Essay

Tech future, human rights

The need for digital and STEM literacy

IT SEEMS AS if we’re experiencing unending crises, rolling over us at such pace that we can’t catch our breath before the next one hits. Bushfires so large they create their own storm systems; pandemics of global proportions; the climate emergency, which threatens consequences worse than we’ve ever witnessed. But one thing can (and does) assist us to curate hope: our combined knowledge and intellectual power as the species Homo sapiens. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM, collectively) have been revered, but also often placed in ivory towers so as to equate them with superpowers derived from radioactive spider bites rather than accessible, egalitarian, well- paid and exciting areas of study.

In STEM we trust. Or so we thought. The rise of conspiracy theorists on social media – be they anti-vaxxers, short-Earthers, flat-Earthers or Holocaust deniers (still) – all point to a worrying increase in the noise and attacks made by anti-science protagonists. And it’s not just those influencers attacking, misinterpreting, undermining or ignoring people with PhDs and expertise: senior public and political figures have launched major attacks against listen- ing to the advice of ‘experts’ over recent years.

Despite this very small minority with loud voices, the pandemic seems to have triggered an uptick in students wanting to study STEM subjects at both high school and university across a number of countries, including Australia. At the same time, universities here find themselves in confronting financial positions, having not received the JobKeeper funding many other (often profitable) large corporates and national businesses did. Why should students care about STEM subjects if their own government doesn’t seem to see fit to protect the country’s education sector?

According to Australian Bureau of Statistics data, the loss of international university students from the Australian economy is likely cost some $40 billion by 2023 – for every $1 lost in tuition fees, an additional $1.15 is lost in the broader economy. How might we make up these losses – not only for universities but in terms of the wider economy? One proposal is that universities recruit from their graduate pool, encouraging them back for a skills and knowledge top-up. And the best subjects for this reskilling in 2022–23? STEM and digital literacy-based subjects.

 

TECHNOLOGY IS ADVANCING at such a pace that we use terms such as ‘exponential’, ‘bleeding edge’, ‘emerging’ and ‘rapid’ to grasp what is actually unfolding. Add to this a national and international shortage of relevantly trained STEM professionals and an ever-widening gap between graduates and job posts. Enter the future of work: the rise of radical upskilling – with, yes, STEM and digital skills.

For many people, it feels as if the STEM literacy train has already left the station – they’ll just play catch up as much as they can for the rest of their lives, relying on their kids (and grandkids) to keep them up to speed in their digital lives. This is where people disconnect from the empowerment that new technology can bring, resigning themselves to the role of consumer, never creator or engineer. This disempowerment can be described as a generational attribute, with terms such as ‘digital immigrant’ and ‘digital native’ starting to create false dichotomies across society based around the year people were born. This digital divide is a clear and present danger – not only to the Australian economy, but also to the larger efforts being made to increase diversity of access and to bridge gaps between people of different backgrounds, ethnicities and socio-economics: fractures that exist not only across Australia but in all of the G20 nations. And this is before we have even uttered the word ‘metaverse’ – that potential future internet that will no longer be accessed via screens but rendered as a 3D world of endless, interconnected virtual communities.

Given this present – let alone these forecast futures – when can we start talking about STEM and digital literacy as a human right? And how can we use the mechanisms of governance and government to accelerate access to education, training and the jobs and opportunities that accompany it?

I’d suggest the time is now. The pandemic provided the ‘great pause’, a liminal time in which to take stock, bake sourdough bread – and, maybe, work out our own raison d’être. Now we’re walking through a one-way glass door into the post-plague economy, a place where we are same-same but different. Life will resume – a new normal – and for a while it may feel we’re in the ‘uncanny valley’ of human–artificial intelligence interactions, looking urgently for the familiar before we let go of the paradigm of the past. Things will have been lost in the pandemic that we will never get back, but we can move forward by taking ownership and control over what we can influence, and when. We can choose to curate and create the future that we want for ourselves, our families and society as a whole. Nelson Mandela considered education ‘the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world’, and he wasn’t wrong. If we need weapons to fight for change and there are monsters coming over the hill – big ones – our best options are skills prepared for future-proofing, skills that open our eyes to see problems in a different way and then to design solutions that work for everyone, not just a privileged few.

Understanding the crux of the problem and unwinding the connectors and complexities of large, gnarly and sometimes dangerous tasks has been a meta-skill twenty years in the making. From undergraduate qualifications in environmental science through to a PhD in applying statistics and predictions to the natural world, a learning curve in the corporate world and the ability to work governance, entrepreneurship and academia has led to my own career success, recognised not only nationally but also globally. The keystone project involved using long-range reconnaissance drones to seek out and identify turtle tracks and nests on the offshore islands of the Pilbara, which remains a standalone project and was a world first ten years ago.

