Canada 2067: Formidable Challenges (and Opportunities!) Ahead
My personal awakening to what a good science education could look like happened in Canada, in my 10th grade physics class with Mr. Burt at Westmount High School in Montreal in the early 90's. I started high school in Brazil and had already taken a year of physics, but frankly, had not learned much through the experience. After a brief lecture on basic properties of waves, Mr. Burt broke us into groups and asked that we explore the concepts he had just taught us using ripple tanks. While I regret to say that is probably as much physics I know to this day, I remember vividly changing the speed and strength of the waves and being fascinated to see, first-hand, that what sounded like complicated science was within my grasp.
Fast forward to today, I have the privilege of overseeing the global philanthropic activities of Amgen, a world leader in medical biotechnology with a simple mission: to serve patients suffering from serious illnesses. At the Amgen Foundation, we have two goals: inspiring the next generation of innovators and advancing scientific literacy. We pursue these goals with two complementary strategies: investing in science teachers and supporting compelling hands-on and virtual learning opportunities for students.
Last December I had the honor of being a panelist at the Canada 2067 national conference, an effort led by Let’s Talk Science, which sets the agenda for those advancing science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education to work together to prepare today’s youth for the challenges of tomorrow.
Canada 2067 leans heavily on business guru Peter Drucker’s statement that “the best way to predict the future is to create it.” While Canada is a top performer in many education ratings, (e.g. # 7 in science on 2015 PISA), they do not rest on their laurels. Canada 2067 is looking 50 years ahead with a commitment to continuous improvement, gathering education leaders across schools, government, industry, and nonprofits around a thoughtful, inclusive, and impactful dialogue.
Here are a few of my takeaways from the impressive day and a half conference:
- The essence of a good STEM education is instilling in our youth a way of thinking -- beyond individual subjects. Aim at preparing them to apply the scientific method in everyday life, discern fact from fiction, and be informed citizens. Help them be lifelong learners. Celebrate and encourage curiosity.
- Whether we pursue the above to address market demands or help build a science literate society is often a false dichotomy. We need both.
- It is imperative to invest in the quality and preparedness of science teachers. The research shows that teachers have 2-3x the effect of any other factor in student learning. Students are also key stakeholders in the education process: their voices are critical for a comprehensive understanding of the challenges and opportunities at hand.
- Realize the significant gaps between the dialogue we are advancing [as sector leaders] and the reality in the classroom for most teachers and students. One speaker quoted author William Gibson, “the future is already here… it’s just not evenly distributed.”
- Recognize and respect the differences amongst communities. Engaging them early and often helps shape programmatic interventions that stick and grow.
- Equity and inclusiveness are hard and must remain front and center in this dialogue.
A day and a half of thoughtful dialogue around these formidable challenges would have been enough. But there was more: starting the conference with the Canadian national anthem sang in eleven different languages, starting every session with speakers paying their respects to indigenous people of the Ontario region, and the active representation from a broad cross-section of stakeholders brought it all together with a sincere acknowledgement that there’s more that binds us together than divides us. Or, as my scientist colleagues remind us, “we’re 99.5% similar [genetically].”
Science is a tool for progress, but it is not enough. As the Honorable Stephen Kakfwi, former Premier of the Northwest Territories and former President of the Dene Nation, kindly reminded us, “compassion is the beginning of wisdom.” While I have made the U.S. my beloved home for the last 17 years, Canada (and Mr. Burt) will always have a place in my heart.