The EU STEM Coalition’s Beatrice Boots and Geert Asselbergs discuss some of the challenges in promoting STEM across Europe
The EU STEM Coalition is a Europe-wide network of national STEM platforms: organisations established by governments to increase the number of STEM graduates and reduce skills mismatch. In the long term, the coalition aims to bridge the skills gap by having a national STEM strategy in place in all EU member states. Key characteristics of the platform approach are the close co-operation between the ‘triple helix’ of government, education and industry, and strongly regionalised implementation.
To achieve its goals, the coalition creates opportunities for peer learning between national STEM platforms and relevant European organisations in two Europe-wide meetings a year. The coalition also organises taskforce meetings towards interested member states, aimed at exchanging good practices in the fields of STEM education and the promotion of the triple helix approach.
Pan European Networks asked Beatrice Boots, director of the Dutch national STEM platform (PBT) and Geert Asselbergs, co-ordinator of the EU STEM Coalition about some of the challenges in promoting STEM across Europe, including their thoughts on the way in which many initiatives are set up and rolled out, and how STEM platforms can be established at the national level.
What do you feel are the biggest challenges facing the wider development and implementation of national STEM strategies across Europe today?
Currently, there seems to be a great sense of urgency surrounding STEM on both the European and member state levels (and often the regional level as well) driven by broader issues like economic growth and youth unemployment. The importance of STEM subjects for issues like energy and health is also very clear. Besides, unemployment among STEM graduates is significantly below the national average, and STEM jobs tend to be in sectors with high added value, in particular in higher education (e.g. high-tech manufacturing). We also see that in many countries the increasing shortage of STEM-skilled people is becoming a bottleneck for economic growth. Simply increasing the percentage of STEM graduates will have a positive impact on many of these issues. Governments are fully aware of this and often eager to take action.
However, in many cases, new initiatives focus only on one or two isolated issues (e.g. programming skills in primary education, increasing the number of girls in STEM, etc.). This results in temporary, one-dimensional projects that – combined with project cycles that seldom exceed government terms – have little real (systemic) impact, if any.
The main challenge is to develop and implement a strategy that addresses both the quantitative and qualitative dimension of skills mismatch throughout the entire education chain (‘talent pipeline’) – from primary education all the way to the labour market.
Why should a ‘triple helix’ approach be taken when implementing a national STEM strategy? What benefits does this have over other approaches?
Governments have certain tools at their disposal that can be used to intervene in their education systems. Each tool has its own advantages and disadvantages. For example, changing the curriculum is a powerful way to address problems, but often takes years to accomplish, involves a lot of teacher professionalisation, and is costly to implement.
National STEM platforms based on the triple helix approach enhance this toolbox and can boost the impact of government interventions in the education system and hold all stakeholders accountable. For example, rather than changing the curriculum, skills mismatch caused by new technological developments can be addressed more effectively by having schools co-operate with companies in the delivery of the curriculum. This way, students (and teachers) interact with the newest technologies in the context of the curriculum, increasing the relevance and adaptability of the programme.
The so-called ‘centres of expertise’ in the Netherlands are a successful example of this approach: public private partnerships (PPP) between companies and vocational education and training schools or universities for applied sciences. In these centres, students collaborate with companies on real-life innovation projects. This allows students to gain experience using the newest tools and technologies while working on real projects without the constant need for curriculum changes. This approach was initially developed and piloted by the Dutch National STEM Platform, but similar approaches also exist, for instance, in Basque province and other areas of Europe.
By relying on its existing school and industry networks for this pilot, results were achieved much quicker than would have been possible when starting completely from scratch. There are now over 100 of these PPPs in the Netherlands, which are co-financed by industry and the Dutch government (33%) through a €100m investment fund, effectively tripling public investment in the scheme. It is a long-term approach which includes a programme for sharing best practices and co-ordinated monitoring.
Gender is a significant issue in promoting STEM – particularly to younger generations. How, then, would you like to see activities in these two areas come closer together?
