Science, Technology, Engineering and Math capacity will drive future regional prosperity

Head of Pearson Middle East, Karim Daoud explores the link between STEM educationand long-term economic success, and provides an insight into how we can help our current generation of learners become more proficient in the STEM fields.

Anyone with an interest in education will know that STEM subjects, that is Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, are being given increasing attention in education systems not only here in the GCC, but in countries all around the world. This shift in focus comes as policy makers and educators realise the impact of failing to adequately equip today's generation of learners with STEM-based skills and knowledge.

More and more, our lives are becoming dominated by digital technology. Our current generation of school students need a high standard of STEM learning just to be able to survive, and thrive, in our modern world. Our workplaces and industries are becoming more dependent on STEM skills – and this dependenceis set to increase in the future.

But are we ready?

According to the United States' National Math and Science Initiative, only 44 percent of US high school graduates are ready for college level math, and only 36 percent ready for college level science - a trend echoed around the globe. We are also seeing an inadequate number of students choosing to pursue STEM-based tertiary education, as students opt for more humanities and arts based university programmes.

The result is a significant gap between the types of education our school and university leavers are acquiring, and that demanded by the needs of employers. According to a recent survey conducted by Pearson and CBI in the United Kingdom and Ireland, employers say there are widespread difficulties in recruiting people with STEM skills at every level, from new workplace entrants through to people with more than five years' experience in STEM related work. A similar predicament faces employers in this region, where employers regularly cite STEM skills shortages as one of their greatest business challenges.

Encouraging learners into STEM fields, and ensuring that quality STEM teaching and learning is available to them, is therefore of vital importance. STEM capability is essential for major drivers of economic growth – productivity, innovation, entrepreneurship. In a region where economies are driven by oil revenues, a high levels of STEM talent amongst the population becomes even more critical. And with these economies seeking to become more diversified and globally competitive, never has it been more important to build STEM capacity, starting at the most basic educational levels.

A quality STEM based education can enhance a graduate's job opportunities and earning potential. In our region, where youth unemployment rates are some of the highest in the world (believed to be as high as 30 percent in some Middle Eastern countries), improving STEM proficiency will be fundamental to getting our young people into meaningful employment.

So, what can be done to improve the STEM skills of today's learners, and in turn give them increased opportunities in tomorrow's technology-driven environments?

Modifying curricula for a greater emphasis on STEM subjects is one part of the solution. Here in the Middle East, making math and science subjects widely available through internationally recognised qualifications will help to make these subjects more accessible to a greater number of learners. But just as important is, encouraging a love of STEM studies from the earliest days of a child's education. This means having teachers who are passionate about these disciplines and who can pass this enthusiasm onto their students. It also means ensuring teachers themselves have met necessary standards in STEM training and have access to high quality on-going professional development that keeps them up-to-date with the latest thinking and pedagogies in the STEM fields. Equipping classrooms with the resources needed for effective STEM learning is also essential. This means allocating funding for classroom based technology and scientific equipment, and giving teachers the skills required to exploit it to its full potential.

We also need to look at improving pathways to STEM-based careers, giving students the information needed to make informed decisions about their futures, such as the requirements for progression into STEM-based tertiary programmes. Building links between education and STEM industries will also assist students in moving into STEM-based careers.

Encouraging girls into STEM-based learning and subsequent careers is another way we can build the manpower demanded by burgeoning STEM-based industries. More females in the Arab World than ever before are now pursuing STEM subjects, at both a school and university level. Providing opportunities for these women in the workforce will help to fill the STEM skills gap that is impacting both the region's public and private sectors.

How successful we are at building a workforce of the future will depend in a large part on how well we embed effective STEM-based learning into oureducation systems, at all levels. The rapid pace of change affecting our workforces and economies requires us to address this challenge with urgency. Working together across government, industry and education, with a view to improving the outcomes of STEM learners, must a starting point. I am confident that through existing enterprises and future initiatives current and future generations of learners in the Middle East will excel in the STEM fields and make significant contributions on the regional and global stage.