There are few – if any – inventions on Time magazine’s 50 Best Inventions 2018 list that don’t have their roots in the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths.
Think on-demand eyes for the blind, a subscription service enabling users to stream live video of their surroundings to either a smartphone or glasses; sustainable jandals made from the hitherto unused parts of sugarcane; a vibrating bracelet that helps kick bad habits, such as nail biting; roofing that fights smog pollution; or a real-life Iron Man suit that can achieve speeds of 80 kilometres per hour.
As the authors put it, these inventions make the world “better, smarter and even a little more fun”.
We need only look at the issue of climate change to know that now, more than ever, we need innovators who can think outside the box to solve problems and come up with creative ways of doing things.
And engaging kids in STEM subjects from a young age is step one in achieving this.
Recognising that STEM jobs are increasingly important for Aotearoa’s future – it’s predicted that almost all jobs in the future will require some STEM knowledge – the government has identified science, technology, engineering and maths as the most important subject areas in The New Zealand Curriculum.
Over the past decade the government has been working to increase participation in these subjects at school, maintaining they can lead to better paid, more secure jobs and help fill shortages in related sectors such as IT, engineering and health.
Attracting students from a wider range of backgrounds to study STEM subjects and follow careers in the growing number of related occupations was a key action listed in A Nation of Curious Minds:
He Whenua Hirihi I te Mahara, a national strategic plan for ‘science in society’ launched five years ago.
The main objective of the plan is to encourage and support all New Zealanders to engage with science and technology by 2024.
At the project’s launch, then Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce said: “Science, and the knowledge and innovation that flow from it, plays a critical role in creating and defining our future.”
The STEM subjects are closely related in school and at tertiary level. For example, maths provides the foundation for studying physics, and physics provides the foundation for studying engineering.
Which is why, for example, Engineering New Zealand’s free programme to get school kids interested in STEM subjects (The Wonder Project) has a rocket challenge for Years 5–8. Combining Newton’s laws of motion, rocketry, teamwork and creative thinking, students get to design, build and launch their own water rocket. Physics leading to engineering.
Tertiary STEM options growing
Out of school, the range of STEM-related study options at tertiary level is staggering, and to many of us with children in their late teens or early twenties, unheard of when we were leaving school.
For example, your young person could join the Human Interface Technology Laboratory (HIT Lab NZ) in the College of Engineering at the University of Canterbury. There they could be part of the Applied Immersive Gaming Initiative, which is using the motivation that online games provide to engage people in tasks such as learning at school, training for trades, carrying out health and safety activities, exercising and curbing addictive behaviours.
If they’re interested in taking computer graphics to the next level, they could work with the Computational Media Innovation Centre at Victoria University. Opened two years ago, the centre collaborates with industry experts, including major international media organisations, to develop new or advance existing virtual reality/augmented reality, film, and gaming technologies. The centre is also an incubation space for digital start-ups, where projects are developed from initial concepts through to market-ready products.
If they’re motivated to use their interest in engineering to help others, your young person could sign up for the Auckland Bioengineering Institute at the University of Auckland. A world-leading research institute that aims to improve medical diagnosis and treatment of injury and disease, its current research topics include robots for upper-limb and lower-limb assistance and rehabilitation for stroke patients, devices for diagnosis of shoulder injuries, needle-free drug delivery systems, and fundamental research on motor design.
At AUT they could join the Centre for Artificial Intelligence Research creating, developing and commercialising innovative IT products focused on four main areas of research and development: human language technology; speech technology; robotics; and mind theory.
Further south, the University of Otago leads the New Zealand Centre for Sustainable Cities, an inter-disciplinary research group of social scientists, public health specialists, physicists, geographers, engineers, economists, sociologists and Māori researchers.
With 87 percent of New Zealanders now living in urban environments, the aim of the centre is to keep our cities sustainable and the people within them healthy and socially connected. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The world is changing rapidly – there are jobs on the horizon we can’t even begin to imagine. We don’t know yet what we will need to know, but a solid grounding in STEM subjects provides young people with the best tools available to navigate the workplace of the future.