My own real-world tested STEM literacy has been a lifeboat and a lighthouse in recent times. In the face of great uncertainty, I have grasped hold of knowledge garnered during my STEM education and applied thought processes from my PhD training to the complex issues of recent times. Understanding the mechanisms of microbiology, being able to create statistical tests and models, has allowed me to understand – and trust – the epidemiology and the public health measures required to keep people safe during COVID-19. I’ve taken solace in understanding data being shown on the nightly news as well as across social media. Without this education, this STEM literacy, I would have been petrified. And I’m also sure that I would never privilege the opinion of a celebrity or so-called influencer over the work of a scientist or public health official during a global pandemic.

The industries that will rise like phoenixes in our post-pandemic economy – the ones that will create unicorns, those privately held start-ups valued at more than a billion dollars – are those based in STEM and digital literacy. Think of any recent Australian unicorn and you’ll find a business with a STEM backbone: Canva (digital assets and marketplace), Atlassian (software), Prezzee (a fintech platform). Companies built around artificial intelligence, machine learning, data science and other STEM focuses are all still birthing unicorns, bolstering Australia’s economy, national secu- rity and global stage presence. This rise of sovereign capability – and the need for Australia to become more self-reliant – is steeped in innovation and creativity.

As Kylie Walker, the CEO of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE), recently told me:

Technology pervades every aspect of our modern lives, and it’s becoming more ubiquitous as its sophistication develops. Already, intelligent systems are an inherent part of retail, transportation, energy and service delivery... Technology is neutral – humans have the power to ensure it is inclusive and empowering for everybody, or to decide it will entrench exclusivity and privilege. If we only have a small subset of people with all the digital knowledge and power, bias and exclusion will be exacerbated. It’s increasingly urgent that we educate and empower all people to participate fully in the digital economy; to understand and use technology to solve the increasingly complex challenges we face locally and globally.

How to recognise not only the opportunities in front of us, but also the potential losses? I’m thinking now as a board director, where the two things that engage me most are strategy and risk. If trading while solvent is a legal boundary provided by the Corporations Act 2001, it also creates a balance between opportunity cost and risk management. The fulcrum on which those two things rest is constructed in equal parts of innovation, culture and tolerance. The late, great management expert Peter Drucker once stated that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’, but these are neither separate nor opposing ideals; they are intertwined. Strategy can set the organisational culture, and culture can empower and engage strategically. This would suggest that when it comes to STEM and digital literacy, our boardrooms would be leading in corporate Australia – it is the way of the future, isn’t it?

Apparently not.

A recent Australian Institute of Company Directors report estimated that only some 3 per cent of Australia’s board directors had formal STEM skills – which is not apposite to the fact that in 2022, some 70 per cent of global GDP will be digitised. Will the ASX be stymied by STEM-deficient zombie boards? Should the governance leadership of Australia suggest that every ASX board have at least one director with significant STEM train- ing – at master’s or PhD level? This really couldn’t do any significant harm.

 

BUT WHY SHOULD you care about any of this if you’re not a company director, if you don’t work in a job that’s defined as either digital- or STEM-focused?

Well, the future is still human, powered by purpose, social and environmental responsibility – and framed by the rise of new cybernetics. The next industrial revolution is upon us, the fifth: some call it Industry 5.0, or Society 5.0. And the crux of this iteration is that humans will be the central reason any technology exists; the ideal of #tech4good. The next stage of the internet of things – those billions of devices connected to the net – will be the internet of bodies: digitally enabled health systems that include digital twins of ourselves, personalised medicine and new and emerging technologies such as bionics.

A simple way to think like a futurist is to employ the three Ps: what is possible; what is probable; and what is preferable? A good way to predict the future is to look at where we will be in fifty years and reverse engineer the milestones we need on the way there. A great example of this is synthetic biology. Creating molecules and particles that were previously only available as a cellular mechanism is the game-changing legacy of my generation to my grandchildren.

If, as a modern, Australian society, we have an urgent need to raise our levels of STEM and digital literacy, at all ages and socio-economic levels across our entire country, how do we do this? There are several possible answers to this question – and several options already underway, albeit in patches. The national curriculum, social enterprise, the ATSE, various state government initiatives and prominent university professors all create more pathways to STEM and digital literacy and empowerment than can be listed here.

Take the existence in schools of the ‘digital technologies curriculum’. This is not ‘information and communications technology’; it is not smart tablets in the classroom. It’s about creative and critical thinking, problem identification and solution, reflection and self-improvement, and – yes – using digital technologies such as drones and software to solve particular challenges. This curriculum has been designed to ‘complement and extend the rationale for the technologies learning area’, it states. ‘In a world that is increasingly digitised and automated, it is critical to the wellbeing and sustainability of the economy, the environment and society, that the benefits of information systems are exploited ethically.’

