Most 17-year-olds are excited to get their driver’s licenses to gain a little freedom. For Armani Williams, driving is less a rite of passage than a passion. In 2017, he made his debut on the NASCAR circuit.
Armani also has autism spectrum disorder (ASD).In an interview, Williams described his biggest challenges as communication and social interaction. Like many with autism, he says he struggled with sensory processing issues that were overwhelming at times. A screaming loud race track could seem impossible to deal with, as could the complexity of his studies — but he has learned to step back to take stock of his surroundings, search online for what he needs assistance figuring out and proactively work with others to avoid misunderstandings.
Armani also pointed out that ASD isn’t only about deficits and credits his ability to concentrate for hours behind the wheel to the intense focus that is often an attribute of autistic individuals. According to Autism Speaks, an individual with ASD may display varying degrees, and a combination of, sensory processing challenges, social-emotional difficulties and speech-language deficits impacting functional communication. These challenges could profoundly interrupt health, learning and skill attainment without adequate support and intervention.
STEM For Students With Special Needs
When Armani and I had the opportunity to initially connect at a local leadership event, he inspired me to draw upon my experience as an educator and think deeply about how to improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) accessibility for students with special needs. I have always been passionate about leveling the playing field to bring STEM to all, but much of my work up until now has focused on socioeconomic and gender inequality in STEM education. This is a worthy goal, of course, but we’d be remiss not to include students with special needs in our efforts to make sure every child gets a solid background for success in STEM.
I believe students with ASD and other challenges can thrive in fields as complex as collegiate-level mechanical engineering (Armani’s current passion) and beyond. But how do we make sure all students get the support that they need to excel?
Making STEM More Inclusive
There are many approaches I think we should explore to accommodate special needs students in the classroom, and many of these strategies could overlap to help make STEM subjects easier to grasp for those with special needs.
• Growth Mindset: Change the language and reward systems in STEM classrooms to recognize grit and the ability to keep trying to solve problems in the face of failure, a concept explored in a 2017 EdTechinterview piece. After all, the scientific method is all about experimentation, and the only failed experiment is one you don’t learn from. Praising kids for effort rather than achievement is a great place to start building a growth mindset that could be beneficial for those who learn in different ways.
• Hands-On Work: The best STEM teaching I’ve seen offers plenty of real-world opportunities to observe forces in action and ways to experiment with everyday items to understand how thing work. Whether it’s by offering coding opportunities or getting outside to explore nature, tangible learning can make STEM come alive for all students — but it could be especially valuable in helping those who learn differently internalize abstract concepts and develop a deeper interest.
• Flipped Classrooms: Homework can be a real struggle for students if they’re sent home to practice concepts they don’t fully understand. In a flipped classroom, however, background information is given ahead of time in the form of videos or articles to read at home. Students can come to school with questions and then put new concepts into action under the direct guidance of their teacher — support that could make a huge difference in comprehension for students who learn differently.
• Embrace Technology: As the EdTech interview discussed, well-designed learning apps could make STEM subjects more accessible to special needs students by providing targeted, individualized practice. Voice-to-text software could make writing easier so students can flourish in STEM even if their writing skills or fine motor skills lag. Text readers and video lessons might also help students with reading difficulties keep up and make sure that a learning difficulty doesn’t derail success in STEM.
• Regular Movement And Flexible Lesson Plans: Sustaining self-regulationand focus may be typical challenges for children with special needs — though fidgeting is pretty much universal. That means that all students could benefit from movement breaks (as described by MiddleWeb) during lessons and the opportunity to move around the classroom for a change of pace. Staying flexible and creative with learning centers and differentiated activities in the classroom could help everyone participate. By making the most common accommodations available to all instead of making them something special, you can normalize varying learning styles, set them up for success and decrease stigma.
The Final Lap
When I learned about Armani, it became clear to me that it’s easy to assume we know what ASD looks like or what a student with special needs is capable of. In reality, however, there is no single type of student with special needs. Every person is an individual with a full range of challenges as well as unique strengths. I believe our job as educators is to support all students as individuals and make sure they get what they need to thrive.
To make this happen, we first need to erase some of the stigma surrounding challenges like ASD. I believe it’s a myth that these students can’t succeed in STEM or other academic subjects. Armani is one example; for another take on life with ASD, I strongly recommend the series Atypical on Netflix. It does an excellent job of putting a human face on a condition that isn’t well understood but must be if we are to succeed in making STEM education truly accessible to all.
