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STEM education as an accelerator of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

The right schooling is the foundational stepping stone to success in life.  Quality education in school promotes the development of the knowledge, skills and values required to create a sustainable world. It encourages environmental conservation and social equity and, at the same time, enables economic progress.  Schools across India are exploring innovative ways to improve learning outcomes and help students flourish in their academic journey.  One such approach is a STEM-based education.
STEM, as we all know, is an acronym that represents the integration of four disciplines – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. But it is much more than just that.  A curriculum structured around STEM goes beyond just test performance to focus on linking disciplines and developing higher-order thinking skills by connecting classroom learning to the real world.  This method of teaching-learning prioritizes communication, collaboration, problem-solving and critical thinking – all mandatory in the 21st century.  It builds capacity for innovation and creativity and ensures students are ready for jobs of the future.

How can STEM education accelerate the attainment of the 2030 SDGs?

We can already see how digitalization, big data and artificial intelligence are turning out to be progressively significant in different fields including mobility, energy and urban design.  Technologies thus have an important role to play in improving access to clean, affordable energy; food; potable water; and health (SDGs 7, 2, 6 and 3 respectively).  Technological advancements are also critical for climate change mitigation and adaption; sustainable urbanisation; and responsible consumption and production.
Technology is thus integral to sustainability and is critical for achieving the 2030 SDGs. At the same time, quality education is imperative to develop the human and specialized skills required for achieving sustainable development at scale.  STEM scholars, responsible for applying new, values-based technological systems to conscientiously shape our future, will help drive this mission; and STEM education that recognizes the natural diversity of young learners and incorporates values will be an important enabler.
Goal 4 of the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda For Sustainable Development aims to ensure inclusive, quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.  It highlights the many benefits of quality education, including self-confidence, economic development, skills readiness and opportunities for improved livelihoods.  However, SDG 4 also identifies gender disparity across levels of education as a major obstacle and seeks to bring about gender equality and sensitivity in education by 2030.
Per a 2020 United Nations report, Indian women scientists comprised only 14% of the 280,000 scientists, engineers and technologists employed in research institutions in the country at the time.  This was significantly lower than the global proportion of women in similar roles.  Even in recent times, while STEM jobs continue to grow, women remain underrepresented.
So, what are the challenges and reasons for the STEM gender gap equation in India?  Let us begin at the very beginning.  Little girls are often presented with kitchen sets or word games on their birthdays, while boys are gifted toy cars, robots or construction sets.  Traditional school books tend to depict men at work, while women and girls are stereotyped as caregivers or homemakers.  Deep-rooted social conditioning and cultural barriers mean that women are very often restricted in their fields of study to pursue only teaching, nursing, the arts or home economics, etc.
The best way to bridge this gender gap in STEM education is by beginning young, at school.  Encouraging curiosity toward STEM-oriented subjects at the pre-primary/primary level, and supporting talented girl students who wish to pursue STEM careers is integral to driving long-lasting shifts. The foundational years of a student’s life are critical and thus, early integration of a STEM approach in schools can make a big difference.
The overall reduction in enrolment of boys and girls in basic sciences as well as the increased dropout rate of girls in higher education represent major hindrances for girls’ advancement in STEM. To address these issues, we need to fight stereotypes; celebrate women scientists, entrepreneurs and STEM professionals; and encourage girls’ access to STEM education.
We need to address the above issues even as we strive to overcome challenges to STEM education overall.  These challenges include:

1. Gaps in quality education

To begin with, there is a dearth of quality schooling and well-trained teachers in India’s smaller towns, home to nearly 450000 affordable private schools and low-fee schools.  STEM labs and other infrastructure are perceived as expensive.

2. Awareness gap

Unlike their peers in metros, families and students in India’s small towns lack access and exposure to information about contemporary technological advances.  This negatively impacts awareness of, and demand for, STEM-based education.
While we should collectively address the above gaps, efforts are being made today with governments, policymakers and corporates who are leading the way in encouraging more interest in the STEM fields and showing their support in different forms. India itself boasts of renowned STEM scientists like Soumya Swaminathan and Tessy Thomas who have become a beacon of inspiration for many Indian women. On the other hand, various initiatives undertaken by ministries like MHRD, Department of Technical Education, and NCERT are paving the way for this industry to grow through different initiatives like I_STEM etc. Moreover, brands today are also accelerating their efforts into driving awareness. Even skincare brand Olay, which is deeply rooted in science, also believes it’s time to change the equation between men and women with their recent purpose-driven campaign “STEM The Gap” enabling more girls to fearlessly pursue STEM careers.
India’s National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 emphasizes innovation, conceptual understanding and problem-solving, thereby establishing that its long-term educational goals have much in common with the tenets of STEM education.  It is therefore best to pique a student’s interest in STEM as early as possible.  Early STEM education can help children better understand and internalize the importance of sustainable development and its relevance to the world we live in.  The incorporation of a STEM-based curriculum in schools can thus lead India closer to its SDG goals, faster.
Views of the author are personal and do not necessarily represent the website’s views.
Riku S.Riku designs the overall pedagogical framework at LEAD India’s largest School Edtech company and the country’s first unicorn in the School Edtech segment.  He is the go-to person for defining learning goals, designing new pedagogy products, and bringing innovations to existing  products. His functions help us in effectively driving improved learning outcomes for all our partner schools. He closely works with the tech and business teams to build a great learning experience for every student.
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The CSR Journal Team