I recently interviewed Melendy Lovett, President of Texas Instruments’ worldwide education technology business, about the state of STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics education. I put it to her that in the UK there are fewer and fewer people taking up Computer Science at university, because of the emphasis on 21st century skills and ICT, ie the study of how to use programs rather than how to create them in the first place.
TF: Do you see this as a problem?
ML: Yes, it is a problem for both Western Europe and the United States. We are seeing a decline in the number of students who are taking up STEM subjects at university level. It’s a real concern because that’s where innovation happens. Lack of innovation adversely affects the economy, which causes us to fail to compete with India and China. There’s a direct link: more STEM graduates equals more business start-ups, which equals more jobs, and remember: an estimated 40% of the jobs our current school kids will be doing don’t even exist yet.
TF: So, what can be done, by schools, businesses and government?
ML: Well, TI is growing a pipeline of students in STEM subjects. Our educational technology mission is to support more effective teaching and learning with technology. We don’t believe in teaching technology just for its own sake. In the UK TI has been working with teachers and educational leaders, and piloting our ideas in 14 areas. For example, www.nspiringlearning.org.uk is a program of 60 ready-made lessons in Maths and Science which gives new adopters of TI-Nspire handheld and software technology a very easy way to get started. Teachers get energised by seeing how technology is helping the students understand, experience and interact with maths in different ways.
TF: What is the role of government in all this?
ML: There is a very important role for governments. The governments around the world which are making real headway are those which are providing funding and driving special initiatives aimed at specific objectives in the STEM arena. For example, by funding research, growing the number of university students who are studying STEM, or improving their educational policies in this area.
TF: How can schools help to attract more girls into the IT industry?
ML: This is a problem in many countries. One of the best practices I see is strong leadership that sets the vision and policies, and then leads the change, provides ongoing support and monitors the change. At TI we have studied research in what keeps girls interested in STEM subjects. A very important factor is for teachers to be more gender-neutral in their teaching methods. Interestingly, as this happens, the subject also becomes more appealing to boys.
We have also developed a programme aimed specifically at girls which deals with why girls should choose a career in a STEM field, and helps to raise their self-confidence.
We also work with college career guidance counsellors in secondary education because we find that they don’t always understand the nature of the coursework that both boys and girls need to undertake in order to be ready for a STEM course at university.
TF: Does society’s role models for girls counteract your efforts?
ML: Yes, so we run summer camps in which women leaders in industry talk to the girls and tell them about their own career paths. We also offer informal support via email. However, a student really needs to complete their secondary schooling with a sound understanding of mathematics and science. Otherwise, they start at university with a disadvantage, and although it’s possible for them to catch up, it is difficult.
TF: Where do parents fit in?
ML: Parental support is very important. From my observations in the USA, I would say that there are not enough parents who understand where jobs are being created now, and how they need to best prepare their students for future jobs.
TF: Where does the UK stand in all this?
ML: Generally speaking, looking at the number of graduates in STEM fields, the number of growing STEM-field businesses, and even the amount of research money going to projects in the STEM sphere, I would say that the USA and Western Europe are definitely behind India and China’s progress, and this is not good news for the economy.
TF: A lot of people in the UK say that their ICT lessons are boring. How could they be made more interesting?
ML: TI’s resources are primarily designed for STEM subjects, and I would say that as a general rule of thumb, when used in an appropriate way, technology can be very engaging for students. The technology that TI offers enables students to have a personalised learning experience and, therefore, ownership. When this happens, students are prepared to spend more time on their mathematics and science tasks.
Also, the technology allows the teacher to know where each student is in terms of their understanding of the lesson in progress.
TF: What are the characteristics of the ideal recruit to the technology industry?
ML: A strong academic background, plus the ability to apply what they’ve learnt in the classroom to real-world situations. In science lessons the students apply their skills in a laboratory setting, and this is now even becoming the case in maths lessons in some schools.
We also look for the competencies that are going to yield innovation. So we look for people who can generate ideas, have good communications skills and team-leading abilities so that they can lead groups of people in developing new ideas. We want recruits who can work in different cultures, because most of our innovation involves working in cross-cultural teams around the world.
TF: What are your predictions as far as STEM is concerned for the next 5 years?
ML: I see lots of opportunity for making progress, so I remain optimistic. I think it’s going to take government, industry and education working together. There are pockets of really good practice, and we need to make that happen on a broader scale.
If you enjoyed reading this, you may be interested in hearing more of Melendy’s views. Read this:
Also, Melendy was one of a few chosen to ‘testify’ at a STEM Hearing on Capitol Hill, discussing the future of STEM education in the US:
Finally, Melendy has been inducted into WITI Women in Technology International in 2005. See