Some good examples of digital technology being ‘ethically exploited’ include the use of drones for environmental monitoring. Here’s a hypothetical based on a real-world project: ask a specific question – which turtles have laid eggs on this beach? – then fly drones to capture photographs, using photogrammetry to turn those photographs into a 3D rendering of the beach. Then analyse turtle tracks and potential nesting areas (or false crawls). An education example might come from Far North Queensland with the use of a smart tablet to design and create a traditional fishing boat. By sharing designs and ideation via the tablet, building the boat – and recording the process of making the boat with videos, photos and testimonials can produce a multimodal presentation of the creative process, skills learnt and the ways in which things might be done differently a second time around.

Most Australian states and territories have specific STEM (or STEAM, which includes the arts) programs in place to train teachers, to provide specific classroom resources, or to support the purchase of technology for school use, or for rent for short periods to save schools the full expense. The New South Wales STEM Industry Schools Partnerships (SISP) runs events, provides advice and training, and targets diversity in STEM fields. While the SISP is aligned to a strategy document with short- and medium-term strategies in place to engage teachers and students, the main way to support your child’s interests in STEM activities is by doing them at home. Back to the universal need for digital and STEM literacy.

Founded in Melbourne in 2014, Girl Geek Academy describes itself as creating a movement to get a million women and girls learning tech skills by 2025. A social enterprise, it runs empowering camps and activities to increase diversity in the tech world. Be a hacker, a hustler or a hipster, it says, but also bring along a female relative or a trusted mentor to keep those reinforcements and relationships with STEM going beyond the academy’s activities. Those of us in the STEM education industry know that what happens at school usually stays at school: we need reinforcement at home.

ATSE has launched an ambitious plan to provide world-class, free digital technology education to every secondary student in Australia through its program Computer Science in Schools. This program prioritises education for girls and under-served communities and will set the benchmark for Australian coding education, giving our nation a chance to compete in the international digital economy.

And at the Australian National University, Distinguished Professor Genevieve Bell has created 3Ai (the Autonomy, Agency and Assurance Institute), sparking conversations about the future of AI and the relationships with human beings that might evolve. This is now part of the southern hemisphere’s first School of Cybernetics within ANU’s College of Engineering and Computer Science. The school describes itself as establishing programs that blend education, research and engagement to create a new generation of practitioners…building a new branch of engineering to safely, sustainably and responsibly scale cyber-physical systems. We focus on systems as a unit of analysis and driver of action for industries working with complexity. We are generating new approaches to shape the future through and with technology.

 

SO THE PATHWAYS are prepared; we just need to walk down them – and make sure we take everyone on the journey. Change is upon us, and in order to thrive we must also change and rise to the challenges in front of us. We know that STEM and digital literacy provide an attractive skill set for any job candidate. We know we have a shortage of mathematicians that not only affects industry and national capability, but also the available quantity of the very STEM teachers we have instructing the next generation, and the professionals we need to combat information and cyberwarfare.

STEM and digital skill sets are now a part of everyday life for all of us, but when technology works, it’s invisible: only when it needs attention do we pay it any mind at all. We can all recount stories of car maintenance or home repairs, but how many of us can fix our smart devices? How many of us even know what the robotics and AI already in our daily technology is capturing about our lives and how that data is sold? Do we ever read the terms and conditions of the apps we download? What are we already handing over for free – and how much money are we making for tech billionaires when we use their ‘free’ apps?

This is a different kind of concern to that of automation, robotisation and the fears of many for what this will mean for their jobs, careers and livelihoods; for how and where they live and work. But there are only opportunities through automation. Only a single job in the world can categorically be said to have been lost to automation. Think of the last time you used a lift: was there a human being operating it, or did you select the floor yourself? Yes, the lift operator has gone – but more jobs have been created in the design, production and maintenance of the new types of lifts we ride now.

Every single job in the future will have an element of digital or STEM activity. From AI for marketing or sales to creative design captured on a digital camera through to how we bank, pay for things – even the steps involved in sourcing the food we eat. There are already so many robot farmers in our supply chains that some fruits and vegetables will soon arrive in shops having never been touched by a human hand.

The post-pandemic climate change-focused economy is now upon us, and the ongoing liveability of Australia is at stake. We all need to educate ourselves to understand not only the problems we face but also the opportunities that will present themselves. Now is the time for the new and emerging technologies and the full ecosystem of business, enterprise and economic advantages that will come from our hives of innovation.

Every single Australian – of any age and background, any existing employment or previous experience – deserves (and has a fundamental right to access) every opportunity to thrive in the next stage of economic development and systems-led change that we will be curating. It calls for an urgent commitment to that radical upskilling – a new kind of lifelong learn- ing. Every single Australian has the right to be literate in matters of STEM and digitisation. No one should be left behind.

This is what it means to insist on the human right of understanding the language and the culture of the future, one that is increasingly digital, fast paced and with a foundation in STEM.

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