Inspire children to study technology


Interview with GE Reports Australia, October 2014 Across the world, including here in Australia, schools are witnessing a decline in senior high school students choosing to study science and mathematics. Without significant investment in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineeering and Math) education, Australia will lose innovation competitiveness, believes Ayesha Khanna, CEO of Technology Quotient and Editorial Director of Look Ahead, a series on innovation trends published by The Economist Group and GE. Here, she stresses that it’s high time to make science and technology relevant and appealing for children.

GEreports: What are some of the problems with today’s education system? Ayesha Khanna: The global education system is broken, still largely focused on creating a labor force that is tethered to the 20th century industry model. The biggest problem I see is that we teach subjects in silos, like physics, art, mathematics and psychology, and we make them seem like they never intersect. Yet in reality, in the aerospace industry, for instance, we use all four subjects simultaneously: we employ design skills and knowledge of physics to prototype new parts for engines, we monitor those engines using sensors and data analytics, and we create human computer interfaces that are easy to use and “social” in accessibility. And at MIT, for example, you can study biomechantronics (a combination of biology, mechanical engineering and electronics) that helps students creating prosthetics that mimic real limb movement. We need a multi-disciplinary education philosophy for a world in which disciplines are becoming integrated and technology and data are the foundation of every single discipline including law, entertainment and medicine. Governments and parents should be alarmed by the number of students abandoning science and mathematics in their final year of high school. These students are putting themselves at a distinct disadvantage in their future careers.

The foundation of 21st century skills is both computational literacy and creative arts. In fact the correct acronym to describe such skills is not STEM but STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics). Art and design are important enablers of creativity, innovation and the entrepreneurial spirit that enables humans to succeed with the power of machines, data and technology.

GEreports: How can we excite children about STEM? Ayesha Khanna: Children are most idealistic and open to being inspired before college. During those years, they mostly get exposure to future careers only through their family, friends, media and everyday consumer markets. The majority as a result tend to prefer business and management careers instead of further studying the science and technology theories they see in their books. We need to expose school going children to a day in the life as an aviation engineer at GE or a software architect at Google, and to bring in more applied examples straight into our curricula and text books. High school students especially must receive exposure to the reality of working in industries and jobs that use STEM through industry visits, career fairs, and mini-internships. We need to make education more interesting, applied and relevant to the times in which we live.

GEreports: What do you say to parents who believe exposing children to technology is addictive and dangerous? Ayesha Khanna: The fear that our children can become addicted to unrelenting digital stimulation is not unfounded. However, most parents fail to appreciate that children can either be passive users of technology or they can be active users. Passive use, such as playing a video game on an iPad, means that they are not learning how to work with technology. A child who is an active user would not only play a video game but he or she would design the game, everything from the logic, rules, flow and rewards. Making an iPad off limits is akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. My advice is to scrub all passive apps from technological gadget  such as games, movies, and instead, put in apps in which the children have to code, draw, watch Khan Academy videos and play games that test logic. The moment we hand a baby an iPad with blinking lights and buttons that makes sounds, we’ve set that infant on a course to thinking technology is just entertainment. Instead, we want each child to view technology as an extension of mind and body to do whatever his or her imagination desires.

GEreports: What about the gender imbalance amongst students studying STEM? Ayesha Khanna: The bias against girls in STEM education remains a grave issue. In order to counter this bias, I launched a campaign called 21C Girls (21st Century Girls) in Singapore earlier this year, which provides free technology classes to school girls.

21C Girls was motivated by an experience I had last year at Hackidemia, a popular hack-a-thon for children where as a volunteer, I was helping young boys and girls create simple robots. I found one 10-year old girl particularly creative and skilled with circuits, but after a short while, her mother shoo’d her away and placed her older brother in front of me. The mother genuinely believed that her daughter could never be as good as her brother because “girls are not good at robotics.” That experience really stuck with me and I did what thousands of women around the world are doing: I decided to create a space where girls would be encouraged to learn how to code, build robots and become engineers.

The key is letting girls and boys build whatever they want in their classes. If girls want to put tiaras on their robots, what’s wrong with that? If Elsa from the Disney movie Frozen became an engineer in the sequel, I can almost guarantee there will be a huge wave of interest in robotics amongst school girls. Solving the gender imbalance requires a multi-pronged strategy and culture and media are as important influencers as teachers, parents and the government.

GEreports: Finally, you’re speaking GE at Work on 23 October . What is the focus of your talk? Ayesha Khanna: My talk is centred around the importance of STEM education. We need to teach science, technology, and engineering as foundational subjects given how every future industry will be transformed and disrupted by new technologies. I will also highlight the importance of creativity as an essential accompaniment to tech literacy. In fact, technology should be viewed not as a mere tool but as a medium to express human creativity. A curious person is creative by nature because he or she is open to discovery and novel ideas. The path from curiosity to creativity requires a partner in action. Increasingly, creative action is catalyzed and facilitated by technology, engineering and data, which are becoming partners to entrepreneurs and innovators. To be curious and to strive to understand phenomena, to experiment and build new products, these are the human emotions that drive progress and action.

Link to interview: GE Reports