Studies over the past 15 years have shown that about two-thirds of Canadian kids ages 12-18 think STEM is important, interesting, and fun. Canadian students rank in the top 10 of 65 OECD countries on international tests of science achievement. Our kids like, and are good at STEM.
Yet, despite this potential, only about 30% of Canadian high school students take STEM courses after grade 10, limiting their access to opportunities in STEM-related fields. No surprise that in 2014 the Canadian Council of Academies (CCA) reported that Canada’s total employment in STEM occupations was just 30% – 22nd out of 37 countries. Do our kids just lose interest in high school? Perhaps, but then how do we explain that 93% of Canadian adults are very or moderately interested in new scientific discoveries and technological developments (1st out of 33 countries), or that 32% visited a science centre/museum in the previous year (2nd out of 39 countries) – according to the same CCA report.
We’re good at getting Canadian kids interested in STEM. Over 100 organizations and institutions, from local to national, offer school presentations, workshops, camps, experiences, challenges, and competitions. They reach a huge number of students, but the percentage of high school students taking STEM courses has remained stubbornly around 30% for years. Canada has no lack of STEM promotion programs – we lack a national strategy and coordination.
PromoScience, through NSERC, provides federal funding for many of these programs – $4.8M over 3 years to 43 organizations in 2015. Grants are awarded through a peer-review process; however, there’s no analysis for redundancy, imbalances, and gaps – or even a program inventory to analyze. As a result, there’s no strategy underlying this funding, or benchmarks to measure progress; the best-written proposals get funded.
Canada produces great hockey players – and now Olympic athletes – because we have a development system. It starts by getting lots of young kids participating for fun. From there, those with ability and passion (and/or ‘enthusiastic’ parents) progress through a series of levels that build skills and identify top prospects. Canada has lots of Timbits-type STEM programs, but no system to guide those kids or parents when they ask, “What’s next?”
I propose that Canada build on its excellent STEM promotion capacity to establish a national youth STEM and innovation development system, similar to those for sports, to cultivate not only interest and excitement, but engagement, skills, and excellence. A national youth STEM and innovation advisory panel – leaders from the national youth STEM and innovation organizations; representatives of regional, provincial, and local organizations; and young Canadians – should be appointed to guide the process. They would start by building a national inventory of programs and then analyze to identify systemic strengths and weaknesses, recommend targets, and evaluate progress.
If we’re serious about developing youth with skills for the future economy, let’s get Canada’s youth STEM promotion organizations working together, rather than competing with each other for funding and profile. It works for hockey.