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STEM for the rich?

Various estimates suggest that fast-paced automation will replace over 85 million manufacturing jobs worldwide by the end of 2025. Job positions that are in high demand today will simply fall prey to STEM occupations, which have witnessed over 79 per cent growth in the last three decades.

It is essential to analyze how the world is gearing up for this transformation and where Pakistan stands. Gaining popularity in the early 1990s, STEM is a teaching approach that combines science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Rather than teaching them as discrete subjects, it integrates them into a cohesive learning paradigm based on real-world applications.

The focus on hands-on learning with real-world applications helps develop a variety of skill sets – also known as 21st-century skills – including technology literacy, problem-solving, critical thinking, decision-making, leadership, entrepreneurship, and more. In other words, it gives people the skills that make them ‘more employable’ and ready to meet the current labour demand.

Underpinning the importance and all-pervasiveness of STEM learning in the coming years, the World Economic Forum (WEF) in a report published in 2020 has predicted that 65 per cent of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in jobs that simply do not exist at present. In a rapidly changing world, it is therefore exceedingly important for them to learn and strengthen their 21st-century skills to stay relevant and in demand.

The world at large has quick enough to get in sync with the future requirements and market demands. Australia, for instance, has adopted the National STEM School Education Strategy 2016–2026 to focus on actions aimed at building students’ STEM capabilities through inquiry and problem-based learning.

The US and European and Scandinavian nations have also taken similar steps to stay ahead of time. Many Asian and South Asian countries including China, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam have also taken numerous steps to universalize STEM education. In 2016, India launched the Atal Tinkering Labs (ATL) programme under which it plans to set up this facility at schools across the country while equipping them with a range of technology, including 3D printers, robotics kits, and programming tools.

Pakistan too launched a project in 2020 to promote experiential learning in the country by establishing in the first phase special science labs in 40 select schools across the country. The facility was supposed to be extended to 400 schools to benefit hundreds of thousands of students to prepare a workforce capable of meeting the future demands.

The project is however yet to make a measurable impact in the absence of a reliable support system characterized by a standardized curriculum, infrastructure development and duly qualified teachers.

What various educationists and social scientists are concerned about is that STEM learning may eventually end up aggravating the deep-seated class-based distinction in Pakistani society. About one-third of the three million students enrolled in Pakistani universities and degree colleges are pursuing STEM degrees. But – as the HEC’s data show – a vast majority of them belong to private institutions, which cater to only 38 per cent of the enrolled students in the country.

With a curriculum that is more specific and specialized, private institutions are on the forefront to prioritize STEM education to help students become the leaders, innovators and game-changers of tomorrow in an increasingly information and technology-based world. Given the estimates of different organizations such as the US National Science Foundation that around 80 per cent of the jobs available during the next decade will require math and science skills, they are all set to produce a workforce fully prepared to grab such opportunities.

Last year, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres while addressing the UN General Assembly raised concerns that this kind of selective promotion of quality education can eventually turn out to be a great divider instead of a great equalizer which understandably defies one of the fundamental objectives of learning in any society. Pakistan is unfortunately a classic example of this syndrome, which continues to challenge all those efforts aimed at the creation of an egalitarian and inclusive society.

The education sector is clearly under tremendous pressure today to respond to rapid technological advancements and societal changes taking place the world over. Experiential learning is just one of the many education models designed to prepare future generations to assert their utility and play a lead role in a cutthroat competition between humans, machines and algorithms.

Pakistan faces the additional challenge of welcoming a relatively new concept of learning without allowing it to accentuate the fault lines that are already tearing it apart at the moment.

Email: sabursayyid@gmail.com

Sabur Ali Sayyid, "STEM for the rich?," The News. 2023-06-12.
Keywords: Education , STEM education , Education sector , Entrepreneurship , Educationists , Antonio Guterres , China , Bangladesh , ATL , WEF