11 billion reasons to learn STEM

Tomorrow I’m leaving London for New York where I will be participating in a number events during the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) week. It is a week when the largest group of  world leaders, states people, lobbyists, leading thinkers and global opinion formers gather to discuss some of the most pressing global issues and, with hope, form some consensus that will lead to positive change. Amongst the global priorities that will take centre stage next week are education, environment and population, and these are the principal reasons that I will be there.


I will be at UNGA working with the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS) to help launch theGlobal STEM Alliance, a collaboration between governments, companies, schools and NGOs to increase access to great STEM education for kids around the world. STEM, for those who aren’t familiar, stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. The majority of engaged parties in this movement  acknowledge that the arts and design disciplines form a vital component in the real world application of STEM so let’s not get into a playground debate around STEM vs STEAM as acronyms, you’d have to be myopic to not value the application of STEM through art and design without which global innovators such as Apple or Dyson wouldn’t exist.


But why is learning STEM so important? Didn’t we read somewhere that there were more than enough STEM graduates in the western world and besides, don’t our best minds end up working for Google figuring out how to sell more advertising or at the NSA reading your email?


Well it’s true that there are plenty of STEM graduates in the world but the reality is that they are not evenly distributed about the planet nor are we using anything like the right metrics to decide whether we, as a global society, are sufficiently equipped to face the very real challenges ahead that confront our species.


Take the continent of Africa, the 2nd largest continent on Earth, home to nearly 1.2 billion people and, depending upon whose map you believe, 47 countries. It is a continent of abundant natural resources; oil, gold, food, minerals and the birthplace of humanity. Yet Africa has not yet entered a single university into the global top 100. How can that be possible?


The result is that students from the African continent, who can afford it, will travel to foreign universities to gain their world class degrees and most often stay there, having been picked up by corporations and governments seeking advantage by hiring the worlds brightest minds. Some might argue that this brain drain is another example of an unfair exploitation of African resources that leaves a continent where many of it’s nations are poor or diseased or at least, without the skills to extract their own minerals or develop medicines, facing unfair competition from the west. Thus, this imbalance serves to concentrate global STEM expertise within specific global locations.


The metrics used, to consider whether we have a sufficient number of graduates to meet global workforce demands, by many respected organisations and international monitors are wrong. Without exception they focus on the role of graduates and education within national economic development plans and GDP, i.e. how many workers do we need, of what standard, to achieve the plan?


The problem is that these plans almost always never include, or only pay lip service to, the elephants in the room. These elephants are population, environment and resources. The rest, in my opinion, is simply commentary designed to distract everybody to the point of somnambulism. But it’s time to wake up.


Today it has been announced, something which many of us already suspected, that the powers that be got their calculations wrong and that far from plateauing out at 10 billion citizens our population will reach 11 billion by 2100 with a 70% chance of continuously rising thereafter. This places enormous strains on Earth’s “carrying capacity“, our planets ability to sustain us, and if we burst this limit we potentially face a bell curve population meltdown of Malthusian proportions driven by disease, famine, drought and warfare. Take into account rapidlydwindling water supplies, failure of antibiotics and climate change and we’re looking at a tough millennium. Children born today will be alive by 2100 and will face the consequences of our inaction.


So why will I be in New York?


Well, I’d say that I have 11 billion reasons to be there.



gbm-faceGraham Brown-Martin is the founder of Learning Without Frontiers (LWF), a global think tank that brought together renowned educators, technologists and creatives to share provocative and challenging ideas about the future of learning. He left LWF in 2013 to pursue new programmes and ideas to transform the way we learn, teach and live. His book, Learning {Re}imagined was recently published by Bloomsbury/WISE and is available now.