explorational in nature. If students in Primary school are not allowed to ‘fail’ in their learning, then when can they fail? At this developmental age, students don’t have (or shouldn’t have) the stress of studying purely for exams or academic achievements. They should be able to experiment and be curious - and through these inquisitive activities, students will learn the life skills of critical thinking, learning from failure, and problem-solving.

So how can students be college-ready?

Aside from achieving good grades and passing exams, one of the key factors to their success in applications is the student portfolio. Portfolios should demonstrate the student’s passion in particular topics or areas of study. They should also be able to show the student’s ability to process, analyze, and reflect on what they have learnt. The portfolio should demonstrate the student’s personal growth, learning journey, and achievements. It could be in the form of a video presentation, a personal website, performances, or other methods of documentation.

My opinion is that traditional school subjects should be re-written to be applicable to the real world (or be left out of the school curriculum). In all likelihood, you have probably never used your Secondary school knowledge of quadratic equations. However, if you were to learn about big data in school, this knowledge can be transferred across many of life’s applications (for example, personal finances), even if you don’t go on to study statistics or economics.

Digital media literacy is also very important to learn during this time. Adolescents should be aware of their digital footprint, know how to navigate the online world safely and responsibly, and understand how to communicate effectively with others through the online space. In many ways, I believe that digital media literacy is a crucial life skill. Our children are digital natives, whereas we are digital immigrants. They live their lives online and offline. To understand the social constructs, etiquette, ethical and legal ramifications of traveling through the digital world is just as important as it is for the physical world.

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