We had the opportunity to interview Stefanie Schlunk, who holds the chair of the largest STEM network in Europe, Science on Stage Europe. Here, you can find out about the exciting work being done by Science on Stage, great opportunities which the organization provides, and more.
The STEAM+ Jamboree
Design for Impact
My name is Matthew Coates, and I am a project manager with the EU STEM Coalition. The EU STEM Coalition is an international network of organizations in the field of STEM. It is dedicated to facilitating knowledge sharing, and generally assisting in the development of STEM education all across Europe. To this end, I occasionally have the chance to partake in conferences. I do so as to take the pulse of the STEM educational world, and share my findings with the organization’s network, as well as anyone interested in the topic.
On March the 30th, 2023, I had the pleasure of being able to attend the STEAM+ Jamboree at Hanze University of Applied Sciences in Groningen, The Netherlands. The event was hosted by STEAM+, a project involving 18 partners from all over the European Union. The Jamboree itself was being attended by a large and international crowd. There was a wide range of countries represented. These included, but were not limited to, nations as disparate as Norway and Romania. The attendees themselves were not only diverse in their nationality, but also in their professions. The name tags which were assigned to us upon entry to the auditorium indicated that professors, government officials, students, and PhD candidates from all over Europe had come to Groningen to learn about STEAM+.
Before describing the events of this Jamboree, it is important to clarify some terms and concepts. What is perhaps most essential to first understand is the meaning of the acronym STEAM+. According to the programs organizers, STEAM+ stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, (All other subjects), and Math. With this in mind, the STEAM+ project intends to provide educational policy makers with informational tools. These tools are designed to develop interdisciplinary groups aimed at addressing modern issues. Specifically, issues requiring a STEM based solution. They call the interdisciplinary groups “laboratories of Innovation”.
The theory behind the laboratories of Innovation is that having a group of people from a diverse range of backgrounds cooperate together in an equal and nonhierarchical context is an optimal means to solve the societal problems of today. The STEAM+ project believes that when people from a wider range of expertise work together towards the same ends, in the same group, they will come to more appropriate and effective solutions than teams who consist of members specializing in only one subject. These groups can also include individuals who would normally not work together as colleagues in the same settings, such as students, professors, and even policymakers.
Before diving into the subject of the STEAM+ project, we were introduced to Fabienne Beernaert, from the LUCA School of Arts in Belgium. She was unable to attend the Jamboree in person that day, but she was able to video call into the conference from her home. Fabienne too has been working on developing an interdisciplinary program of her own called Design for Impact. Design for Impact is a master’s class at the LUCA School of Arts. In this class, students from a variety of academic backgrounds come together to address societal issues by undertaking change making activities. Like with the laboratories of Innovation being utilized by the STEAM+ project, Design for Impact incorporates the perspectives of students from the natural sciences, as well as the humanities and fine arts, so as to provide the group with as full a perspective as possible on solving the problem they are facing.
The pedagogical theory behind Design for Impact is a complex one, but well worth examining. In practice, it begins with a great deal of reflection. Reflection on one’s self, ones role in the project at hand, and the current needs of the world. Ultimately, Fabienne would like to inspire a new mindset in her students relationship to the world. One in which humanity is not aimed at exploiting it, but rather cooperating with it in a symbiosis, to the benefit of both. She also stated that she would like to teach students in this program how to persuade individuals they encounter in their work who might have a dominating and homocentric mindset to come around to the program’s more enlighten global ideological perspective.
Fabienne would like to see Design for Impact go from being only a master’s course to being a full on master’s program at LUCA School of Arts. Additionally, she mentioned an interest in developing a network of teachers who share certain aspects of Design for Impact’s goals.
As keynote speaker, Fabienne set the thematic tone excellently for the introduction of the STEAM+ project, by way of her philosophy regarding the synthesis of science and the arts for the betterment of all.
