Interest in STEM subjects tends to peak at a young age then quickly trails off. NISHA ROHRA/THE VARSITY

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are ubiquitous. We use STEM to solve everyday problems and to make informed decisions, but more importantly, we rely on groundbreaking STEM-based discoveries and advancements to provide new knowledge and opportunities that lead to improvements in our standards of living and quality of life.

In a knowledge-oriented world, the government of Canada recognizes that scientific and technological innovations drive modern economies. To compete, Canada will need STEM-literate graduates.

So how are we faring as a nation? When it comes to scientific competency, Canada is doing quite well.

Canada took part in the most recent iteration of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), along with 65 other nations. PISA measures student performance in mathematics, reading, and science literacy. Roughly 21, 000 15-year-old Canadians from 900 schools across 10 provinces participated.

Following this program, the Council of Ministers of Education Canada published a report titled Measuring up: Canadian Results of the OECD PISA Study that showed Canada scoring well above international averages for mathematics, reading, and science literacy.

The only other nations to top Canada across the board were China, Singapore, Korea, and Japan. Canadian students are clearly competent, but there are some areas where Canada can improve.

In a 2012 report titled Spotlight on Science Learning – A benchmark of Canadian talent, the charitable organizations Let’s Talk Science and Amgen showed that interest in continuing STEM education into senior years of high school and beyond was weak amongst Canadian students.

With many school boards across Canada implementing compulsory science and technology courses until only grade 10, a significant proportion of youth choose to drop STEM education altogether after this level. In Ontario, only 37 per cent, 34 per cent, and 24 per cent of grade 11 students opt to take biology, chemistry and physics, respectively. These numbers drop further in grade 12, with 16 per cent, 17 per cent ,and 10 per cent of students enroling, respectively.

In 2010, Ipsos Reid, commissioned by the Canada Foundation for Innovation, released a report titled Canadian Youth Science Monitor: Prepared for the Canada Foundation for Innovation. They found an inverse relationship between STEM interest and age, with 78 per cent of ages 12–13 being very or somewhat interested in science, compared to 67 per cent of ages 14–16 and 58 per cent of ages 17–18.

Although Canadian youth are STEM competent, we are clearly not doing a good enough job in keeping our youth interested or helping them understand the importance and relevance of STEM education. Simply put we are in need of a culture shift.

We must revitalize our youth’s interest in STEM with compelling programming, draw attention to the relevancy of STEM education, and shift the STEM narrative from ‘complicated and difficult’ to ‘interesting and inspiring.’ To achieve this we must engage stakeholders to reform current STEM curricula across Canada and build better connections between prospective career opportunities and STEM learning demands. On top of support from municipal, provincial, and federal governments, private entities should be called upon to drive the implementation of these effective STEM teaching and learning programs.

To complement traditional educational programs, non-profit STEM learning and outreach organizations will need to continue to step up and offer engaging programs outside of formal education systems.

Moreover, parents must use their influence to discuss with their children the importance of STEM education. At the end of the day, a pro-STEM agenda doesn’t mean every child should pursue sciences and don a white coat. It does, however, encourage the development of skills and attitudes around problem-solving and critical thinking.

The innovators of tomorrow will rely heavily on STEM. It is up to educators, parents, non-profits, and the various governing bodies to promote a lasting interest in STEM and nurture the development of STEM competencies. Pushing the needle forward with respect to meaningful exposure to STEM will ultimately open more doors for our youth and our nation as a whole.

Like our content? Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

* indicates required