If you’re a mentor or instructor working to promote STEM education, chances are that you’ve experimented with a little friendly competition in your teaching and learning dojo.
Playing competitive games with students is a seemingly great way to prime the pump for participation and generate some enthusiasm around academic performance.
And, beyond individual classroom pedagogy, competition and STEM just seem to go hand in hand — from science fairs that boast prizes for top winners, to corporate funding opportunities that reward ‘winning’ schools with resources.
But is fostering competition among STEM students actually that beneficial? Proponents of competition tend to cite the ways in which competition can provide students with a taste of the ‘real world’, in which they’ll have to be assertive and stand out from the pack in order to get ahead.
But is that truly the future we want to be preparing our young people for? Perhaps the best approach to educating students in the STEM fields is not to encourage them to build robots in order to determine which one is best but, rather, create opportunities for authentic collaboration and true group problem-solving.
The pros and cons of competition
Anyone who has turned a teachable moment into a competitive game knows that doing so can help channel student energy in a more positive direction, and elicit whole group participation far quicker than a typical lecture can.
Competition can also encourage students to challenge themselves and work harder than they might normally in order to achieve a goal, and it can also encourage some students to work together towards a shared goal — even if that goal is beating the other team.
But competition can also bring out unsavoury behaviour in both children and adults. When children take competition too seriously in the classroom, it can become the opposite of a ‘fun’ way to diversify the lesson; rather, it can create anxiety, irritability and feelings of overwhelm or frustration.
Teachers can unwittingly contribute to this dilemma, especially when the competition has high stakes. What makes an otherwise ‘friendly’ competition have high stakes? When the winners earn a higher grade than the losers, or some other prize of significant value.
One way around this problem is to follow blogger and teacher David Weller’s golden rule: use cooperation to learn, and competition to review.
This keeps competition as a fun, low-stakes way to review material, but it doesn’t put the stress of winning or losing on children who are already tasked with learning a new skill or content area.
The benefits of collaboration in action
If we look beyond the common lens of education in Ireland to our global colleagues, we can see the impact of collaborative teaching and engagement methods at large. Finland, which, despite some recent slips, remains consistently at the top of nearly every category of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), has been studied by education reformers across the globe.
How does it do it? A 2012 article suggests that the key driver of education-development policy in Finland has been providing equal and positive learning opportunities for all children.
It has not endorsed student testing and school ranking as the path to improvement but, rather, it focuses on well-rounded curricula and equitable funding of schools throughout the country.
While equitable school funding doesn’t speak to individual teacher practices, it does reveal that Finland values access to education for all, over access to a select and excellent few.
When larger educational systems reward demonstrated excellence over funding equitable opportunities to access hands-on, dynamic STEM lessons and activities, then the system simply produces fewer students overall who are prepared to meet the rigours of the 21st-century workplace.
And Singapore, which has consistently topped the charts in PISA rankings in maths, reading and science, also ranks first in another area that PISA recently began measuring: collaborative problem-solving.
It’s no surprise, given that the tone of its engagement in STEM activities and events nationwide has been one of collaboration and shared learning, as opposed to a focus on winner-takes-all competition that, too quickly, can eclipse the goal of improving student outcomes for all.
Collaboration helps STEM students of all ages
Creating opportunities for collaboration in the classroom must be done thoughtfully, so as to avoid the perils of group work. Collaboration is not just about having students work together in groups, but about truly embracing a classroom culture in which all students are valued.
When students feel that their observations and thoughts are valued, they can begin to develop their opinions by listening to, and learning from, others.
Purposeful collaboration in the classroom is not just a great way to prepare students for the ‘real world’; it’s also a solid strategy for helping students learn to respect their peers and listen to different opinions instead of only wanting to articulate their own.
At the university level, students not only have a qualitatively ‘better’ experience when they work collaboratively, but the research suggests that positive collaboration with peers and professors alike can actually improve student retention and increase the overall efficacy of STEM programmes.
In a 2015 chapter for an academic collection on best practices in STEM education, writers Grant E Gardner and Kristi L Walters note that not only do students in collaborative classroom environments form stronger social bonds that can lead to degree completion and meaningful professional networks, but there is also much empirical support for these claims.