Quick Chat with Norwegian Honors Students
What came next was a short coffee break in which I spoke with two students from Oslo University in Norway. These two explained to me that they were a part of an honors program at their university, which attempts to bring students from different academic fields together so as to facilitate interdisciplinary interaction and dialog. One of these students was majoring in philosophy, and the other in math. Despite being from two separate academic disciplines, they said that this honors program gave them opportunities to not only cooperate formally, but also to discuss and ponder the material from their classes in a more casual setting. They both felt like the program they were participating in was achieving its goal of facilitating transdisciplinary interconnection, and recommended it highly.
Trail Digital Map
After a half hour break in which we all enjoyed coffee, tea, and cookies, it was time for another presentation. The next speaker, Anne-Mieke Vandamme, also could not attend in person that day, due to a cold. Fortunately, though, she was able to present via video call, despite her sickness. She presented “Trail”, to us. A program which can essentially be thought of as a roadmap to achieving the STEAM+ Innovation Labs, mentioned earlier. Trail is being built in a digital format, allowing it to give in-depth and comprehensive directions as to how the various actors involved in an innovation lab should approach their roles. Anne-Mieke gave us a quick demonstration of how this works on the Trail online program. She showed us how a policy maker could follow their designated line on the digital map to find out how they should proceed, so as to facilitate an Innovation lab. As she sequentially selected the steps intended for policy makers, lists of instructions and videos appeared, to illustrate the directions. She also showed us how someone else from a different professional background could easily do the same thing by choosing to follow the line intended for their group.
Normally, I would include a link to the website in this article. However, the website has not been launched yet. Once it is, though, I would recommend that potential stakeholders to an Innovation Lab project explore Trail. The map is clear, detailed, and user friendly. The steps it provides are suggested to be optimal by a great deal of research, as well as expert consideration. It seemed like an excellent way to efficiently direct interested users in what needs to be done to achieve their objectives.
The next segment was about the Innovation Labs themselves. This segment was presented by two professors who had partaken in the labs. One was from Klaipeda University in Lithuania, name James Mc Geever. The other was from Ca’Foscari University of Venice, named Luca Corazzini.
They spoke to us about what it was actually like to undertake an Innovation Lab on a practical level. They said that they found the none-hierarchical structure of the lab very effective, and to the benefit of the whole process. Normally, they explained, students and professors are not able to work together as equals. They see each other as being too “other” to communicate with freely. This is very unfortunate, because both parties have their own unique strengths and weaknesses. In the Innovation Lab, though, all members involved were free to put their best skills, knowledge, and opinions forward. This led to the development of a highly productive environment in which a wide range of potential issues could be recognized and dealt with.
For these first Innovation Labs, there was a contest held to find which was the most successful. The plans of the groups involved were graded on qualities such as how contextually transferable they were, how creative were the solutions to the problems they identified, and, of course, how impactful the plans themselves would be.
The winner of the contest was a Norwegian lab which invented a method to reduce the use of plastic bags in grocery stores. The approach they decided to take was putting dramatic images of environmental pollution on the bags, to remind people of the consequences of their choices. This strategy was inspired by the addition of pictures on cigarette packets of cancer and death, also intended to dissuade people from purchasing them.
People were polled on how likely they would be to not use a plastic bag after seeing the images selected by the lab members. The results of the poll were very promising, indicating that the plan could indeed be impactful.
This project was an excellent example of the STEAM+ theory, in that people with backgrounds in multiple academic disciplines came together to address a public problem which required a STEM solution. The issue of pollution was identified and understood using environmental science. The pictures on the bags were produced using fine art. And the production of the design for the bags, as well as a video made to advertise them, was done using digital technology. People with all of these academic backgrounds came together to develop a great result. It remains to be seen if this plan will be implemented, however the presenters said that several environmental groups were interested in making it happen. With this being so, perhaps we will begin to see plastic bags with dissuasive images on them in the future. Then, ideally, fewer plastic bags in general, thanks to STEAM+.
A Fish Bowl Exercise
The final event of the day was conducted by a number of university students who were involved in STEAM+ innovation labs. These students held a so called “fish bowl exercise” for their segment of the jamboree. This entailed everyone in attendance first splitting up into two groups. Then, each of these groups formed circles around a set of five chairs, which were facing each other. The leaders of the exercise explained to us that the inner circle of chairs was meant to have a conversation, while the outer circle observed. If people in the outer circle felt like they had something to contribute to the conversation happening in the inner circle, they could join by either replacing someone in the inner circle, or taking a free seat, if one was available. Conversely, if someone in the inner circle felt like they no longer had something to say, they could leave to the outer circle.
