by Elaine Menardi

There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” -Ken Olson, President, Chairman, Founder of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), 1977

The DEC-10 mainframe filled a room. It was massive and monstrous and entirely magical. I literally shivered the first time I saw it. Total shock and awe—but also because it was housed in a chilly 62 degree room to keep the circuit boards from frying. At the time, there was not even a hint of thought about one day holding a marvelous machine like this in the palm of your hand.

That was my first day of college. I was hooked.

The next magical moment came when I discovered the DEC terminals in my dorm. Just two. Each a clunky keyboard and a boxy-thick monitor wired up shooting through the ceiling that connected a mile away to the Green Center, home of the fabulous DEC-10. A version of the first intranet, I could talk to any other tech-geek on campus who happened to be sitting at a terminal. Those were the glory days; oh my, how times have changed.

Why didn’t I invent the internet? It is such a simple idea—connect computers to each other so people can talk. Internet has so profoundly infused modern life that we cannot even envision a world without it anymore. What comes next? What can we invent now? Tech-geeks the world over slave through marathon design sessions in search of the next great idea that will ramp everything up a level. The next iteration of innovation will perhaps feel subtle to the average user but the impact will be huge like the World Wide Web has been.

Profile: STEM Student

This is the kind of thinking that most educators relegate to the dreamers, those nerdy STEM students who have a gift for all things science, technology, engineering and math. These are the kids who usually stand off to the side in a large group, eat lunch at their own corner table, vibrate on a plane that is just enough out of sync with classmates to draw all kinds of unwanted attention or not any attention at all.

Educators are stuck in this traditional stereotype of a STEM student. There is just something very linear-looking and -feeling about these kinds of kids, hard to put into words, but teachers know it when they see it—and then educate accordingly under the assumption that the labels are true: there are STEM kids and then there are Arts kids.

They are always trying to get STEM kids more interested in creative writing or fine arts or drama or music under the good-hearted notion that this will help them become more balanced and out-going. In this modern age of instant gratification where we have access to everything with a few swipes on a smartphone, we live with the internal construct that we can be—that we should be—all things. So we add the A for arts to STEM to get STEAM and label yet another category of students because we want to be all-inclusive as educators. This is a good and equitable attitude but let us look deeper.

Consider for a moment this idea: Every student is a STEM student.

That is not to say that every student should choose a science career or that the arts have no place in schools. No.

Every Student STEM means that every young person in our school system today is a digital native—they have never known a world without internet. Everything about their lives has involved some form of technology and many educators believe this has profoundly changed the way children think, learn and process information. All their lives, these children have been developing a scientific, engineering mindset of logical reasoning and sequential thought processes to navigate even the simplest applications.

Witness a 2-year-old on a smartphone or iPad and you will see a young brain growing neural pathways through a trial-and-error process playing a game. This is a STEM student. This child will grow up in a world surrounded by rapidly-evolving technology and digital devices that will require a working knowledge base of STEM skills. Educators tend to hold fast to a stereotype of a traditional STEM student, but any young person who wants to keep up with his or her peers will continually develop STEM skills to learn a new smartphone app or video game. This is the inherent nature of a tech-based world.

Every Student STEM is the reality and life of the modern digital native student.

If educators would change this primal mis-mindset alone, how could that impact the what and how we do education? Would it reshape the skillsets of the not-quite-ready-for-the-real-world students who graduate our schools every year? Would we/could we produce future-ready, job-ready students who will be successful? Everything about our world will continue to involve technology in some form from credit cards with microchips to self-driving cars.

So much of the change ahead rests on the leadership of educators

John King quoted by U.S. Department of Education

Contrast STEM digital natives to the analog adults who form the backbone of the entire educational system top-down, side-to-side. Most of today’s educators are digital immigrants, meaning they were not exposed to technology at an early age and are typically less intuitive when it comes to learning new technologies. This would be the equivalent of speaking a different dialect in terms of learning and adopting technology. For example, a digital immigrant may prefer to print out a document and edit with pen in hand rather than editing onscreen. A digital immigrant will hand out paper copies of a meeting agenda rather than asking attendees to pull it up on a device from an email meeting invite. Digital immigrants tend to be more comfortable with CD’s rather than Pandora, network television rather than Netflix.

There is no inherently right or wrong with either approach but it is clear to see the striking differences between digital natives and digital immigrants—their thought processes and how each works in collaboration as well as in opposition to the other.

