Creating Innovators: STEM and Competency-Based Education

Preparing students for a dynamic work environment

Times are changing. When I graduated from high school, it was common to go to work for a company and stay for 30 years until retirement. Today, you are lucky to stay with a company for more than 5 years. Or unlucky. 

With the workplace changing so dramatically, we need to ensure that our children are receiving an education that will prepare them for this dynamic work environment. There are so many options out there and as they enter the workforce they will likely change jobs multiple times throughout their career. More and more, people look to change the world for the better.

Retirement is now a defined contribution (think 401K) instead of a defined benefit which was common in previous generations. Baby boomers’ priority in a job was pay. Millennials’ priority in a job are diverse, but pay may not even be in the top three.

Advocating for STEM in Utah

In 2012, I was asked by the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce and Governor Herbert to spearhead Utah’s STEM Education efforts. The business community, the State of Utah, the federal government, the education community and others helped craft what became the STEM Action Center. 

For the first few years, I was a STEM evangelist encouraging experiential learning of not only science, technology, engineering, and math, but all subjects. STEM is about touching and experiencing subject matter and the world around us. Slowly at first, then more rapidly teachers embraced STEM education and today you almost can’t walk into a school without seeing some STEM activity. Over 50 schools have met a rigorous requirement set to be STEM Schools.

Technology and the innovation age

During my time leading STEM efforts, someone told me that there had been more innovation in the previous two years than the rest of human history combined. It blew my mind. I pondered the concept. Even if it were five years or ten years, the rate of innovation would be staggering. This led me to the thought that mankind had entered the “innovation age,” having transcended the information age, the internet age, the digital age, and any other age. If in fact, we are in an innovation age, shouldn’t we be teaching our children in school to innovate? 

 One of the best ways to teach innovation is to teach STEM: math, hard sciences, engineering design processes, and the language of technology (ie. hardware, software, analytics, cybersecurity, etc).

Improving education in an age of innovation

Today in 2019, I’m convinced that we are in an innovation age. The rate of innovation continues to go faster and faster. Our children need to learn how to innovate. 

Today we have maker spaces. We have coding classes. We have robotics teams. We have lots of entrepreneurial classes and experiences that students can participate in. 

Slowly education has been changing to respond to the need for creativity and curiosity as learned skills. We are seeing changes to the classroom. No longer is theory-based instruction and seat time progress adequate. We have student-centered learning, inquiry-based instruction, hands-on learning, engaged learning, blended learning, flipped classrooms, project-based learning, etc. 

Students are no longer just memorizing and being tested on what they memorize. Instead, they learn critical thinking and problem solving. They don’t just learn about the scientific method, instead, they apply it. They learn research methods and presentation techniques. They learn to ask questions and apply the answers.

Advocating for individualized, competency-based Education 

In order to create more innovators, we need to do even more. We talk a lot about competency based education because we want students to learn skills, not just participate in a classroom. Competency based education has a variety of meanings and what it means to one person may not be what it means to another person. 

If I were king for a day, I’d allow every child to not only have a competency based education, but provide a personalized education on top of competencies. By working with parents and teachers, we can craft a custom curriculum that allows a child to learn basic skills, then choose how to build upon those skills. Some think that isn’t possible, but today in 2019 it is possible. In fact, several schools in Utah are already personalizing education in one way or another.

Changing education for today’s world

The documentary “Most Likely To Succeed” makes the point that the American education system of today was created the turn of the 20th century to provide assembly line workers in an industrial age. Today kids need a completely different skill set to compete in today’s world. Thomas Friedman in The World Is Flat made a compelling case that only as our children find specialties can they succeed in a world that is providing more and more access to basic skills around the world. Innovation can be the ticket to a prosperous future for our children.

So to create innovators, begin with STEM, both the subjects and the teaching methodology. Kids need hard skills and soft skills. They need to touch and feel subject matter and how it relates to the world around them.

 Let’s focus on skill building, not seat time. Let’s personalize instruction for each child. It is time to help all children become innovators.