The moderators of the fish bowl exercise arranged it so that there would be three students in the inner circle at all times, and at least one person who was not a student in there with them. They nominated me to be the first of the nonstudents in the inner circle. We were given questions to discuss such as “How do we involve each other in defining/redefining higher education?” and “How long do we give ourselves to reform higher education”. I primarily directed these questions at the students, seeing as they were more involved with higher education than I am, although I also asked follow up questions to their responses, so as to keep the conversation going.
As this went on, teachers, educational policy makers, and other students came in and out of the inner circle. The discussion was lively, and everyone from our rather large and diverse group who felt like contributing their perspectives had an opportunity to speak. In the end, the students who were leading the event gathered the answers to the discussion points generated in each group, and compared them to one another. Once this was finished, the host of the jamboree brought out food, and gave everyone time to discuss the ideas and happenings of that day.
I am very glad that I was given the chance to attend the STEAM+ Jamboree. The whole event was well structured, and the topics involved were clearly presented. More than that though, I found it fascinating to learn about the innovative ways in which the STEAM+ project has been approaching the topic of STEAM+ as a means of solving societal issues. In my opinion, this project was an ideal manifestation of the STEAM+ concept in action. I found their philosophy on academic diversity compelling, and I am excited to hear about what sorts of solutions their Innovation Labs will come up with in the future.
“It is clear that the STEM pipeline metaphor is not an accurate portrayal of the diverse, complex paths that students take to earn STEM degrees.” (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2016).
Recent VET graduate tracking data coupled with informal conversations with teachers, students and graduates in the Asturias-region of Spain suggest that a steady stream of University Graduates have been enrolling in VET courses/qualifications in recent years. The question is, what are the drivers behind this seemingly counterintuitive career move?
While researchers have devoted time and effort to understand transitions from VET to University, this reverse and seemingly counterintuitive trend has recieved scarce attention in the academic literature.
In 2019 Ulicna et al. suggested this may be a particularly prevalent phenomenon in the last decade in EU countries severely impacted by the 2007-2008 financial crisis, and Spain is for sure one of them.
At the turn of the century Golding (1999ª) unveiled that around 40,000 students in vocational programs in Australia had previously completed a university degree. In Golding words, that was “a large, unabated, delayed, unanticipated flow both from an individual perspective and from a policy perspective occurring in spite of “ugly duckling” status of VET,” (Golding, 2000).
But is this a nation-specific occurrence or is it more widespread? And more importantly, are STEM graduates part of this flow?
With the research questions listed above in mind, the first step was to to locate and assess existing data collections to provide nationally comparable information on transitions from Higher Education Graduates to VET.
The Survey on the Transition from Education/Training to Labour Market Insertion (henceforth, ETEFIL-19) met most of our requirements. This statistical research is a joint undertaking of the Spanish Ministry of Education and Science, the Ministry of Work and Social Affairs and the National Statistics Institute (INE).
In the latest edition of the survey, a sample of 7800 Higher VET Graduates from the 2014 cohort was contacted five years after graduation (2019) to collect data on current employment status. One of the variables in this dataset (combined with other sources) allows the identification of Higher VET Graduates with a previous University Degree, and thus allows us to answer some key questions.
How many persons with a university degree completed a Higher VET course?
In 2013-2014 almost 10% (767 out of 7802) of Higher VET Graduates had already earned a university degree before transitioning into VET.
In what context did this transition take place?
This group of graduates enrolled in Higher VET in 2012, a year with a 14% unemployment rate for Higher Education Graduates (25-64 yrs old) in Spain 10 points higher than EU average.
How many STEM degree holders moved into Higher VET?
A 30% are STEM graduates coming mainly from "Engineering and Architecture" (17%) and "Science" (13%). The figure increases to almost 40% if you add to the mix a 9.5% of Health Studies degree holders but we have not included this group in the analysis due to the large differences in terms of career paths associated with this programme compared with other STEM degree programmes.
