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On Pi Day, STEM skills matter

March 14 (3/14 in US terms) is Pi Day 2021, the annual celebration of mathematics and the mathematical constant Pi, there are some important numbers to ponder.

Philip Hooker Philip Hooker

The challenges of the last 12 months proved that the world is increasingly dependent on technology.

Yet, counter-intuitively, there remains a skills shortage in key areas – particularly in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Is the STEM skills shortage really a skills mismatch? Or is there something else happening? 

March 14 (3/14 in US terms) is Pi Day 2021, the annual celebration of mathematics and the mathematical constant Pi, is the perfect time to discuss this. 

Here are some important numbers to ponder:

  • 3.5 million. The US will have to fill 3.5 million science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs by 2025, with over 2.0 million going unfilled because of a lack of skilled candidates.
  • GBP 1.5 billion. In the UK, 40% of employers reported a shortage of STEM graduates, costing businesses GBP 1.5 billion a year in recruitment, temporary staffing, and additional training.
  • 76%. A UK National Audit Office report found that 76% of those with bachelor’s degrees in a STEM topic opt for non-STEM careers.
  • 76%. Over three-quarters of students 11 to 17 years old still do not know what engineers do for work and 49% do not know what math jobs exist.
  • 2019. The year that UNESCO proclaimed March 14 (Pi Day) as the International Day of Mathematics to increase global awareness of mathematics sciences.

As an engineer at heart, my two school-age daughters and their friends would have no trouble describing what an engineer would do, even if often summarized as “doing cool stuff,” having already spent many years experimenting on development platforms like the BBC micro:bit and Raspberry Pi.

The recent experience of home schooling presented many challenges, but it did give us the time to experiment: creating a Python version of the 1979 Atari classic arcade game Asteroids in a couple of dozen lines of code, using trigonometry to navigate a Sphero along a complex path, and calculating how the centrifugal force on paint changes as it moves on a TinkerCrate paint spinner, to name a few. (Would make a great PI Day STEM activity!)

To them, STEM is part of life and not just a subject that sounds like a “hard” choice for university students.

How to entice people into STEM

With the world evolving at an increasing pace, STEM education should not be left for those in school, high school and university, it also needs to be incorporated into the continuing professional development (CPD) plans of the entire workforce. How?

There are lots of good ideas out there. One of my heroes, ex-Nasa engineer and YouTuber Mark Rober, recently ran a series of live science classes which answered some of life’s toughest questions in a very practical manner, which is an extremely appealing way to engage the masses in STEM learning.

His latest video followed some of his old colleagues at NASA in the run up to the successful landing of the Perseverance Mars Rover. It’s hard to fathom the level of STEM challenges that were overcome to successfully land and operate not just one, but five rovers on a planet 140 million miles away!

To entice candidates to study the specific STEM fields most in demand, GetEducated set up a website listing the most lucrative STEM roles, with petroleum engineering, computer engineering and mathematics being the top three by salary, and with statistics, biomedical engineering and mathematics by job growth (all over 20% YoY).

But, despite the obvious appeal, the majority of science graduates choose not to, or were unable to, work in highly skilled STEM occupations at any time in their careers. The UK National Audit Office thinks that there is a misalignment between the skills needed and those available in the labor pool.

Across OECD countries, 5% or less of tertiary-educated 25-64-year old’s had studied information communications technology (ICT), natural sciences, mathematics, or statistics – compared to 25% who qualify in business administration or law.

Demand for skills will only increase

The need for a substantial proportion of the workforce to work from home has shone a light on the skills gap in basic IT tools – like getting Microsoft Teams to work or knowing when your mic is muted. The UK Government found that 82% of all job openings online require a least basic digital skills.

The whole space program brings into perspective what STEM is capable of. I still can’t stop punching the air when I see SpaceX’s pair of detachable Falcon 9 rockets elegantly return from orbit and land upright in perfect unison. It’s hard enough to keep upright something 70 meters high and 3.7 meters in diameter. It’s another thing entirely to effectively reverse it from orbit and land it with pinpoint accuracy 68 times and counting.

With all this amazing STEM work promoted by the space programs, it’s no surprise then that 87% of 11–17 year old’s think people who study STEM work in NASA (26% think they work at Coca-Cola). That misperception needs to be rapidly corrected, as with all great initiatives the benefits on one area are soon felt in others.

Fortunately for those not in a space program, the barriers of readily available technology have fallen substantially. With development platforms like the aforementioned Raspberry Pi delivering over 23,000 times more compute power than that used to land Apollo 11 on the moon – for less than $5 USD – development platforms have never been more affordable. 

Companies have been diligently leveraging these spin-off technologies, incorporating ruggedized versions of these low-cost computers into their connected products, to be used to run the mathematic and statistical formulae that make products run more efficiently – and alert when operations breach allowed thresholds.

DIY STEM skills?

At Software AG, we really love STEM, but we also believe that we need to make our products and services self-service so anyone can build solutions in minutes.

The way of the future is essentially shielding users from the complexities of technology, in such a way that they can focus on the task at hand and not the technology “plumbing.” For example, our TrendMiner self-service analytics product allows users to create a template of a failure from the data trace. It automatically finds every previous occurrence with its preceding conditions and sets up an alert when one of these preceding conditions occurs.

Now, just three months into the new year, we are not only seeing the buds of spring flowers, but also see many nations starting to turn the tide in our global campaign against a pandemic. The lockdown and reopening actions of many nations having been driven by the “R rate,” which models the basic reproduction rate of an infection in a population. This was first used in epidemiology by George MacDonald to measure the spread of malaria in 1952. It is thanks to George that so many lives have been saved over the last 12 months!

So, what is Pi Day all about? It is about celebrating the mathematicians and scientists who have created the foundations of the world we live in today. Join us in supporting STEM skills to better solve the science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and business problems we will face tomorrow. 

Jump-start your professional STEM education with a free Digital Basic Training subscription for Software AG products. Click below.