Thomas Friedman on STEM Education

Speaking to an audience of over 600 people interested in advancing Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education, New York Times columnist and bestselling author Thomas Friedman shared his perspective at the inaugural Colorado STEM Summit hosted by the South Metro Denver Chamber. Despite being a humanities major himself, the writer Thomas Friedman had some thought-provoking things to say on the subject of STEM education. In summary, he not only emphasizes the importance of STEM education, but also adds that it needs to be combined with the social skills necessary to understand and communicate effectively with other people. To Friedman, this "STEMpathy" model is an important solution for the future.

Firstly, to set the context of his speech, he offered insights from STEM experts he's worked with in doing his journalistic research.  He discussed the amazing rate of recent technological advances and the significance of compound growth by referencing his reading of The Second Machine Age, written by MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. They found that amid the new riches that modern technology provides, professions of all kinds are being completely upended. Their insights combined with Friedman's real-life experience of riding in Google's autonomous vehicles led him to wonder: "Who will be the last human taxi driver?" "What about the last human __fill in the blank__ ?" 

He then talked about crowdsourcing and 3D printing, using GE's Bracket Challenge as an example of how one person in a remote place like central Indonesia can beat GE's in-house team of professional engineers. He did this by entering the online challenge and creating a strong and lightweight bracket design for mounting an aircraft engine. With 3D printing, the bracket design could be sent over the internet and printed on the opposite side of the planet. As more and more people become empowered and connected, these sort of amazing crowd-sourcing feats will become more and more common. 

He also declared that "guessing is over." With big data technologies advancing, finding a needle in the haystack will become the new normal. He shared a story of how fitbit-like technology showed farmers some intriguing insights about when their cows are in heat and ready to reproduce. What had been done in the past with guessing and intuition can be automated and have surprising new accuracy. The researchers found that changes in the number of steps cows took not only signaled exactly when cows were entering heat, but also the optimal times to have the highest odds of producing either a male or a female offspring - depending on the farmer's needs. "Artificial Insemination powered by Artificial Intelligence", or "AI with AI" as he called it.

On the topic of jobs, Friedman says we'll continue to see high-wage, middle-skill jobs disappear. He described a model in which jobs are being stretched in multiple directions. Jobs are being pulled upwards as jobs require more and more skills.  They're being stretched sideways as more competition enters the market. And, finally, jobs are being pulled downwards as more and more jobs are becoming obsolete. This is where he really dove into why science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are important, though he expanded the well-known STEM acronym to describe the importance of what he calls STEMpathy - a combination of STEM and empathy. 

Computers and algorithms can be trained to do almost anything, though they have no inherent social and interpersonal skills. Therefore, being able to work in STEM areas and also being able to communicate and collaborate with other humans is a key advantage for individuals entering an increasingly competitive job market. He believes it's an important model for America's leaders to consider when addressing education and workforce development policies: pursue STEM education along with empathetic social skills.