The Urgency of STEM Education in Latin America
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In a recent blog post on his "Gates Notes" blog, American businessman and philanthropist Bill Gates said that one of the great challenges the US faces is the lack of quality education for people of the working class. "Hundreds of thousands of young people are entering adulthood without the skills, experiences and credentials necessary to develop a career," Gates wrote. For this reason, he insisted on the need to guide students who finish high school on the best options to continue their higher education. The paradox: Gates' biography highlights the fact that he – even having grown up in a high-income household – did not finish college.
Is it necessary to complete a university degree to become a successful professional or entrepreneur? Judging by the experience of the creator of Microsoft – who left Harvard to dedicate himself to the company that made him a millionaire at 26 – of Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs (founders of Facebook and Apple, respectively), formal studies would not be an exclusive requirement to complete a course of innovation and value creation.
However, Gates’ ex-wife Melinda does, in fact, have a degree, and their children attended very prestigious universities in the United States. Could it be that his personal maturity made him realize the importance of study for his heirs and the rest of the world's young people? Microsoft, for example, has a special program to encourage girls to study careers related to the exact sciences, also known as STEM.
The acronym STEM refers to careers or areas of knowledge and work related to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Since the 1990s, the term has been used to refer to educational policies that seek to improve competitiveness in the development of science and technology, which has implications not only in teaching but also in the productive sector and the profile of the labor force.
According to the World Economic Forum, science and technology careers will demand the most talent in the next five years and estimates from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) confirm that less than 30 percent of students globally choose STEM careers. Page Group estimates that there is a deficit of 48 percent of professionals who can work in the digital field in Latin America, and that the region will require 3.5 million people to meet the demand in that economic sector until 2025. Where will these resources come from if the average number of young people who choose to pursue STEM careers does not reach 45 percent on average in the entire region, Mexico included?
If the gender gap is taken into consideration, the scenario is even worse. Microsoft carried out a survey among 6,000 girls and women between the ages of 10 and 30 in the US, in which it was determined that during their school careers girls are discouraged – often by their own teachers – from following scientific or exact science disciplines. Another survey, conducted among more than 10,000 high-school seniors in Mexico City and the State of Mexico in 2020, found that only 618 were interested in studying any of the STEM disciplines. We know that only 12 percent of young women graduate from one of these fields, and only four out of 10 enter the labor market, according to the 2019 study "Women in the workplace" by McKinsey. With the education and labor market disruptions caused by the pandemic, such numbers have most likely worsened.
The urgency of stimulating scientific, technical, and digital knowledge from the earliest school stage is more than evident. In a changing world, with more remote activities, new paradigms of consumption and logistics, labor markets demand trained professionals that we are failing to provide. It remains for the public and private sectors to work together to interest students in engineering, biology, or applied mathematics.
To address this need, Pearson offers educational institutions stimulus programs for students and teachers to dismantle the myth that hard sciences are "difficult" or "inaccessible." These platforms help students obtain skills and abilities to understand the challenges the world is facing, as well as to develop a sense of belonging, empathy, and social responsibility. Programs like these have one main objective: discover students’ talents in STEM skills to positively influence their environment and reflect on their abilities to modify their reality and promote the common good. Endorsing STEM-focused programs, careers and courses is the perfect way to leave behind the educational lag caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the interruption of schooling at a global level and start moving toward the future.