For example, in a meta-analysis of cooperative versus competitive student interactions on problem-solving tasks, the cooperative group consistently outperformed individuals on all forms of problem-solving.
Competition in the STEM classroom can be healthy and offer a number of benefits but, when competition is forced or contrived for the purpose of making a classroom activity ‘fun’ instead of rich and meaningful, then it can generate some major drawbacks, including increased anxiety and lower academic performance.
Embracing collaboration over competition is more than just ‘doing group work’; it’s about helping students identify as respectful thinkers who aren’t competing for knowledge but, rather, discovering it together.
This article was originally featured in Silicon Republic on January 2nd, 2018.
When you think of the acronym ‘STEM’ or, to be more specific, when you think of STEM education in practice, what are you actually imagining? Be honest, now.
Allow your mental landscape to fill up with robots, online games or a slick subscription service packed with apps that promise a complete transformation of students into budding tech industry gurus or ‘STEMers’.
If your mental map is filled with smartphones and coding apps, you’re not alone, and you’re also not wrong to be intimidated by what looks like quite an expensive and complicated approach to put into practice.
But here’s the thing: truly sustainable and meaningful STEM initiatives are multidimensional and include all aspects of STEM, not just the shiniest bells and whistles that our current technology can make available.
A real commitment to STEM is less about a certain product or approach but rather, it’s a dedication to truly valuing the liberal arts and sciences, which, of course, includes the life sciences as well as robust critical-thinking skills. And the real kicker? These are the kind of educational experiences that talented teachers have been engaging their students in already for decades now.
So, how can boots-on-the-ground educators sort out the tools that will help them leverage their existing materials and pedagogy to make their STEM offerings truly effective and meaningful to students?
For starters, we might first take a look at where the current influence on STEM programming originates, and take some time to reframe what STEM education can really look like in practice, in all classrooms, and for all students, not just the privileged few.
The pipeline pressure
In a 2015 piece on the changing landscape of STEM education, dean of Georgia Tech, Gary S May, reiterates the common opinion that the foundation of current STEM initiatives is born out of a commitment to creating a “larger, more skilled workforce in STEM areas … [by] preparing and encouraging more youth to pursue these fields at a time when they were less inclined to do so, and to provide more support and training for teachers in the subjects”.
May makes clear his belief in this strategy, and warns against potentially “watering down” the focus on the four STEM subject areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics to include the arts and other less ‘hard’ STEM subjects.
While his point is well made, May does not address one of the most concerning factors influencing modern STEM education efforts, which is the tremendous external pressures that the financial industry, technology sector and NGOs are beginning to play, ostensibly altering its future.
Heidi J Stevenson, writing in the journalIssues in Teacher Education, notes that in addition to increased federal funding to public schools, US “venture capitalists have responded to political appeals and are investing 80pc more in STEM education than in 2005”.
Stevenson goes on to ask an important question, and one that we should all be considering when assessing our curriculum planning and materials: “Are these STEM-aiding entities’ motives purely altruistic or profit-driven?”
When we look at efforts from industry attempting to help boost STEM education efforts to fuel the talent pipeline, some additional concerns also emerge.
A thorough 2015 piece in TechCrunch examines some of the takeaways regarding gender discrimination in both tech and venture capital fields.
The lack of diversity is often cited as a primary motivator for fuelling STEM educational programmes aimed at recruiting more women and students of colour into the STEM pipeline but this piece makes clear that one of the key barriers to more inclusive workplaces is the reality that “the lack of diversity in venture capital boardrooms is far more than a STEM pipeline issue”.
Providing flashy STEM education products to educators with the goal of training and recruiting underrepresented students sounds great at first glance. But if the tech sector doesn’t actually address the persistent top-down issues that create barriers for those students once they are actual applicants, then this approach is sorely misguided.
Mindset shift v ‘magic wand’
Increased financial resources for students and schools are always welcome but when it comes to STEM initiatives, it’s important to take a critical stance when off-the-shelf programmes are sold too aggressively as a kind of pricey ‘magic wand’.
Experienced educators know that the real foundation of STEM education requires critical-thinking skills, hands-on engagement, and opportunities to explore the natural world through trial and error, research and reflection, and genuine interest and curiosity in the problems — and potential solutions — of our shared planet.
When pedagogical materials come directly from companies whose sole focus is building up their workforce, and potentially their bottom line, it’s unclear if their commitment to true learning comes before their profit margin.
