Wednesday 28 September 2016

Friday5: The STEM Moment in a Post-Network Age

The Five Forces Supporting STEM Students and Their Educators

Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking at the annual summit for one of our clients, Project Lead the Way. PLTW is the nation’s leading provider of learning programs in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), which not only includes K-12 curricula but professional development for teachers as well.

My talk focused on what I felt were five defining forces that make now a critical moment for STEM education.

1. “The market for something to believe in is infinite.”

While building the talk, I was reminded of the above Hugh McLeod cartoon that contained this particular aphorism. In terms of the popular imagination and among the lay people, STEM is the source from which that something-to-believe-in springs forth—either as a source of hope for breakthrough cures or simply concepts that inspire and even entertain.

2. Four key “laws” are intersecting to make today a particularly exciting time to participate in STEM.

These aren’t “laws” in the physical-science sense, but rather observations about the human spirit as they relate to technology and innovation. Here they are briefly, in roughly descending order of popular familiarity.

  • Moore’s Law: Coined by Carver Mead on (the reluctant) behalf of Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, this refers to the notion that computing horsepower would double (or the cost of a given amount of power would be halved) every 18-24 months. While the death of this law has been five years from “today” for the past few decades, scientists and engineers keep finding ways to improve computing power nearly as fast as everyone can think of ways to gobble it up.
  • Metcalf’s Law: Coined by Ethernet inventor and 3COM co-founder Bob Metcalfe, this states that the value of a network is equal to the number of participants, squared. So, think about the number of people on the Internet. Now multiply it by itself. Wow.
  • Hayek’s Law: This is a name I’ve given to Austrian economist F.A. Hayek’s prescient 1945 observation: “The knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.” Combine this with the phenomenal access to these individuals (Metcalf’s Law) and the power to process the data (Moore’s Law) and you have a powerful platform for innovation and collaboration.
  • Carlson’s Law: As described by The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman in honor of SRI’s Dr. Curtis Carlson, “Innovation from the bottom-up is chaotic, but smart. Innovation from the top-down is orderly, but dumb.” This perhaps modulates Hayek’s Law, counterbalancing freewheeling and even playful innovation with the need for some level of direction and order.
3. STEM produces the most-trusted people in the most-trusted industries.

As a fifth law to consider: “The further one gets into a public talk delivered by an Edelman representative, the probability of hearing about the Trust Barometer approaches one.”

Joking aside, my message to educators was that our research consistently shows that a STEM education aligns most with the most-trusted people when it comes to shaping a company’s reputation. Technical experts, for example, consistently rank second behind more general experts and academics. Further, as to the most-trusted fields, technology has nearly always ranked as the most-trusted industry for the last several years, followed by automotive.

4. STEM is becoming a team sport that welcomes amateurs

FoldIt allows anyone to download a game onto his or her computer and virtually “fold” simulated proteins, banking on the notion that the human brain is a particularly efficient pattern-recognition engine. In one phenomenal case, game-playing amateurs collectively solved an AIDS-related protein folding problem that vexed scientists for fifteen years—after only ten days!

BOINC allows you to donate your computer’s otherwise idle time to participate in supercomputing applications, such as climate analysis, life sciences, or even searching for E.T. At the time of my talk, the 24-hour average of all of the volunteer computers using BOINC were donating enough computing power to put it at #6 on the Top 500 list of the fastest supercomputers. This puts the collective digital volunteerism of BOINC users right between leviathan-class systems at Argonne National Labs and the Swiss National Computing Centre.

The lesson: Smart scientists are figuring out ways that lay people can participate in the process of discovery. The best are even making it fun.

5. STEM’s “source code” is (slowly, reluctantly) opening

The explosion of open-source technologies and methods makes STEM disciplines more free, both as in “free as in speech” and “free as in ‘free beer,’” to borrow from the distinction made famous by Richard Stallman and others.  This opens up a world of possibilities, emerging from the ability to maximize the usable life of computing equipment, maximize technology spend from the classroom, and (most importantly) teach students the vital importance of “hacking” their world in order to create new insights and realities.

Image credit: @doug88888

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