Blockchain: A Revolution For STEM Education

Image: Getty / Teen Working On A GPU Rig

Fostering An Appreciation Of Decentralization

Written by: Andrew B. Raupp / @stemceo

These days, it seems like everyone is talking about blockchain technology. News about bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies is hard to resist, especially when their value shoots up and down and everyone wants to know how the blockchain can make them rich or poor — financially. But the real value of blockchain isn’t necessarily tied solely to disrupting the monetary status quo. It also lies in how this technology could transform and streamline transactions and recordkeeping in all sorts of fields — specifically education.

A Blockchain Primer

If you’re not familiar with how blockchain technology works or need to brush up, it’s helpful to compare cryptocurrency with the way your regular bank does business. Banks basically have all your account data on one digital spreadsheet to keep track of your transactions. That’s fine, but a highly centralized data system is vulnerable to hackers, and you can’t send money to a family member without going through an intermediary (the bank). Cryptocurrency, on the other hand, depends on a totally decentralized network of users to store information about all transactions. There’s no bank as a gatekeeper, but information (the block) is added to a permanent chain that no one can change. It’s safer because everyone in the network has access to the information at all times, so if someone is trying to change the record, everyone can see that happening — and stop it.

Image: Financial Times / PwC United States

An Educational Revolution

Last year, MIT delivered its first blockchain diplomas to graduates — on their smartphones. It was more than just a digitized certificate: Unlike a paper diploma, which could be easily lost or falsified, blockchain ensures that this important piece of data is never lost. It also cuts out the university or traditional clearinghouse as the intermediary needed to issue transcripts. Instead, students have direct access to their educational records right on their phones. Whether their house burns down or they move across the world, their diploma is secure.

Image: Learning Machine / MIT’s Digital Diploma 1 of 3

Anatomy of a digital diploma: “The MIT digital diploma ‘makes it possible for [students] to have ownership of their records and be able to share them in a secure way, with whomever they choose,’ says Mary Callahan, MIT registrar and senior associate dean.” -MIT News

Image: Learning Machine / MIT’s Digital Diploma 2 of 3

“Using MIT’s new digital diploma system, employers and schools can quickly verify that a graduate’s degree is legitimate by using a link or uploading the student’s file.” -MIT News

Image: Learning Machine / MIT’s Digital Diploma 3 of 3

“The presentation layer has a customized image of a traditional MIT diploma; the content layer contains code with the student’s public key and generates the image; and the receipt layer proves the transaction has been recorded on the blockchain.” -MIT News

This is more than just a matter of convenience. If other credentials like certificates and badges are also stored on the blockchain, it will become much easier for students to move between universities and dictate their own educational trajectory because barriers to transferring credits would begin to fall away. In this world, MOOCs could also be more easily completed for meaningful credit that leads to a degree. A person’s entire educational record could be accessed at the touch of a button.

If individual educational records were encrypted in this way, K-12 assessments could be better coordinated as well. Instead of annual high-stakes tests that vary by state and grade level, one could imagine a more longitudinal assessment system that tracked achievement over time. For example, if an eighth-grade student passed a tenth-grade geometry test, she would carry that accomplishment on her record wherever she went, allowing her to continue her math education at the appropriate level for her as an individual, rather than having to retake the same test for the next several years. In this way, blockchain could help revolutionize personalized education.

Integrating Blockchain Into STEM Education

Image: Getty / Two Students Studying Electronics

If blockchain is the wave of the future (as it certainly seems to be), it seems logical to make sure that today’s students are prepared to engage with this technology in their careers. This is already happening in higher education, as colleges like Virginia Tech and NYU add blockchain concentrations. Studying blockchain capitalizes on a number of STEM disciplines, including computer engineering and higher math to encrypt the data.

Because the technology is relatively new and complex, there are currently very few opportunities for K-12 students to learn more about blockchain. Though some independent courses do exist, there is a real need to develop age-appropriate curriculum in this area. For younger students, understanding the basics about networks and honing relevant math skills is a good start; for older students, financial literacy dovetails nicely with cryptocurrency to spark interest. Additionally, learning to code is always an important STEM skill, and classes in Python will be particularly useful in understanding blockchain. As with all STEM education opportunities, the earlier it begins and the more hands-on it is, the more likely kids are to stick with it and see themselves as the blockchain contributors of the future.

A Philosophy Of Decentralization

Image: Getty / Students Building Computers

Finally, it’s worth noting that blockchain represents a major step in the cultural shift towards decentralized knowledge. Just as the technology itself eliminates an intermediary that stands between you and your money (or your educational record), so too does it hint at a world in which stuents may have more direct access to and control over their education. If blockchain leads to decentralized records and greater access to global databases of knowledge, education will be further democratized and many more people will have access to the learning that they desire.

This movement comes at a time when education — and particularly STEM education — is highly corporatized. There’s money to be made from selling people an education, but it would be a real mistake to allow corporate monopolies to have all the power over what we teach our students. Despite colleges becoming ever more commodified, no single organization “owns” STEM education. In order for the STEM education movement to thrive, it must remain decentralized and accessible to all, regardless of socioeconomic standing or country of origin. It should also not be co-opted by special interests that value profits over innovation and authentic learning experiences.

Image: Getty / Student Studying On A Tablet

By teaching students the STEM basics they need to understand blockchain, we can also foster in them an appreciation for the values that it brings to the table. It’s a valuable technology, to be sure, but it’s also steeped in a culture that sees information as something everyone has a right to obtain freely, without having to pay a mediator for access to it. In this philosophy, knowledge is a birthright — and an effective STEM education can help keep it that way.

