The Big Read

Is our STEM obsession hurting innovation?

Illustration: John Hemminger

Jack Ma took the stage at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland early this year with a cautionary message about the future of work. “Education is a big challenge now,” he said. “If we do not change the way we teach, 30 years [from now] we’ll be in trouble.”

The Alibaba co-founder was not talking about teaching kids to code. Rather, he was referring to the need to teach school-aged children art, music and sports; empathy and critical thinking. “Everything we teach our kids should be different from machines,” he said.

The stance is in distinct contrast to the one touted by Canada’s prime minister. Justin Trudeau solidified his reputation as a STEM evangelist soon after his election when he delivered an impromptu explanation of quantum computing during a funding announcement at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. The act earned him a standing ovation and credibility among the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) community.

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In the name of innovation and stable jobs, Trudeau’s government has championed a movement to stream students into a post-secondary program in STEM. In keeping with that agenda, the federal government launched a $50-million fund in January to teach K-12 students and their teachers coding and other digital skills. In Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, elementary school curriculums now include coding units, and British Columbia is set to implement coding modules for grades six to nine starting this school year. In the private sector, corporations and non-profits have carved out a whole industry meant to fulfil the prescribed need to turn children into computer engineers, coders and deep scientists.  

The STEM-ed movement is certainly well-intentioned. STEM graduates tend to earn more than individuals with an arts or humanities post-secondary education—a statistic that’s often referenced to extrapolate on the productivity-capacity of tech and science professionals. Having more STEM graduates could also help stymie a tech employee shortage projected to reach 220,000 in 2020. However, there’s a growing number of people who share Ma’s concerns around emphasizing a STEM education over one in the liberal arts—namely, that we’re investing in many skills that may soon be unnecessary, and thwarting innovation in the process.

Talking Point

The STEM education movement promises to spur innovation and fill a tech-talent shortage projected to reach 220,000 by 2020. But while governments and non-profits focus on teaching kids to code, a growing number of tech players, including Alibaba’s Jack Ma, worry that, in neglecting the humanities, we’re compromising innovation.

“I think the focus on STEM is out of hand,” says Marcel O’Gorman, an English professor at the University of Waterloo and director of the school’s Critical Media Lab, an interdisciplinary R&D space modelled after the MIT Media Lab with the intent of creating art that explores technology’s impact on society. “A lot of what we’re teaching kids—all the mania around coding—is basically all the stuff artificial intelligence is going to be able to do anyway. Those skills are going to become redundant mighty fast.”

It’s a sentiment echoed in a recent Harvard Business Review article, which predicts that “AI will supplant many aspects of the ‘hard’ elements of leadership—that is, the parts responsible for the raw cognitive processing of facts and information.”

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STEM Skills and Canada’s Economic Productivity, a 2015 report from the Council of Canadian Academies, conceded that measuring the value of a STEM education is slippery. “While the theoretical reasons for a link between STEM skills and innovation are clear, there is currently limited evidence on the specific contribution of advanced STEM skills to productivity growth, or the magnitude of these effects,” the report reads. “Other evidence suggests that more assets than STEM skills alone are required for productivity growth… Complementary skills, such as communication, teamwork, and leadership, are also important in and of themselves, as well as to maximize the impact of STEM skills.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau makes an announcement at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont., on Friday, April 15, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

The report notes that while wages of STEM-grads appear to be generally higher than average, “a closer look reveals enough variation (by gender, level of education, immigration status, and STEM field) to call the accuracy of the commonly cited ‘STEM wage premium’ into question.”

The report concludes that, above all, adaptability is the most critical skill to foster, given the rapidly changing and unpredictable nature of work. That flexibility means training a workforce equipped with both STEM and complementary, non-STEM skills.

Kathryn Hume, vice-president of product and strategy at Integrate.AI, thinks there’s value in teaching math and coding skills relevant for understanding today’s technology. “But I also think that it doesn’t need to be everybody,” she adds. Focusing resources on populations who historically have had poor access to STEM—like women and Indigenous people—is a worthwhile endeavor, says Hume, and something the government has prioritized in its STEM initiatives. But ultimately, she says, we should nurture “what people are individually gifted in, and find a way to develop those skills which will continue to have a place.”