Audrey Watters of Hack Education explores this question in a 2015 blogpost, and she sums up many of the concerns of venture capital funding for STEM initiatives thusly: “So, when we ask, ‘Who’s investing in edtech?’, we can’t simply look at the dollar flow for our answer.
“We need to pause and consider why this narrative casts innovation as something that happens outside of education institutions … why it’s focused on venture capital, for example, and why it’s focused on start-ups and not schools.”
A more sustainable approach to STEM education should obviously happen within our schools, and should rely on robust training for educators who are looking to add to their already diverse set of pedagogical skills.
In addition, students should be given real opportunities to engage in hands-on activities that require knowledge and application of skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and not just plopped in front of the latest software.
Today’s entrepreneurs and corporations have the power to create beautiful, engaging programmes, but when it comes to building a sustainable grassroots movement designed to reach all students in schools globally, encouraging them to become stronger critical-thinkers and problem-solvers, there’s most likely never going to be an app or kit for that.
This article was originally featured in Silicon Republic on November 6th, 2017.
As we round out the decade, the scope of what technology can make possible in our scientific explorations seems almost limitless. As new innovations arise, technologies will scale, and access to these tools increases.
With easier access to ever-more powerful consumer electronics, is it possible that everyday students and teachers in STEM classrooms across the globe will soon be able to leverage even more powerful tools in their pursuit of deep core concepts, experimentation and discovery?
STEM has been used for nearly two decades to refer to the subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Incorporating it in primary schools not only helps make students better prepared for higher education, it also creates a stronger rising workforce of future problem-solvers and critical thinkers.
But STEM is not only an acronym; it’s also a way of looking at the world. Examples abound of STEM’s increasing reach, as well as its potential to change our students, our school and our future capacity for innovation across industries. And, increasingly, there have been some incredibly exciting innovations in the field of mixed reality.
The term mixed reality encompasses both augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) — technologies that may fundamentally change the way that educators can approach STEM in classrooms all across the globe.
The power of mixed reality
A recent piece in EdTech magazine listed access to STEM through VR as one of the top three trends expected to shape education in 2017. The reason? VR can encourage motivation, build collaboration and offer educators an expanded tool belt of ‘real world’ learning opportunities — all without students and teachers having to leave their classroom.
As opposed to AR, which only overlays some digital objects in the 3D world — think Pokémon Go or Google Glasses, for example — VR creates a totally immersive world. This is currently achieved through special systems or headsets designed specifically to immerse users into an alternate or ‘virtual’ world that they can explore as if they were in the real world.
And EdSurge reports that companies who create educational applications of their tech products are eager to collaborate with educators — and not just to turn a profit. Utilising well-designed STEM programmes and products can help to improve student outcomes, and create a more educated class of citizens who remain connected and skilled in STEM content areas.
So, what do some of the possibilities look like for mixed reality in both STEM fields and classrooms? A recent piece in Digital Bodies reports that these technologies can reach as far as our solar system.
It said: “Using OnSight — a NASA and Microsoft-developed software tool — researchers no longer study images of Mars. They can use holographic teleportation to examine the planet’s surface from a first-person perspective. The 3D terrain is rendered through images received from the Curiosity rover as well as orbiting satellites.”
Utilising this kind of technology can help bring the natural world right into the classroom, and universities are taking note.
At Stanford University, the Virtual Human Interaction Lab has already begun to exponentially widen learning possibilities for students and researchers. The lab offers students the chance to explore totally immersive VR environments to learn about the factors shaping our modern lives — like the acidification of the ocean — through a virtually hands-on lens.
Students are not only able to ‘see’ the concepts they’re learning about in action, but also interact with the virtual environment to actively participate in the scientific method, all by just slipping on a headset.
And, at Texas A&M University, not only are undergraduates and graduate students getting to access their Immersive Mechanics Visualization Lab, but professors are also partnering remotely with high-school students to help them use immersive 3D technologies to participate in the global F1 in Schools competition, which tasks students to use robotics technology to build the car of the future.
Students at the lab can get feedback on their 3D designs from actual aerodynamics experts who, using this immersive technology, can ‘walk around’ the car designs and provide concrete feedback on ways students can improve their designs.
It’s a powerful way to connect students with experts outside of their community, using a technology elegant, inspiring and effective enough to give them an edge on the competition.
