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RNC forum focuses on rethinking STEM education

This week, I was fortunate to attend the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) policy panel at the Republican National Convention (RNC), “How the next administration can foster innovation, boost productivity, and increase U.S. competitiveness.”

Information Technology and Innovation Foundation policy panelists at the Republican National Convention discuss "How the next administration can foster innovation, boost productivity, and increase U.S. competitiveness."
Information Technology and Innovation Foundation policy panelists at the Republican National Convention discuss ways the next administration can encourage innovation

The discussion evinced a key tension in the debate over the role regulation should play in innovation, and the means by which policymakers can foster growth and American competitiveness in the tech space.

The panel, moderated by ITIF President Robert Atkinson, included Congressmen Blake Farenthold (R-TX), Bob Latta (R-OH), and Michael Turner (R-OH), alongside Facebook Chief Privacy Officer Erin Egan, Entertainment Software Association President Michael Gallagher, Senior Vice President of Bayer Corporation Raymond Kerins, Corporate Vice President of Technology and Civic Engagement at Microsoft Dan’l Lewin, and James Greenwood, CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO).

Atkinson opened the discussion by stating that conventions are about leadership and idea-sharing: and a key area of concern was the dearth of cooperative partnerships between government and private industry. He trumpeted the need for more public-private tech partnerships in the decade ahead.

Congressman Turner emphasized that the innovation economy in the US is critical to economic growth; for every intellectual property-based job created, 2.5 additional jobs are developed to support it. The panelists all agreed on the vital role that innovation industries will play in American growth, and focused in on what role policymakers can play to further develop the tech sphere and to identify current weaknesses.

A key area for improvement that is highly relevant to libraries is in STEM education, and telling the story of how innovation can work for people who may be concerned about new technologies disrupting job markets. The panelists agreed that to make technology work for everyone, decision makers must restructure education and workforce training.

At present, there are 43,000 students graduating in STEM fields each year, but 600,000 available jobs in the science and technology sector. Meaningful reforms are needed to close this gap between training and demand.

What are some specific ways to boost technology training in our education and workforce development systems?

Gallagher, Kerins and Lewin had some specific ideas – many of which have implications for libraries:

  • Start by teaching computational thinking. There is a fine line between what machines can do best, and what humans can do best. We need to educate students early on to think from a mindset of how to work with machines to innovate.
  • Add more computer science education in high schools. We need high-level engagement so students can see the real career possibilities in STEM fields Libraries can do their part by offering more STEM training and programs to get kids involved in technology, inspiring and motivating youth to pursue technology fields.
  • Use games, especially video games, to get people into STEM. Looking at the popularity of new gaming trends such as Pokémon Go, games are at the forefront of accessible, inexpensive human-machine interaction. They can accelerate tech learning by making it fun – students go from being tech consumers to creators when they interact in gaming worlds.
  • Further develop public-private partnerships such as Bayer Corporation’s initiative, “Making Science Make Sense,” in which employees are given three days per year to visit schools and teach about career opportunities in STEM. This not only builds a network of public-private partnerships, but advances awareness of careers in innovation. Perhaps libraries can tap into this space of partnering with businesses and corporate professionals to teach STEM topics through company programs.

During the Q-and-A, I posed a question for the panel: what are some of the main policy barriers to bringing more Americans into the tech and innovation space, especially at a time when a lot of people are fearing that new technology may disrupt their jobs?

Kerins advised that industry needs to better communicate the skills and jobs they need to schools and policymakers, so that so that programs can be designed at the local and state levels to fill new job fields.

Congressman Farenthold believes a key barrier is a one-size-fits-all education system, in which individual high schools don’t have a lot of room for innovation. He emphasized that community colleges are bright spot though, with lots of growth and training for people of all ages. Effecting successful education policies depends on educating policymakers on the need for increasing STEM partnerships and training at the community level and guiding solutions.

These perspectives provide unique insight for libraries as institutions of learning: many of the recommendations the panel made for schools can easily apply to libraries as well. They also underscore the importance of engaging in state and local advocacy to effect meaningful education policy change.

Ensuring U.S. education programs keep pace with technology development will be the key to ensuring the innovation economy works for everyone. Libraries can help make this happen by providing access to, and building programming around, cutting-edge digital technologies.

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Margaret Kavaras

Margaret Kavaras served as the 2014 Google Policy Fellow in the Washington Office.

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