Today’s world changes fast; it only takes a few days for new technology to be adopted and become the norm. This accelerated timeline of innovation can make it hard to keep up—even for tech professionals.
But what does this mean for those who seek to educate the leaders of tomorrow? How can a university’s curriculum turn STEM majors into knowledgeable problem-solvers when fields change overnight, and new skills are in demand each week?
Read on to learn how some of the most advanced STEM-specific institutions keep their students’ education relevant in a world that shows no signs of slowing down.
1. Through Industry Connections
Industry leaders work with technologies that won’t reach textbooks for decades. For universities to include up-to-the-minute information in course offerings, it would require daily curriculum overhauls: an utterly unrealistic goal. Instead, many top engineering colleges invite industry experts to participate directly in education.
By creating direct connections between students and industry through capstone projects, institution-sponsored internships, and industry speakers, students gain insight into the reality of their chosen field and develop the skills they will need to be competitive in the market.
Companies have real-world problems for student teams to solve. By connecting these companies to their students, a university can provide practical real-world experience.
At Oregon State University’s College of Engineering, students worked with a local company named “Puralytics” to design a large-scale water filtration system. In 24 hours, using just the sun’s UV rays, their final product can make 1,000 gallons of water safe for cooking, bathing and drinking. This student-to-industry collaboration is a win-win: students gain cutting-edge, real-world experience, while companies gain a devoted team of young minds to work on business problems.
(Next page: 2 more ways STEM universities stay relevant)
2. By Providing Research Infrastructure
While industry projects allow students to flex their new skills with their peers, they do not allow students to witness professionals in action. By experiencing university-sponsored research, students get two primary benefits.
First, they become more involved in hands-on learning (shown to be 20 percent more effective than traditional teaching methods). Second, research projects allow students to directly observe and participate with professionals in the scientific method. There are differences between theoretical knowledge, practical skills and applied solutions: research projects show students how qualified professionals bring all three of those attributes together.
For one project at Florida Polytechnic University, students worked with an experienced professor to research whether a sugar compound found in certain microscopic organisms could be employed to provide other organisms with a form of radiation shielding. This type of research could pave the way for human immunity to galactic cosmic radiation—crucial for space travel—or even protecting DNA storage for colonization of other planets.
Research projects allow students to practice the scientific method with seasoned professionals in a way that other forms of hands-on learning fall short. Many top STEM institutions provide some form of research opportunities to their students.
3. By Integrating Softs Skills with Hard Skills
Which skills are the most important for successful STEM careers? Technical skills, like experience with an oscilloscope or MATLab, have historically been the foundation of STEM education; the challenge is making sure those technical skills will stand the test of time. For example, C++ may be the premier programming language of today, but the archaic programming methodology of tomorrow. STEM students must leave their higher education program knowing not just how to do, but how to think.
Many colleges have become so focused on instilling technical skills that they fail to cultivate crucial soft skills like presentation techniques or technical writing proficiency. The best schools empower their students with a healthy balance of both. Though an idea can revolutionize an industry, it will fail if it cannot be communicated to others. Soft skills will also stand the test of time; even if C++ goes out of style, the ability to communicate an idea to a coworker, client or investor will always be in high demand.
STEM professionals have a challenging job. They must adapt constantly and work to tackle the world’s toughest problems. But perhaps the more difficult task belongs to our educators: preparing students to solve tomorrow’s problems with technology that doesn’t exist yet.
Fortunately, STEM universities are ahead of the curve, relying on the power of industry connections, research experience, and an integrated skill set to produce the next generation of innovative leaders.