The division between digital natives and digital immigrants is not hard and fast—there is much crossover in both directions—but the classification is palpable and distinct in education. Educators face a daunting learning curve in the digital age and need to run fast just to stay one step ahead of their digital native students. Because technology evolves so quickly, educators are in a constant state of professional development to keep pace. All of this paves the way for our education system to focus more directly on creating idea-economy students.

We have been walking the path of public education for more than 300 years, and even though the face of education has changed many times, the fundamentals remain the same. We have a long successful history of producing information-economy graduates. We assess and advance students based on what they know. We hold up knowledge as the primary raw material and source of value: Knowledge is King. This worked well at one point in time.

But knowledge has changed in this digital era. How we get knowledge has changed and how we use knowledge has changed. Everyone has access to knowledge. Businesses today want employees who can discern what knowledge is relevant to a situation and then assemble facts to create solutions to problems. In fact, the world desperately needs these high-level thinkers if we are to manage the complexities of a burgeoning global population against the backdrop of sustaining our diminishing natural resources. The future demands idea-economy students. This is the heart of the education revolution at hand.

Information economy means: “You hire me for what I know.”

Idea economy means: “You hire me for what I can do.”

A Growing Talent Gap

In Colorado, we have a growing talent gap. Scott Laband, President of Colorado Succeeds, a coalition of business leaders dedicated to improving public education, details the urgency felt by employers to fill high-level jobs in computer science with local employees: Colorado must address its tech talent gap.

“We know how important it is that students are prepared for 21st century jobs,” said Laband. “Business leaders can provide a road map for educators and schools, highlighting the skills students will need to be successful in the workplace and in life. As employers, we must shift our thinking from being consumers of talent to becoming co-producers of it. We should be working alongside educators to create meaningful experiences that generate inspiration, relevance, and pathways for all students.”

New bills introduced this legislative session in Colorado have been aimed at putting more dollars in the hands of school districts to fund vocational and apprenticeship programs for high school students in an effort to accelerate the skills certification of graduates going straight into the workforce.

“We’ve seen strong business and education partnerships in Colorado, such as P-TECH in St. Vrain and Falcon 49, where employers, schools, and community colleges work together to create valuable, relevant experiences for students,” Laband continued. “The key to this model’s success is that they create pathways to engagement. And we know that engaged students are successful students.”

“Another exemplary partnership is the industry certification model,” Laband added. “This model allows industry to work with educators to develop curriculum and assessments that, once completed, allow students to earn industry-recognized credentials that are tied to in-demand jobs. The result is job-ready students that can readily demonstrate the skills they have obtained.”

“When we are successful we ensure that all of Colorado’s children are educated to their greatest potential, and all of Colorado’s businesses have the talented and innovative homegrown workforce they need.”

STEM Careers in High Demand

“Colorado is an aerospace powerhouse, ranking first in the nation in 2015 for private aerospace employment” [Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation—January 21, 2016—Aerospace Industry Cluster Profile]

What is important to know is that the aerospace industry does not simply employ astronauts and rocket scientists. Aerospace jobs range all the way from managing NASA space assets to weather monitoring to renewable energy to cybersecurity and national defense to downloading satellite information like GPS and telecommunication signals that are fed to ATM’s, ISP’s and cable television companies.

We do not often think of the aerospace industry in such broad terms but the work revolves around managing the data that comes from space and converting it into usable information. Anyone who uses internet has a vested interest in the aerospace industry. Anyone who uses a mobile phone, purchases products with a credit card, pumps gas into a car, watches cable television or Netflix wants a safe and reliable connection to transfer public and private data. This is the foundation of the aerospace industry. These are the job skills that digital natives are developing from the first moment they interact with any digital device.

Business leaders are increasingly taking on the education revolution because today’s public school system simply is not creating job-ready employees.

“You need experience to be relevant in today’s demanding job market. Period. Most graduates regardless of their progression within higher education, are simply not presented with the opportunity to learn and exercise skills employers really need. According to a study by McKinsey and Company, 72 percent of educational institutions believe recent graduates are ready for work. Only 42 percent of employers agree.”

Business leaders are forming more intentional partnerships with schools in order to create the workers they need. They are looking for candidates with technical content knowledge as well as a particular set of soft skills—problem-solving, time-management, creativity, communication and teamwork—or what educators today coin the 21st century skills.

Jay Lindell serves the State of Colorado as Aerospace Champion in the Office of Economic Development and International Trade.

