A couple weeks ago, the #BusinessTimes asked me where I think #STEM needs to head. I shared my vision that technology becomes understandable to the layman so that everyone who has a problem to solve is able to understand how technology can exponentially help them.
This is particularly close to my heart. I was a STEM student most of my life. In the final years of high school in Singapore, all I studied was science – physics, chemistry, biology and math (back then they allowed us to be completely specialized!)
While I excelled at STEM subjects, the content felt increasingly irrelevant to the things I cared about, such as equity, fairness and inclusiveness in society (and the world). At Princeton, I completely dropped my plans to be a doctor or engineer and pursued a career in governance and public policy. (Although I could not resist the occasional engineering statistics and chemistry class).
In those years, technology progressed exponentially, becoming pervasive in all parts of life and work. As I plunged back into the field two years ago, I realized STEM applications are relevant to ANY problem you or I care about and want to solve. I’ve found my way back to the STEM world with a greater sense of purpose and relevance.
What bothers me however, is the divide between the STEM and non-STEM worlds. A young intern in my office recently shared that she was studying philosophy and ethics for undergrad, and immediately added (with some embarrassment): “I know… so much less useful than the engineers”. I have heard this sentiment echoed over the few years.
Yes, let us value technical experts, AI researchers, hardware engineers, for pushing us beyond what we thought was possible. But please, you don’t need to be a hard-core engineer to contribute to the STEM world. We know from history that technological innovation will continue marching forward. The question is whether it will be used to solve the world’s biggest problems – or exacerbate them.
What we really need now are people who can play the role as “bridges” between the STEM world and other domains, where inefficiencies, lack of transparency, and inequality affect the lives of millions of people every day. We need people who want to solve problems in healthcare, education, financial inclusion, gender equality, people who are curious and driven to know how STEM can help them fulfil their missions. People who have the trust of stakeholders, who can convince the users, who reach out to late-adopters who are most vulnerable in our tech-driven society.
I am all for STEM education – I deeply appreciated my own experience. We should raise the baseline of STEM education and importantly, help our students see the relevance of everything they are learning to daily life.
But let us be very careful not to give the impression that only “STEM” is in vogue, and everyone else is less relevant. For STEM to progress for social good, we need to create a movement which involves and values people with a wide variety of skills, interests and passions, not a few brilliant renegades who tell everyone else what the future should look like.
Let’s work together to make this happen.