Reorienting STEM education to address policy needs and societal challenges

Author(s):

Ketra Schmitt, PhD

Gina Cody School of Engineering at Concordia University

Associate Professor in the Centre for Engineering in Society

Elisabeth Gilmore, PhD

Department of International Development, Community and Environment at Clark University

Associate Professor in the Environmental Science and Policy Program

Ketra Schmitt, PhD and Elisabeth Gilmore, PhD

The pandemic and global reckoning with anti-Black, anti-Indigenous and all forms of racism have shed new light on social, economic and health vulnerabilities and inequalities as well as increased our sense of uncertainty about the future. We are more aware that unlikely and unexpected events can occur. But unlikely does not mean completely unforeseen.  Racial inequity and structural inequality is well documented. Public health experts have predicted a pandemic for decades, including potential shortages of ventilators and ICU beds. Climate scientists’ calls for decisive action have been met with tepid solutions or none at all. We are insufficiently prepared to adapt to and manage these risks now and in the future despite the research investments that led to these insights.

 

Engineering and STEM more generally is fundamental to meeting these complex challenges at the intersection of science, technology, society and policy. We have the privilege to mentor students in engineering and environmental science programs – undergraduate and graduate programs which are both critical to our future. Our students are eager  to apply cutting-edge research to develop better infrastructure and technologies to manage our most pressing problems. But, their current training is not enough. 

 

We call for a reorientation of engineering education that expands the lens of inquiry and methods to societal impacts while retaining strong quantitative skills, hands-on knowledge building, and the recognition of the importance of technology to our shared prosperity. Importantly, this must involve equipping our engineering workforce with the tools to evaluate their technologies as well as engaging with the policy and decision-makers. Canadian engineering departments have led important efforts to improve productivity and reduce environmental risks associated with industrial activities. While most engineering programs provide instruction on the social impact of technology, they do not generally centre  societal and structural relationships that determine the acceptability, consumption and production of technological goods as fundamental to the engineering and STEM endeavours. Traditional siloed engineering or policy activities that focus narrowly on technological innovation or governance cannot fix the massive structural changes required to address poverty, inequality or systems of justices and climate change.  

 

The problems that we face – like climate change, emerging technologies and big data, and social justice –  are multifaceted and complex. For example, climate adaptation projects are often seen as strictly technological infrastructure projects, but reducing risks while addressing historic and future inequities is needed to enhance resilience. Nowhere will climate adaptation be more challenging than in the Arctic. Permafrost loss is already causing devastating structural damage and upending traditional practices. However, as these changes cannot be undone, we should now bring both science and foresight to addressing the new opportunities for access to resources and the new way of living. We can reimagine northern society, including the co-production of  knowledge with Indigenous partners and using Indigenous ways of knowing. We also have opportunities in our cities to meet ambitious climate mitigation targets and address underlying equality. Cities are engines of economic growth in Canada and represent significant resource use and climate emissions, while also offering transformative potential for efficiency, circular economy approaches,  and net-zero buildings. Cities are also the site of drastic inequality and homelessness. Reimagining our cities to address these inequalities, such as the provisioning of transportation and green spaces, can be an integral part of achieving these sustainability. Cutting across these issues are algorithmic and big-data approaches to processing massive amounts of data to find optimal solution spaces, and even generate policies themselves. Harnessing the power of AI to conduct large-scale data processing is an attractive option, but policy makers must account for and correct structural biases inherent in both the data and programmers. 

 

How can insight from engineering and applied science be effectively incorporated into policy-making, and how can we prepare a STEM workforce that can understand both existing policy frameworks and innovate new approaches? 

 

The need to develop evidence-based policy, along with a workforce able to contend with complexity in systems and policy is applicable and important beyond our current crises. Moreover, models that focus solely on transmitting or communicating STEM solutions to policymakers and the public fail to incorporate community knowledge, values and expertise. 

Increasingly complex technological systems, increased reliance on expert models in decision-making, and more uncertainty in future conditions, such as those introduced by climate change, underscore the need for technically savvy policy analysts. However, there is limited training for qualified personnel who have a deep understanding of the technical details and also have the ability to integrate this knowledge into decision and policy frameworks. While the insight that engineering methods and metrics that can be effective in developing better policy is not new, challenges persist in developing thinkers in academia, industry and government who can work effectively and respectfully together. 

 

To meet these challenges, we propose changes to how engineers are trained, focusing on systems approaches that situate technology within social and economic systems and recognize structural inequality and systemic racism. First and foremost, this involves developing new frameworks for engineering and applied science education that incorporate policy and social considerations of technology as part of the first year curriculum. Specifically, we need to train our students to see these issues an integral to the practice of engineering. We also propose cross-cutting courses that train the technical experts of the next generation to consider and implement more thoughtful, systems-based solutions. Addressing this gap requires training our engineers in how to manage in complexity, both in social structures and technology. For example, sophisticated modelling tools can be important and impactful, but models can also be used to mask bias and decrease transparency for non-scientifically literate audiences. This is particularly true for expert models and AI applications. Similarly, innovative technologies and transformational actions can also present unknown risks and interact in unexpected ways with existing vulnerabilities and structural inequality. Shifting the focus from optimization to approaches that recognize and manage uncertainty, such as adaptive policy frameworks, that are more responsive to unanticipated societal effects. Finally, our students need training in how to recognize and be responsive to societal values, such as co-production approaches to generating knowledge. 

 

 What are the steps necessary to achieve policy-involved STEM education? The Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC) is an important part of this solution. As a convener of scientists and government, CSPC could help build out programs and opportunities for graduates to engage in important technology policy issues. CSPC can also reach critical audiences in academia, government and industry to deepen the discussion of applied technology approaches in applied settings. Education in technology and social policy is just the beginning. Real change requires embedding qualified people into organizations and changing the ways those organizations work, along with the political will to implement the radical changes necessary to preserve the planet and build an equitable world. We think it’s time.    

What are the steps necessary to achieve policy-involved STEM education? The Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC) is an important part of this solution. As a convener of scientists and government, CSPC could help build out programs and opportunities for graduates to engage in important technology policy issues. CSPC can also reach critical audiences in academia, government and industry to deepen the discussion of applied technology approaches in applied settings. Education in technology and social policy is just the beginning. Real change requires embedding qualified people into organizations and changing the ways those organizations work, along with the political will to implement the radical changes necessary to preserve the planet and build an equitable world. We think it’s time.