“I constantly hear from business leaders that they need employees with the soft skills—life leadership skills like communication and working as part of a team. Young employees need to know how to resolve conflict in the business environment and these skills are at least as important, if not more important, than the technical content skills.”

Lindell offers an innovative definition of STEM originating from work with his vast network of colleagues across Colorado: Science, Technology, Entrepreneurship and Mastery.

The essence of engineering is problem-solving—assembling relevant information, prototyping and testing a potential design; then redesigning and retesting to reach a workable solution. Couple that with the motivation and self-direction to persevere with a relentless pursuit of excellence and we arrive at entrepreneurship. Not only defined as inventing a start-up product or company, in the truest sense of the word, entrepreneurs are driven to solve problems and make ideas happen.

Where math is the primary language of science, technology and engineering, mastery is the benchmark of success. To master life leadership skills like communication and teamwork fuels the drive and desire to persevere in the face of challenge and obstacle. Mastery originates from a burning curiosity deep in the heart of a lifelong learner.

We Learn and Then We Do

EdWorld likes defined, compartmentalized descriptions of everything, but we must shift our collective thinking and mindset. The world has changed. “Our kids learn within a system of education devised for a world that increasingly does not exist.”

Harvard Professor David Edwards writes in Wired Magazine:

In today’s system, “we ‘learn’, and after this we ‘do’. We go to school and then we go to work. This approach does not map very well to personal and professional success in business today. Learning and doing have become inseparable in the face of conditions that invite us to discover.”

We live in an age of discovery.

Against the arresting background of major dramatic questions, creative discovery becomes even more paramount to our future. The human race needs people with the kind of passionate curiosity that will drive deep innovation.

This is why we have a talent gap, not only in Colorado, but in many other states as well. We are all competing for the top graduates from vocational schools and universities who can demonstrate mastery of mid-level industry job skills and problem-solving abilities. These are the workers that our digital future demands. Thought it is not politically correct in public education circles to identify all young people as STEM students, these are in fact the skills that we must emphasize and cultivate in our teaching. To do less is to underserve the students entrusted to our care.

As Professor Edwards warns: “Failing to create a new way of learning adapted to contemporary circumstances might be a national disaster.” At the very least, we are leaning that direction.

Business leaders use two keywords to characterize this way of working: disruptive and agile. Disruptive innovation means looking at “how we’ve always done things” through a new lens and creating a new market. Agile means we are willing to let “how we’ve always done things” shift and grow quickly and easily into something new that will be more effective.

Disruptive innovation in education looks and feels intimidating because we use words like: blended, online and competency education models; interdisciplinary and cross-curricular teaching; project-based, problem-based and inquiry-based classrooms; design-thinking maker-spaces; and expeditionary and experiential learning. These skills are tremendously difficult to assess and quantify; in teacher words, they are really hard to put a letter grade on.

Just when EdWorld was starting to feel comfortable with teaching and assessing toward Common Core standards comes this reminder that wrenches “how we’ve always done things”:

Life is not linear, so why should education be? Life is not compartmentalized into individual concepts and tasks yet this is the framework of how we teach day to day. Life is a mash-up of all that we are, all that we know and all that we have ever done. We honor the privilege of teaching when we design learning opportunities this way for students.

If we continue to learn and then do—like Edwards describes — the talent gap between education and business will grow into a talent canyon that will require superhuman strength to traverse.

The original intent of the founders of public education was to train and prepare workers for factories during the Industrial Revolution. The entire world has evolved rapidly since those early days and this post-modern digital era pushes all of us at even faster speeds.

The system is not going to fundamentally or authentically change until digital natives climb to the top leadership positions in local and national education institutions. But by then, we may be faced with an even more dire challenge of keeping students motivated enough to learn. The most deadening issue in public education today is that students are utterly bored. We must do something drastic to ignite their inherent curiosity.

We do everything possible in the average daily classroom to frontload all the discovery before a student ever enters. All the way from writing the daily learning objectives on the board to handing out paper copies of PowerPoint slides and sample problems to paste in composition books.

Yet we live and work in an age of discovery. The thrill of discovering the undiscovered brings a satisfaction that ignites curiosity. Discovery, as intriguing process, is crucial to engage young minds. That is the lure of all things digital for young people. Technology makes infinite scenarios possible. What will happen around the next corner in my video game? What new picture will my friend send me on Snapchat? What will I find on Pinterest or Instagram today?

Digital natives are STEM students. They are incurably curious if only we would ask the right questions. The next great thinker is sitting in your classroom right now.

I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.

Albert einstein