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As the world absorbs the latest from COP26, it is clear that STEM skills will continue to play a crucial role in our adaptation. From environmental engineering to problem-solving technologists and scientifically savvy comms experts, our world will depend on them. Our youngest generations carry the greatest burden, but they also have incredible opportunities – and we must ensure they are fairly distributed. This starts in schools.
Generation-Z are the first truly digital natives. Accessing social media, mobile devices and cross-referencing internet sources from a young age, they are perceived as hypercognitive and comfortable moving between virtual and real-worlds. They have an innate affinity with technology. As global connectivity soars, their influence will transcend socioeconomic differences according to McKinsey.
But the pandemic gave us a real wake-up call. As many schools switched to online-lessons while stay-at-home orders were in place, the extent of the digital divide became apparent. An Ofcom report in 2020 found that between 1 and 1.8m children did not have access to a laptop, desktop or tablet. On top of this, low-income households are less likely to have broadband access, instead leaning on expensive mobile connectivity.
Not only is this at odds with our sparkly trajectory for Gen Z, but it encapsulates a further inequity. There is a large gap in women and girls’ digital adoption and use compared to men and boys. Globally, a lack of digital access correlates to a lack of meaningful digital use. In a world where digital literacy is a critical component of today’s education, with over 90% of jobs worldwide harbouring a digital element, these disparities represent a loss of opportunity. In the UK, only 17% of IT specialists are women.
This is a tale of two halves. But to build a world fit for these curious girls and boys we have to ensure they are all included – and that means connected. Nurturing all children with STEM mindsets has never been more important. The first step is ensuring they have access to devices and can connect with the digital classroom. The pandemic put this in the spotlight, with governments, charities and businesses delivering devices and connectivity. Collaboration has proved essential. This year, Park Place Technologies joined the call to action, donating laptops to female students in Ireland. This was part of the TechForGood programme, with Ireland-based STEM non-profit I Wish.
But more needs to be done, to ensure equal opportunities are provided to students from the grass roots and beyond. To tackle the challenges of our shared futures, students need more than access – they need inspiration and guidance. For example, creating space for students to learn how to code will give them wings as they enter the workforce in the midst of the 4th Industrial Revolution. Initiatives like CoderDojo bring creativity and tech together for young maestros around the world. Park Place Technologies has partnered with CoderDojo in Cork, facilitating a fun learning environment in which teenagers could learn how servers and laptops are made – pulling them apart and putting them together again. We are born creative problem solvers, but this requires nourishment.
If teenagers can sustain their love of technology with those curious mindsets, they will very well be tomorrow’s top inventors. For this opportunity to be felt equally, they need to understand the variety of career pathways that are open to them. They need to see people like themselves succeeding in order to trust in the possibilities. That requires greater engagement with potential employers and with a visible celebration of their diversity.
The good news is that in the UK, between 2010 and 2020, the number of women accepted into full-time STEM undergraduate courses increased by 49%. In the same 10-year span, the number of UK 18-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds accepted into full time undergraduate STEM courses increased by 79%. This growth in STEM subjects includes a 400% increase in acceptances for students wishing to go on to study Artificial Intelligence courses at university. These students will design tomorrow’s data fuelled transformations.
We stand at an exciting cross-roads, with the 4th Industrial Revolution driving digital innovation. Data-driven technologies enable new business products and services, more sustainable practices and ethical trade. They are essential as we learn to live in a warming world and manage new environmental and social challenges. We need entrepreneurial Gen-Zers to fully represent their communities as they shape society with digital transformations. But in many areas today we are seeing skills gaps as demand grows. Everyone will benefit when they are bridged.
This comes down to us. Today’s teachers, technologists, business and government leaders must work together to cultivate more inclusive, inspired career pathways. Creating opportunities, celebrating achievements and spotlighting the runway for STEM career take-offs. There is no job more important than building tomorrow’s world – and everyone should have the chance to be a part of it.
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