These examples illustrate the power of mixed reality to bridge conceptual learning with real-world learning. And it’s not just the education world that’s getting in on the movement. The industry of video game development has begun a kind of renaissance — artistic and economic — with the inclusion of VR offerings.
As more capital streams into this industry, it’s more important than ever before for schools of all kinds to remain on the ground floor of innovation so that young people from all walks of life can access the learning potential that VR can offer.
Next steps in a digital world
There has never been a more urgent time for out-of-the-box solutions for the challenges of our modern world. In schools across the globe, children are facing difficulties, and so are the adults running the systems that are supposed to serve them.
One potential upside? Our current crisis in education is also an opportunity for disruption, innovation and a fresh start. And mixed reality may be one option for doing just that.
While VR is the more dramatic of the two, less-immersive AR can be an excellent way to reach students where they are, by capitalising on the increased use of screen time that has become a reality for modern students.
AR can also level the playing field of student equity by eliminating the need for expensive materials, including specialised gear. This may sound counterintuitive, but innovations in AR have led to increased democratisation of technology access — for example, using cardboard viewers as a low-cost alternative to costly digital viewers.
As more educators and innovators come together to collaborate, we can find creative, low-cost methods of scaling these technologies for the everyday teacher, together. And examples of this work already happening are all around us.
In January 2018, the annual Educause Learning Initiative meeting brought together institutions and organisations to work under the theme of ‘Achieving Student Success Through New Models of Learning’.
In that same month, innovators from a range of industries came out for the Consumer Technology Association (CES) Expo, which offered a dizzying range of workshops for marketers and other stakeholders devoted to figuring out the best way to leverage mixed reality in industries from advertising to education.
The future of STEM education can be built on the shoulders of the mixed reality revolution. Simply put, when traditionalism fails, innovation flourishes. And, through true educational innovation, we may finally find meaningful solutions to the systemic problems that have outpaced our capacity for too long.
This article was originally featured in Silicon Republic on February 5th, 2018.
Headlines about automation and job loss dominate the news daily, and an anxiety about the future of work is present not only here in the U.S., but across the entire globe. But within these fears about the impact of technology on jobs, there is also a bright sliver of hope for the future. The nature of work is changing, and new opportunities in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics fields (STEM), may yet bring about a new age of peace and prosperity for citizens of our country, and beyond.
The Poverty Problem (and the STEM Solution)
Poverty rates nationally and internationally have continued on a path of steady improvement, but there is still much work to be done so that all members of our international community can live a life of peace and prosperity. According to the most recent estimates from the World Bank, the number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen by 35 percent since 1990, and yet that number is still incredibly high: more than 10 percent of the world’s population makes do on less than $2.00 per day.
In the U.S., poverty statistics paint a similar picture. The latest census figuresindicate that poverty rates have declined in recent years, but 13.5 percent of Americans still live in poverty, a figure 1% higher than the pre-recession rate in 2007. That’s over 43 million people living on just over $12,000 for a single person household, or less than $25,000 annually for a family of four.
The scope of the problem of poverty on our planet cannot be overstated, but, fortunately, the potential impact of STEM education has an outsized footprint as well. An education based approach to creating peace and prosperity in our lifetime is not only possible, it’s vital if we are to create a rising world community of leaders prepared to create solutions, as well as greater equity and safety.
How STEM Expands Opportunities for Peace and Prosperity
Increasing access to STEM education for youth who are currently in school or adults looking for retraining opportunities is an excellent way to boost access to income and increase stability. According to a 2015 report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, “STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), health, and business majors are the highest paying, leading to average annual wages of $37,000 or more at the entry level and an average of $65,000 or more annually over the course of a recipient’s career.”
But much work still needs to be done to ensure that greater access to STEM education actually helps alleviate some of the current inequities that serve as a barrier to peace and prosperity, including the gender gap. A 2017 World Bank blog notes that the gender gap between women and men employed in STEM continues to be quite significant, but that “recent work suggests that correcting gender segregation in employment and in entrepreneurship could increase aggregate productivity globally by as much as 16 percent.”
In other words, if we collectively work to ensure that all people are granted greater access to high quality STEM education, and are then provided equal access to work in the STEM field, we could see a massive boost to our prosperity on a global scale.
