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STEM Skills Defined

The CCA released Some Assembly Required: STEM Skills and Canada’s Economic Productivity on April 30th, 2015. The report provides an in-depth examination on how well Canada is prepared to meet future skill requirements in STEM. A important point of public discussion and one considered by the Panel was how best to define STEM. Below are three questions and answers that provide some background on how the Panel interpreted STEM and how other skills complement and strengthen STEM capacity.

1)    What are STEM skills? How did the CCA’s Expert Panel arrive at this definition?

There are many definitions of STEM, and no single definition is universally accepted. However, the Panel defined STEM skills as “the set of core knowledge, skills, and capacities typically used or acquired in STEM occupations and/or acquired in STEM fields of study and programs. In this context, skills are understood to include what labour economists might refer to as competencies, knowledge, skills, and abilities.”

Within this overarching definition, the Panel conceptualized STEM skills in three different ways. The first is fundamental skills for STEM, such as reasoning, mathematics, problem solving, and technological literacy. They are needed for STEM literacy, developed from early childhood through high school. Building on these fundamental skills are practical STEM skills, generally associated with technical training, the trades, apprenticeships, and STEM diplomas or certificates. They include knowledge of established scientific principles and how to apply them to specific tasks or occupational roles. Advanced STEM skills include familiarity with scientific methods, conceptual design, as well as specialized STEM discipline-specific training, and are associated with education at the undergraduate level and above. Practical and advanced STEM skills complement each other.

For purposes of data analyses, the Panel also adopted a classification of STEM fields of study, developed by Statistics Canada. According to this definition, STEM “includes only those fields which advance the frontiers of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics knowledge”. These generally correspond to “core STEM” fields used in other reports. It does not include those fields that use information and capabilities derived from science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, nor does it include health care or social sciences fields.

The conceptual and data-driven definitions are somewhat related, but reflect different aspects of defining STEM skills. Skill types that are primarily conceptual can be difficult to measure for individuals and populations, whereas data on fields and levels of education are more readily available for analysis.

2)    Why does the report focus on STEM skills? What about contributions from the social sciences and humanities?

The Panel recognized that other types of skills and knowledge are needed in combination with STEM skills for innovation and economic growth, including entrepreneurship, art, and creative design. Many have called for inclusion of the “Arts” in the discussion of essential skills for innovation, giving rise to the STEAM acronym. Skills developed and used in the arts, social sciences, and humanities are important and useful. The Panel sub-divided “non-STEM” fields in their analyses, to provide meaningful comparisons with Statistics Canada’s STEM groups. In addition, the Panel explored complementary skills such as teamwork, leadership, and communication skills in their assessment.

The main focus of this report, however, is specifically on those core fields in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and computer sciences that contribute to innovation through knowledge generation and technology development, in accordance with the classification developed by Statistics Canada. For analytical purposes, a definition that is too broad may hamper its utility, or lead to confusion

3)    What about people who are talented at math or computer programming, for example, but don’t have a formal STEM credential? Were they considered?

They were considered in the Panel’s overall assessment of the charge, but they were not captured in the datasets the Panel relied upon. Although researchers and policy-makers are generally more interested in STEM skills per se, data on field of education are more easily available. It is often used as a proxy measure for STEM competencies. In other words, these data are often used as a general indication of the types of STEM skills available to an individual or at the population level.

Any classification system will have limitations, depending on the context and the way it is used. The Panel’s classification system clearly does not capture all STEM skills in the Canadian population, or all fields that use or apply some form of STEM skills or knowledge. For example, although architecture is not considered a core STEM field, it still requires the practical application of engineering principles, technical design, and other practical STEM skills. Nevertheless, the Panel’s approach reveals relevant indicators of the supply of graduates with education in a core STEM field.

In conclusion, STEM skills are necessary for many types of innovation, as well as productivity and growth, but they are not sufficient on their own. Other skills such as leadership, creativity, adaptability, and entrepreneurial ability may be required to maximize the impact of STEM skills. Given the inherent uncertainty of the future, one of the most proactive and strategic ways to be prepared in the long-term is to ensure that Canadians have a strong base of fundamental skills for STEM that enable an agile and flexible workforce. Exposure to such skills ideally starts at the pre-school level.

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