What motivated their decision?
Essentially this was a career development move. 73 % of STEM graduates enrolled in Higher VET with the intention to improve job prospects while another 18 % mentioned personal interest.
When was this decision made?
The data show this decision was not made right after completing a university degree. The median age of STEM graduates at the time of enrolment in Higher VET is 30 years old. More than 35% are 35 or older.
Who are STEM graduates in Higher VET? What’s their academic background?
63% are women. In addition to the Bachelor's degree, 31 % had also earned a Master's degree before enrolling in Higher VET. Most frequent points of origin are: Architecture graduates (31%), Sciences (25%) and Engineering (19%).
Which VET tracks do they favour?
We found STEM University Graduates in almost every Higher VET track imaginable, but they tend to choose courses in the fields of Chemistry (13.9%), Computer Science/ICT (9.1 %) and Health Safety & Environment (8.7%)
Is there any relation between previous degree and Higher VET qualification obtained?
Data reveals this group of graduates perceives the Higher VET route as a way of upskilling rather than reskilling. On average, 58% STEM Graduates chose a STEM-related Higher VET course. An example of this upskilling strategy is particularly evident in Earth Sciences graduates with 71% taking a STEM-related VET course.
Did we find STEM graduates in non-STEM Higher VET?
Yes indeed. 31% seemed to be looking for a career move. When you look at the composition of this group we mainly found Architecture (33%), Science (24%) and Engineering (13%) graduates.
Are non-STEM university graduates taking STEM-related VET qualifications?
Yes. In fact, they represent 40% of university graduates enrolled in STEM-related Higher VET Courses. This is particularly evident in Higher VET Computer Science programs where more than half of university graduates come from Humanities and Social Sciences,
What is the employment of STEM Graduates 5 years after completing Higher VET studies?
88% were in employment in 2019. This employment rate is 9 points higher than the rest of Higher VET graduates in the sample. Same situation rings true for unemployment which is lower for STEM graduates (8% vs 12.6% for the rest of the sample). However the crucial question here is…
What was most influential in obtaining employment, their previous university qualification or their Higher VET credentials?
This is not easy to determine for several reasons. In the first place because 12% got their current job before they earned their Higher VET degree. But things don´t get any easier when you focus on the graduates who found employment after 2014. A typical case would be a Chemistry graduate who obtained a Lab Technician Higher VET credential and 5 years later is working in a lab. In this scenario it is difficult to isolate the impact of the higher VET degree on overall employability.
One of the few exceptions to this rule is that group of Humanities and Social Sciences graduates in Higher VET programs in Computer Science. In this case, 5 years later 58% work in ICT occupations unequivocally related to their Higher VET degree. However this doesn´t completely rule out the possibility that their previous degree was an additional advantage in obtaining employment.
First and foremost is the need for further research, especially into the motivations and employment outcomes of STEM graduates making this career choice. While it may be tempting to jump to conclusions merely based in economic terms, making sense of particular transitions to VET after university requires considering a wider range of factors (age, life phase, gender, geographic, personal, linguistic, cultural, social, vocational) over the course of a lifetime (Golding, 2000).
On the policy level, there’s an urgent need to leave behind excessively linear and upward metaphors to represent intersectoral movements between VET and University. In other words, time has come to accept the increasingly non-linear, ambiguous and protracted nature of transitions from school to work and act accordingly.
Impacts could be also seen in enrolment and recruitment strategies. Higher VET courses may be promoted as an alternative and appealing route into STEM for University graduates but also for University Early Leavers and other groups of adults particularly in fields and sectors facing severe recruitment difficulties (eg. ICT).
Finally, a more sophisticated and open understanding of transitions opens the door for improving career guidance services and efficiency of the education system as a whole. This entails not only a more fluid exchange of information among Universities and VET institutions but also engaging in an open dialogue on an equal footing. Faculty in both sectors need to be knowledgeable about adult life patterns, labour market demands and transitions to accommodate this group of learners in their courses and programs.