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As a Fortune 500 global IT consulting and services company with a diverse workforce of more than 218,000 people, Cognizant has a vested interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education around the world.  We believe that investing in the power of learning these technical disciplines is not only a business imperative, but the right thing to do as a corporate citizen. And, we view access to education resources as one of the fundamental sustainability issues of our time. Finding and implementing creative solutions to poverty, global health issues and climate change will require a highly educated and STEM-literate population. In the US today, it’s been widely documented that there is a relative decline in STEM proficiency, fewer young people interested in STEM fields and—perhaps most alarming—a decline in measured creativity. The future competitiveness and innovative capacity of the US, the quality of our workforce, and the prosperity of future generations are at risk.

The pace of change is quickening every day as new technologies transform how people live, work and play. So, the question remains: How can we invest in educational programs that inspire curiosity about STEM subjects and transform individuals into life-long learners ready to embrace and endure a tsunami of technological advances?

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As a Fortune 500 global IT consulting and services company with a diverse workforce of more than 218,000 people, Cognizant has a vested interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education around the world.  We believe that investing in the power of learning these technical disciplines is not only a business imperative, but the right thing to do as a corporate citizen. And, we view access to education resources as one of the fundamental sustainability issues of our time. Finding and implementing creative solutions to poverty, global health issues and climate change will require a highly educated and STEM-literate population. In the US today, it’s been widely documented that there is a relative decline in STEM proficiency, fewer young people interested in STEM fields and—perhaps most alarming—a decline in measured creativity. The future competitiveness and innovative capacity of the US, the quality of our workforce, and the prosperity of future generations are at risk.

The pace of change is quickening every day as new technologies transform how people live, work and play. So, the question remains: How can we invest in educational programs that inspire curiosity about STEM subjects and transform individuals into life-long learners ready to embrace and endure a tsunami of technological advances?

Cognizant’s Making the Future education initiative in the US, launched in 2011, is our first step in addressing the education sustainability challenge.  Making the Future was created to unleash the passion of young people in STEM disciplines by creating fun, hands-on learning opportunities.  It was inspired by the Maker Movement, a broad-based community that celebrates the art of designing and building really cool things, either doing it yourself (DIY) or doing it with others (DIWO).

Making brings STEM together with arts and crafts.  Participants play with technology to learn about it. They figure out how things are made, how to fix them or how to use them in a whole new way.  Making encourages a deep engagement with content, critical thinking, problem solving, and collaboration—skills necessary for 21st century work.  As hands and mind work in tandem, failures become opportunities, risks become rewards and inspiration becomes motivation. We believe this stimulation of intellectual curiosity will serve as a lifelong motivator for continued learning.

What steps can the broader education and business communities take to harness the Maker Movement to inspire the next generation of innovators in America?

First, we need to get more comfortable with the idea of letting go of traditional academic norms that emphasize only a small group of subjects, measure outcomes by standardized tests, and constrain teachers’ abilities to engage students in creative processes. Making as a pedagogy has several attributes, including:

  • Hands-on, project- and design-based learning approaches are more consistent with the cognitive processes and learning styles we attribute to the millennial generation and younger learners.
  • These approaches spark creativity, critical thinking and collaboration. They tend to “pull” kids into STEM disciplines by generating interest and confidence, rather than pushing them to “do better in math and science.”
  • Making, with its emphasis on DIY and DIWO projects, provides a strong community and supporting philosophy that inspires this type of creative learning and, importantly, appeals to both girls and boys across a broad range of socioeconomic backgrounds.

Second, by tapping into the expanding Maker community, we can gain access to tools, resources and mentors while embracing digital technologies to create interactive real-time experiences.   Sharing is an integral part of, and is woven into, the fabric of the Maker culture.  Our digitized world allows individuals everywhere to connect to the same resources and use the same tools.  Networks and hubs come together physically and virtually, driven by the desire to learn faster by working together.  One great resource is the virtual library provided by Maker Ed, a non-profit organization that supports and empowers educators and communities. Other Maker community resources include: learnXdesign, a consortium of science centers led by the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) to create and share resources for Making activities; and MIT Media Lab’s Family Creative Learning, a workshop series that engages children and their parents to learn together—as designers and inventors—through the use of creative technologies.  At Cognizant, we’ve created a whitepaper, A Blueprint: Maker Programs for Youth, as well.

New partnerships and alliances among schools, businesses, philanthropic and cultural entities are another area that should be explored in order to capitalize on existing resources.   For example, with the digitization of books, community libraries are seeing a decline in visits and these public buildings are increasingly underutilized. More and more, Makerspaces are moving in. As reported in a recent study, Makerspaces in Libraries, a survey of 143 librarians in 2013 showed that 41% of the respondents currently provide Makerspaces in the library and 36% planned to start a Makerspace in the near future. Another example, our partnership with DonorsChoose.org, resulted in 86 Making projects in classrooms across 22 states involving more than 13,000 students.  Yet another example is TechShop Chandler, located at Arizona State University.  This is a space for university students to connect and collaborate with Chandler-area Makers and entrepreneurs; it also offers professional development to educators on Making.

It’s easy to try and fix the blame for our crisis in STEM education on a lack of funding in public schools, teacher shortages, socioeconomic factors, or the challenge of constantly making transformative shifts in the educational landscape to keep up with technology. Cognizant is proud of how our Making the Future initiative is being received by kids.  They are actually building things using electronics, open-source micro-controllers like Arduino and Raspberry Pi, digital fabrication tools like vinyl cutters, CNC routers and 3-D printers, and programming languages like Scratch.  Other projects involve digital music and hydroponics.  For younger children, there are Squishy Circuits. The Research Group at the University of California, Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science partnered with Cognizant in summer 2013 to evaluate the programs.  The analyses of data from pre- and post- surveys indicated that, overall, participants demonstrate a modest, yet statistically significant, increase in their levels of fascination, value, competency belief, perceived autonomy, and innovation.  And, they also say it is fun!

Cognizant has played a modest but important catalytic role in helping to evolve STEM education through our investment in Maker education. We must all keep challenging the status quo to bring about the necessary transformative shifts that will cultivate and endow future generations with the knowledge, skills and intellectual curiosity to succeed and meet the education sustainability challenge.

 

[1] Basken, Paul. 2006. ”Early Education Key to Scientific Career Choices.” The Boston Globe  at http://www.boston.com/news/education/k_12/articles/2006/05/29/early_education_key_to_scientific_career_choice.

2 John Burke, director of the Gardner-Harvey Library located on the Middletown, OH campus of Miami University conducted surveys and released study Makerspaces in Libraries as part of a forthcoming book, Makerspaces: A Practical Guide for Librarians.

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Kathryn Nash is Associate Director of Educational Affairs at Cognizant. She oversees Cognizant’s corporate social responsibility programs in North America and leads the company’s “Making the Future” education initiative.