However, that’s not necessarily happening. Coinciding with the STEM movement is a declining interest in the liberal arts. The Maritime provinces, for instance, saw a 45 per cent drop in the number of post-secondary students majoring in humanities programs between 2006 and 2016. The University of Alberta has cut 31 humanities programs since 2013, including 14 this September.

Hume is concerned that, in undervaluing the humanities, we’re losing sight of the skills that make graduates employable. “Most people are going to end up in jobs that are humanities-oriented,” she says. “So there should be general literacy around STEM, and then the emphasis should probably shift towards having a more generalist skill set.”

Hume’s opinion draws on personal experience as an academic working in tech, having graduated from Stanford with a PhD in computational literature and 17th- and 18th-century mathematics and philosophy.

She says her humanities background gives her the perspective to know what problems need solving—a crucial first step in the R&D process. “That’s not purely a technical problem,” says Hume. “If everyone becomes a mathematician and a coder, then you’re missing out on the salespeople, the product people, the writers and communicators: the people that serve as the bridges between what’s technically possible and what’s actually practical and useful.”

To Hume’s point: sales reps are the second most in-demand professionals in the country, but according to a 2016 survey from Wilfrid Laurier’s Lazaridis Institute, nearly seven out of 10 high-growth tech companies struggle to hire sales and marketing staff. Meanwhile, the business community in Canada has expressed a need for more candidates with soft skills. To address the gap, McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business launched the Integrated Humanities & Business program last year. “There was an extensive consultation process in designing this program,” says Emad Mohammad, the program’s director. “In talking with the business community, the same thing kept coming up: we need more soft skills. They kept emphasising the issues of communications skills, critical thinking, cultural sensitivity.”

Alibaba founder Jack Ma speaks during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. AP Photo/Markus Schreiber

Perhaps the most valuable contribution the humanities can bring to innovation is an ethical lense through which to form ideas and solve problems. Questions around ethics and technology have been simmering for the past couple years, reaching a boiling point in March 2017 with revelations of Facebook’s role in the Cambridge Analytica data scandal.

Indeed, there are too many examples of dubious technology burrowing into society: airport security technology that’s easily confused by gender non-conforming travellers; racist AI tools used for sentencing criminals, and racist facial recognition technology used to identify individuals, to name just a few of the most blatant oversights.There are obvious social risks if we’re not thoughtful and thinking about these critically, says Hume, “which are the skill sets you develop as a humanities student.”

Hume is noticing an increased energy for embedding ethics into innovation. She recently helped develop a framework for tech developers to avoid bias and other ethical blunders from being built into AI. The 43-page document breaks down AI development into six stages and, after each stage, poses a series of questions for developers to consider. Each step flags privacy, security and ethics questions that teams need to be asking,” Hume explains. “They then need to use their critical judgment to think about what’s best for their business. It’s not code; it’s judgment.”

Back in May, Communitech hosted more than 2,000 attendees at the True North conference, where delegates, including O’Gorman, developed and signed the Tech for Good Declaration, a professional oath of sorts for innovators. The framework is vague at this point—it’s expected to be expanded on as the public and other industry folk weigh in—but O’Gorman says it’s a big step forward in expanding the technology ethos beyond STEM. “I don’t think that could have been written two years ago,” he says. “With everything that’s happened in the past couple years, there’s a hunger for ethical tech, if you want to call it that.”

Jack Ma received an honorary doctorate of social sciences from the University of Hong Kong this past spring. During his convocation speech, he reiterated the skills that helped him succeed at the helm of Alibaba, and what he thinks will drive innovation in the future. “Machines will never be able to win man,  because machines only have the chips; humans have the heart, ” he said. “In the future, it’s not knowledge-driven; it’s wisdom-driven.”

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Clarification: This article originally stated that Trudeau’s government has championed a movement to stream every student into a post-secondary program in STEM. In fact, it has supported efforts to teach every student some coding and to increase the number of students participating in STEM. The piece has been updated to reflect this change.