• COVID-19 has forced big changes in the way lessons are delivered.
  • But education worldwide needs an even more radical rethink.
  • Science, technology, engineering and maths are crucial to our future.

COVID-19 has forced more than 1 billion students and youth out of school, triggering the world’s biggest educational technology (edtech) implementation in history, almost overnight. Schools and universities are scrambling to redesign their teaching and learning to allow for students of all ages to study from home. While this raises huge practical and logistic issues for students, teachers and parents (especially women), it opens up a world of opportunities to reimagine what learning looks like in the 21st century.

The pressures that individuals, organisations and societies face in this crisis are accelerating the Fourth Industrial Revolution, blurring the boundaries between the physical, digital and biological worlds. Are our educational systems preparing students for a world driven by disruptive scientific and technological advances in artificial intelligence, robotics, biotechnology, clean energy, or quantum computing? Are we encouraging students to think critically about how science, technology and innovation can help address - or aggravate - economic, geopolitical, environmental or societal challenges?

In many industries and countries, the most in-demand occupations or specialties did not exist 10 or even five years ago, and the pace of change is set to accelerate. Up to 65% of children entering school today will have a job that does not yet exist. Our educational systems around the world were failing before COVID-19 and will continue to fall behind unless we change the way we teach and learn science.

Education can no longer be about transferring explicit knowledge across generations. According to the OECD 2030 Future of Education and Skills Project: “We need to replace old education standards with an educational framework that combines knowledge with the 21st century skills of creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration.” This won’t be achieved by simply moving classes from the chalkboard to a Zoom call, but radically transforming the way we teach and learn science and technology skills, from one-way content dissemination and memorization to personalized, self-directed learning. In a rapidly changing world, where we cannot predict what technologies will be ascendant in the future, we have to teach children to teach themselves. Students need not just knowledge, but also skills, attitudes and values to thrive in and shape their own future for a more empowered global citizenship. This has never been more evident than in the current pandemic.

COVID-19 and the case for improving scientific literacy for all

Many of the problems resulting from the COVID-19 crisis have a root cause in science literacy. The immediate and global need for understanding science in the face of a pandemic has never been more urgent. Until a few months ago, most people not specialized in a STEM field would not remember the difference between a virus and a bacteria; antigen vs antibody; DNA vs RNA; linear vs exponential growth. These are concepts students are taught in high school biology and mathematics. But unless they go on to study a science degree, these terms become relegated to research journals and academic circles. Now they fill headlines in every major newspaper. Before the pandemic, 81% of Americans could not name a living scientist. Today scientists are household names appearing daily on prime-time television.

While in the 18th-19th century Industrial Revolution we suffered from a clear “social pain” from reading and writing illiteracy, in the Fourth Industrial Revolution literacy can no longer be restricted to reading and writing. Before COVID-19, a basic understanding of molecular biology and notions of epidemiology were entirely optional for any citizen. Now that the burden of mitigating the pandemic relies on our collective responsibility, this knowledge can be a matter of life and death, for yourself and others. We are living through a collective realization of how understanding science has tangible, practical, and immediate applications for our daily lives.

Students require 16 skills for the 21st century
Skills of the century
Image: WEF

This is why STEM skills must be included in the basic definition of literacy if we want to empower the next generation to address global challenges. Now is the time to transform education to close the achievement gap and avoid recreating the "social pain" we lived through the Industrial Revolution. Literacy must include 21st-century skills as described by the OECD: mathematical literacy, scientific literacy, digital literacy, financial literacy, etc., along with competencies and attitudes, such critical thinking, curiosity, creativity, teamwork, or cross-cultural awareness, that young people must develop for the future professions that don't yet exist.

Democratizing science education

According to UNESCO, “for a country to meet the basic needs of its people, the teaching of science is a strategic imperative". But there are inequalities when it comes to STEM education. As technology connects students with teachers in their homes, its limitations for learning have manifested themselves. The coronavirus crisis has revealed deep inequalities not just in the digital divide (kids without devices or reliable internet connections are cut off from learning completely), but also who has the skills to self-direct their learning, and whose parents have the time to help. In the US, virtually every 15-year-old from a privileged background has a computer to work on, but nearly a quarter of those from disadvantaged backgrounds do not. Furthermore, STEM education requires expensive lab equipment for teaching through inquiry and experimentation. In remote learning environments, there is no access to that.

It is imperative to find creative ways for young people of all socio-economic levels to have access to inquiry-based learning at home. There are some successful software solutions for virtual labs and virtual experiments like PheT Simulations by the University of Colorado or LabXchange by Harvard University that provide an immersive experience into a virtual lab. Although these approaches might be a good starting point, for the student it can feel like learning how to ride a bicycle through a virtual reality experience. Learning science requires immersion in the hands-on process of scientific experimentation and inquiry-based and problem-based learning. To address this barrier to experiential science education, companies like Lab4U use smartphone sensors to design and run science experiments, so any student in the world with a smartphone can experiment with a portable lab in their pockets. Another example is Stanford Professor’s Manu Prakash’s Foldoscope, a company designing ultra-affordable paper microscopes.

Unlike access to computers, smartphone penetration is increasing, and in mobile-first economies families decide to buy a smartphone before purchasing a computer. This affords an opportunity to ignite and inspire students to learn science in a more engaging way than just a theoretical class, allowing them to take ownership over their learning and understanding better how they learn. In Chile, students are now using the school’s 3D printers to print face masks for first responders and essential workers. In Latin America and the US, students from low-income communities who used mobile phone-enabled STEM education tools increased their motivations to pursue STEM careers.

Teaching science, technology and engineering skills for the real world has never been more important. In the Fourth Industrial Revolution, if we want our students solving the world's biggest challenges, we cannot perpetuate outdated educational systems. We must align public policies and investments in education, science and technology to develop 21st century skills in young people to prepare them for a changing future.