Preparing Tomorrow’s STEM Professionals To Make a Global Impact
BY MICHAEL K. J. MILLIGAN, PH.D., P.E.
STEM education has historically focused on technical skills. Being confident in the preparedness of those who aim to build a better world—one that is safer, more efficient, more comfortable, and more sustainable—is critical when planning for the future. But in order to ensure graduates are prepared to enter a global workforce, technical proficiency isn’t the only thing that matters; it’s also essential for students to develop a wide range of professional skills.
Engineering, computing, and other technical fields are some of the most globalized professions. How do we determine all the skills necessary to succeed in these fields?
It’s helpful to first establish a definition of success. You might think of personal success in terms of the future life you’d like to have. Or, you might think of professional success and what you’d like to achieve in your career. To me, perhaps the greatest measure of success is the impact you can have on our planet and its people.
Set the Stage with Big-Picture Goals
How can we help students focus on the difference they can make in the world?
The United Nations has developed a list of 17 sustainable development goals, which serve as “the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.” The goals relate to issues including poverty, hunger, health, education, climate change, peace, and justice. They are interconnected, and the UN aims to achieve all of them by 2030.
Similarly, the National Academy for Engineering has established a list of 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st Century. These “game-changing goals for improving life on the planet” fall into four categories: sustainability, health, security, and joy of living.
In order to solve for the big challenges outlined by the UN and NAE, the problem solvers of the future will need a diverse set of skills.
According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report, the following are the top 10 skills of 2020:
- Complex problem solving
- Critical thinking
- People management
- Coordinating with others
- Emotional intelligence
- Judgment and decision making
- Service orientation
- Cognitive flexibility
While complex problem solving and critical thinking are certainly expected outcomes of quality STEM programs, notice the inclusion of creativity, emotional intelligence, negotiation, and others traditionally referred to as “soft skills.”
Social skills, such as people management and coordinating with others, are critically important for high-performing teams. This is especially true when working with team members representing economic, governmental, regulatory, and social aspects of implementing projects.
Equally important is self-initiative, the ability to work independently. To succeed in this area, students need to become passionate about tackling big challenges. They shouldn’t settle for standing on the sidelines when it comes to problem solving; they need to develop the capacity to take risks—to fail and persevere.
Focus on Communication
Perhaps the most important set of skills STEM graduates need to cultivate relate to communications.
Communication skills, especially the ability to effectively communicate across cultures, are essential to success in the modern workplace. Exposure to global perspectives is important, as is the ability to communicate one’s own perspectives while understanding the perspectives of others.
In addition, diversity and inclusion principles are essential to building a world-wide system of innovation, economic prosperity, and quality of life. It’s important for today’s students to gain an understanding and acceptance of different cultures, religions, economies, governments, and global issues. Diversity relates to more than just different ethnicities; it also includes diversity of thought, wide-ranging personal experiences, and different backgrounds, which are critical to the development of successful solutions. An appreciation for and understanding of diversity are foundational to truly effective communications.
To prepare students to succeed in a global economy, my advice to educators would be to engage students in building proficiency in each of these skill areas.
Think Globally as an Educator
Today’s students want to be globally connected. Organizations such as Engineers Without Borders bring together volunteers to tackle hundreds of engineering projects around the world. The challenge for educators is how to incorporate these types of global experiences into structured education for all students.
One way to bring a global perspective into the classroom is to offer specific courses tailored to these subjects. For example, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology offers a course titled “Global Engineering and the Social Context.” In addition to teaching flexible and adaptable problem solving, the course covers topics such as culture, community engagement engineering, sustainable engineering, engineering ethics, and intercultural communication.
And, initiatives like Purdue University’s EPICS program connect engineering students with community organizations to address human, community, and environmental challenges.
All educators have opportunities to engage students on these topics. Classroom discussions and conversations with students can touch on sustainable development and ethical practices as well as the impact students can make globally after they graduate and even how they define success. We don’t need to create specific courses to address these topics, and then cram them into an already full curriculum.
Don’t underestimate the potential influence we can have as educators. In January 2020, I traveled to Hyderabad, India, to speak at the Seventh International Conference on Transformations in Engineering Education. In my keynote, I asked each of the 500 faculty in attendance to think about the difference they could make if, throughout their careers, they each inspired 30 students to build a better world. If each of these students go on to influence 30 more people and the pattern continues, in just five generations—approximately 125 years—the collective impact will reach over 12 billion people!
The more we can do to prepare students today with a diverse array of skills, the more successful these graduates will be when they enter the global workforce. The engineers of tomorrow will tackle big challenges facing our planet. By ensuring their success, we can ensure we will all live in a better world.
Michael K. J. Milligan is the executive director and chief executive officer of ABET, the global accreditor of over 4,000 college and university programs in applied and natural science, computing, engineering, and engineering technology.