K-12 STEM educational continuum can boost Israeli economic resilience - opinion

By implementing this transformation in the education system, Israel can go a long way toward preserving its global positioning as a technology superpower and strengthening its national resilience.

 STATE COMPTROLLER Matanyahu Englman attends a conference of the Besheva media group in Jerusalem, earlier this year. Last year, a state comptroller report found there were 18,500 vacant positions in the nation’s hi-tech industry. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
STATE COMPTROLLER Matanyahu Englman attends a conference of the Besheva media group in Jerusalem, earlier this year. Last year, a state comptroller report found there were 18,500 vacant positions in the nation’s hi-tech industry.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Technology is advancing at an exponential rate – redefining the world as we know it and influencing all aspects of life. This makes it increasingly crucial to develop a skilled human resource capital that will advance Israel’s capabilities, maintain the country’s international status in the fields of science and technology, and preserve or even strengthen its economic resilience

According to the “Israel Innovation Authority’s State of Hi-Tech 2022” report, the country’s technology industry is experiencing an acute shortage of engineers and programmers. Additionally, last year, a report from State Comptroller Matanyahu Engelman found that there were 18,500 vacant positions in the nation’s hi-tech industry. These figures recently declined, but a large-scale shortage still exists and has been a constant problem over the past several years.

The government further established a recent goal to more than double the number of hi-tech employees to 1 million.

We need to talk about STEM in Israel

Whether realistic or not, this goal importantly acknowledges a widely accepted reality that the future of the economy and industry will continue to be more oriented around STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines. Yet, given the current talent shortage, how will Israel actually meet its objectives for the hi-tech sector? The solution begins with the role of the education system.

A lack of clearly set goals and holistic approach to the educational process that extends along the entire national educational continuum are inhibiting, not only the realization of our personal, societal and national potential, but also the ability to effectively plan relevant actions and assess the country’s capacity to attain these goals. 

Person doing math homework (credit: Wikimedia Commons)Person doing math homework (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The government often expresses the intent to boost matriculation in math and physics. But we need to talk about STEM beyond a math and science perspective. In its broader definition. STEM includes: knowledge in science, math, technology, engineering design, multidisciplinarity and skills acquisition.

Thus, the focus should be expanded to include the entire educational process – from preschool to high school – with children gradually acquiring an understanding of the fundamentals of technology and engineering – both knowledge and skills. Engineering design is a tool for problem-solving, viewing issues with an inter- and multidisciplinary perspective, and acquiring crucial skills such as critical thinking, self-learning and teamwork. 

The purpose is not for all children to become engineers or other tech professionals; it is to show them how real-world problems are solved – a responsibility that will be in their hands in the future. 

WITH THESE emerging realities in mind, at Afeka, the Academic College of Engineering in Tel Aviv, we decided to transform the way we educate engineers. We were motivated by the desire to align the process with the characteristics of today’s students, and by the responsibility we have in ensuring that our graduates enter the constantly changing workforce with an optimal set of vital skills.

We began five years ago by defining the profile of the ideal Afeka graduate, and since then have initiated a broad range of platforms aimed at setting change in motion, with the newly defined graduate profile as our ultimate goal.

Our journey of transformation helped us formulate a new educational framework that can be adapted to any ecosystem level in STEM education – national, regional, municipal, or even the school level, and across the entire education continuum.

The first step is defining the “graduate profile” for STEM knowledge and skills on a national level. This graduate profile will essentially be the collection of knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values required of those completing the K-12 educational process.

Through a well-defined graduate profile in STEM disciplines, Israel can assure that the graduates of its educational system are better prepared to thrive in society, meet the challenges that lay ahead and be better prepared for academic studies. 

Once the profile is agreed upon by all relevant parties along the educational continuum – graduate profiles for each stage of the continuum, which are consistent with the goals of the final graduate profile – the result is a holistic perspective that can serve as a basis for executing changes in the national STEM educational process.

Once this stage is complete, it is then necessary to establish platforms at all levels of the national STEM ecosystem for supporting and promoting change: 

  • Participation in international committees and organizations focusing on STEM education and developing international collaborations – for the purpose of mutual learning, open dialogue and trend analysis;
  • A national STEM council for wide-ranging collaboration between the Education Ministry, other government ministries, academia, industry, the IDF, municipalities and NGOs, aimed at developing a multi-year plan with shared goals and learning processes for STEM. 
  • STEM-based ecosystems around local municipalities for implementing national goals and policies within their school systems and local communities.
  • Autonomous and flexible transformation of educational processes within schools – with the support and guidance from the municipal and/or national levels.

ULTIMATELY, DEFINING a graduate profile in the context of STEM education for each stage of the educational continuum is a prerequisite for such a change. At each stage of the educational process, the graduate profile must be clear, and it must correspond with the needs of the next phase of the educational process. 

This process is crucial for all stakeholders, including students – who are expected to acquire the tools necessary for personal success; for educators – who need a clear definition of what is expected of them and a future objective to work toward; for the IDF – which requires skilled soldiers capable of fulfilling its missions; for academic faculty – who expect to receive graduates of the educational system who are equipped with the skills that promote in-depth learning; and for the Israeli economy – which is in need of skilled human capital to increase productivity and accelerate processes. 

By implementing this transformation in the education system, Israel can go a long way toward preserving its global positioning as a technology superpower as well as strengthening its national resilience.

The writer is the president of Afeka – Academic College of Engineering in Tel Aviv.