This article was originally featured in Forbes Community Voice™ on November 30th, 2018.

Andrew B. Raupp is the Founder / Executive Director @stemdotorg.

“Democratizing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education through sound policy & practice…”

Tax Return 2.0: How Blockchain Technology Can Bring America’s Budget Into The Future

Image: Getty / Blockchain mining rig

Can blockchain technology help you determine where your tax dollars get spent — at the time of filing?

Written by: Andrew B. Raupp / @stemceo

As the holidays wind down, many Americans start anticipating what can be a dreaded time of year for individuals and business alike: tax season. 2018 brings a fresh wave of worry and hope with the latest changes to the tax code, but one key issue stays the same — citizens have very little input into how their taxes are used by the federal government. For those unwilling to go full Thoreau on the problem (i.e., refuse to pay taxes and risk jail time), we typically just grumble about the injustice and submit our forms by April 15 anyway. But what if there was another way? To consider a unique solution, we must first understand the revolutionary technology that can get us there — blockchain.

Blockchain Basics

The most well-known use of blockchain technology right now is likely Bitcoin, the cryptocurrency established in 2008. But what is blockchain technology, and how does it allow our digital transactions to be more secure than ever before?

Put simply, blockchain technology eliminates the current system of transactions in which every party involved has their own record of what happened during the transaction. Instead, blockchain creates a single, unalterable record of transactions that make up “blocks.” This is a permanent, indisputable record of authenticity and authorization that allows transactions to be secure and trusted over a digital network.

As BlockGeeks puts it, “Picture a spreadsheet that is duplicated thousands of times across a network of computers. Then imagine that this network is designed to regularly update this spreadsheet and you have a basic understanding of the blockchain.”

The key idea here is that everyone involved is engaging with the same record. A single record of the transaction means less wiggle room for altering the information that occurs when we rely on multiple copies of redundant records.

The record of transactions itself becomes the form of trust. Not even a system administrator can delete a digital sequence in the chain, so users have full transparency around the transactions that are occurring. And what, exactly, are these data “sequences”? They are defined as: “a kind of self-auditing ecosystem of digital value, the network reconciles every transaction that happens in ten-minute intervals. Each group of these transactions is referred to as a ‘block.’”

Federal Tax Spending: Where We Are (And How Blockchain Can Help)

So, what does blockchain technology have to do with taxes? Since this technology is both secure and robust enough to deal with a range of transaction types, it could actually be used to allow each taxpayer to set their own preference ratios of our national budget when filing. The result is that people would feel much more engaged when paying their taxes, and we’d have a stronger democratic society overall.

Image: Getty / Tax files


Before we get into an example of how this works, let’s take a quick review of how our current federal budget is allocated, courtesy of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Our budget is divided into mandatory spending programs and discretionary spending programs, but the total breakdown is as follows:

• Social Security: In 2016, 24% of the federal budget, or $916 billion, paid for Social Security, a program which provides for retirement income, as well as income for disabled workers and the families of deceased and disabled workers.

• Healthcare Subsidies: The combined total of Medicaid, Medicare, CHIP and healthcare marketplace subsidies amounted to 26 percent of the budget in 2016, or $1 trillion.

• Defense and International Security: In 2016, 16% of the budget, or $605 billion, was used for defense and international security.

• Safety Net programs: 9% of the federal budget, or $366 billion, supports programs for families facing hardship, including SNAP food assistance and the Earned Income Tax Credit program (EITC).

• Interest on Debt: In 2016, interest payments on debt owed took up $240 billion, or about 6% of the budget.

• Everything Else: The remaining 19% of our federal budget is tasked with covering all other needs, including benefits for federal retirees and veterans (8%), infrastructure (2%), education (2%), science and medical research (2%), non-security related international programs (1%) and the remaining 3% is for all other federal spending.

If blockchain technology was used for tax returns, a dedicated portion of each tax return would go to the mandatory spending, which includes social security, healthcare, veteran’s benefits, transportation and food and agriculture. The remaining amount (discretionary spending, of which over 50% is devoted to military and defense) could be categorized and the filer will be able to determine what percentage of their taxable income would go toward which area of need. As an example, an individual who really values STEM education could direct 75% of their discretionary amount towards K-12 education, which currently receives a tiny sliver of the overall federal budget.

Image: Getty / US Tax Return with US Treasury Check


With blockchain as a way to authenticate and authorize these allocations, we can look at a family who owes $10,000 in federal taxes. 60% would go toward mandatory spending, or approximately $6,000 of their annual taxes, which is allocated as needed for the programs listed above. The remaining $4,000 would be divvied up based upon the interests of the taxpayer, but no category would be left completely blank. With every taxpayer contributing at least something to every category, we could get a better sense of our shared priorities and feel that we’re contributing to the budget in a meaningful way that truly reflects our values.

Technology experts agree that blockchain will continue to serve as a powerful tool in a range of industries, so why can’t we use it to overhaul our democracy? Not only would this approach boost engagement and allow voters to have a real say in government spending, but it could create powerful shifts in how we fund the programs that matter to us most.

This article was originally featured in Forbes Community Voice™ on January 22nd, 2018.

Andrew B. Raupp is the Founder / Executive Director @stemdotorg

“Democratizing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education through sound policy & practice…