Many STEM strategies specifically target groups under-represented in STEM fields, including females, but also, for instance, second- and third-generation immigrants, who are typically under-represented in the STEM field. This specific focus holds merit because the potential for growth is the largest in these groups.
An example of this is the dominance of white males in tech companies in Silicon Valley, which is increasingly seen as a problem. For this reason, many governments (and industries) prioritise promoting diversity in specific sectors or industries. However, attending to the broader population is necessary. To be effective, programmes and initiatives aimed at a specific target group need to be firmly grounded in a broader, integrated strategy that covers the entire education chain. For target groups like women, it is also necessary to work on good work environments within companies in the tech sector, which includes a focus on social issues like part-time jobs and childcare.
What are your thoughts on EU-level activities etc. when it comes to promoting STEM (from the ‘Science: It’s a girl thing’ endeavour to the ‘Science Education for Responsible Citizenship’ report)? What more do you feel could be done?
There are many EU (funded) projects and initiatives that have produced interesting results. The ‘Science Education for Responsible Citizenship’ report in particular has sent a strong signal about the broader impact of technological developments on society as a whole, including participation and citizenship. This dimension of the impact of new technologies is often overlooked in national STEM strategies, which tend to focus on ‘hard’ quantitative indicators directly linked to the economy (e.g. the number of graduates in a certain education field). The publication of such reports might not immediately change this, but it does contribute to the awareness and sense of urgency required for the inclusion of this dimension to occur ‘bottom-up’ at the member state level. This is important because without social innovation our technical developments cannot be as successful as we want them to be.
On the other hand, many innovative EU-funded projects and activities aimed at STEM promotion often lack real and lasting impact because they are not part of a broader integrated strategy at member state level. All too often, these projects simply focus on developing ‘one-size-fits-all’ lesson materials, activities or ‘toolboxes’ on the EU level to be implemented ‘top down’ in the member states, and only reach the willing and already interested persons there – whereas we want a culture change in the entire system. The impact of these projects tends to be limited to the direct project partners and the results often simply disappear once project funding runs out, especially in countries where there is no long-term national/regional follow-up.
The European Commission has made a strong statement by including an action point aimed at promoting the uptake of STE(A)M subjects – which includes the Arts – and the modernisation of STE(A)M curricula in the recent ‘Communication on a Renewed EU Agenda for Higher Education’, in which they specifically refer to triple helix co-operation as a means of implementation. We see this as a positive sign of an increasing awareness that the impact of new technology on jobs, and the implications for the role of education, cannot be addressed with conventional instruments. We hope to see this trend continue with the same momentum in the coming years, as this issue will require a long-term approach and vision.
Given these points and issues, what role does the EU STEM Coalition play and how do you expect this to evolve?
The EU STEM Coalition was formally launched in 2015, partially as a response to the platforms’ concerns regarding the ineffectiveness and bureaucracy of existing EU projects. Initially being funded by the platforms themselves, the main goal of the network is simply to facilitate the exchange of best practices (of which there are plenty) between existing national STEM platforms to improve the quality and effectiveness of their activities on the national level. As part of this mission, the network also provides support to member states that are developing their own STEM strategies based on the triple helix approach and want an effective sustainable approach as well.
This approach has already produced some interesting results, including the development of a Hungarian STEM platform and a Danish Technology Pact, which is currently being developed by several Danish ministries based on the Dutch Technology Pact. On the programme level, platforms also benefit from informal ad hoc co-operation and network sharing. For example, Google Netherlands, which was already involved in Dutch STEM platform activities, facilitated the involvement of Google Denmark in activities of the Danish STEM platform. This type of easily expandable practice can be multiplied quickly and easily if we know how to find each other and work together in a strong and co-operative network.
We are currently exploring with the European Commission how we can best support the implementation of the action point regarding the promotion of STEM uptake in the aforementioned communication. Our key principle is that any EU-level project or initiative should follow a bottom-up approach that is fully aligned with the national and regional context and objectives. A European support framework for this can set the pace enormously.
Director of the Dutch National
Co-ordinator of the EU STEM Coalition
This article will appear in Pan European Networks: Science & Technology issue 24, which will be published in September, 2017.