Pursuing a career in STEM is individually rewarding for both the mind and the pocketbook, but it’s our collective efforts to get more young people into STEM that has the potential to, quite literally, transform our world economy from a place of crisis, into one of peace, prosperity, and solutions for the myriad concerns of our modern times.
Net neutrality may be dominating the news headlines this month thanks to recently proposed policy changes at the federal level, but to understand this important issue beyond the sound bites, it’s important to get a sense of what net neutrality actually is and what’s at stake. The larger movement is bigger than the question of whether or not your favorite streaming TV shows will slow down — it actually impacts how we communicate, learn, earn money and share and store our most personal information.
Net neutrality may be currently positioned as a polarizing political issue but, in reality, the efforts to preserve an accessible, open and secure internet are bipartisan and totally essential to the work of growing a rising class of STEM-educated Americans.
Net Neutrality 101
Put simply, those who favor net neutrality are arguing for a system in which internet service providers (ISPs) are not allowed to give preferential treatment to some content and/or users over others. The most common metaphor in use is that of the “fast lane” vs. slow lane”; for example, net neutrality supporters argue that ISPs will be able to control access to content and prioritize some content for some users into a fast lane.
This policy is getting attention because it is a clear shift from a February 2015 move by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that issued regulatory policies in an attempt to ensure net neutrality. The most significant portion of this policy was that it classified ISPs as utility companies, which then required them to be subject to regulation to protect consumers. Supporters of this policy argue that it prevents ISPs from providing inequitable access to content and security.
In November 2017, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced his intent to repeal the 2015 policy ensuring net neutrality. In a statement on the official FCC website, Pai argues that the 2015 “decision appears to have put at risk online investment and innovation, threatening the very open Internet it purported to preserve. Requiring ISPs to divert resources to comply with unnecessary and broad new regulatory requirements threatens to take away from their ability to make investments that benefit consumers.”
The current battle over net neutrality attempts to position regulation as a barrier to innovation, but this assessment fails to take into account the tremendous innovation already happening within our STEM fields across the worldwide global networks that connect us. The future of innovation is here, but we need to preserve equal access to information for all, instead of just the corporate few.
Why K-12 Needs Net Neutrality
Educators and administrators have had their eyes on the net neutrality standoff for a long time. Today’s classrooms have begun to incorporate more and more technology, which means that even the smallest disruption in service or accessibility can throw off multimedia lesson plans designed to get students truly engaged with hands-on digital problem-solving.
Back in May of this year, a post in the Ed Tech Round Up made clear the dangers of doing away with an accessible internet, and quoted a statement from the American Library Association, which put it thusly: “Net neutrality is essential for library and educational institutions to carry out our missions … The internet has become the primary platform for learning, collaboration, and interaction among students (and educators).”
Not only could slower speeds and inequitable access disrupt the flow of instruction, but these concerns will also weigh heavily on administrators who have to constantly weigh the cost/benefit of incorporating technology into the classroom. As a recent piece in EdWeek Market Brief explained, “School and library officials worry that if those protections are curtailed, deep-pocketed companies could pay to have their content delivered more quickly, while the flow of other online resources for educational purposes would be slowed or otherwise diminished.” In other words, without net neutrality, schools could easily have their hands forced toward a smaller range of pedagogical products with more financial backing, as opposed to keeping their classrooms open to a range of tools that offer meaningful educational benefits.
The Future Of The Internet Is A Decentralized One
The upside of this debate is that it’s serving as a rallying cry for a broad range of STEMers, including students, parents, educators, scientists, engineers and innovators who see this as a chance to work together toward building alternatives to the current way we approach internet access. With our collective power, we can create a decentralization strategy to ensure that future generations have access to the same educational and technological opportunities that we have today — or even better options that we haven’t yet devised.
So, how do we create a path forward? A 2013 piece in The New Yorker compared the success of the Bitcoin revolution to the possible implications for internet decentralization. The piece describes Bitcoin’s use of blockchains to do away with the need for a single central control point and asks the very timely question, “If money can be decentralized and, to some extent, anonymized, can’t the same model be applied to other things, like e-mail?”
Decentralization has been in the news and in our culture, for some time. As Mashable reports, a character on the HBO show Silicon Valley recently proposed just such an idea, a kind of “new internet” that values privacy and security over big business control of information flow. If nothing else, the promise of a sort of new internet can inspire us to think more broadly today and to remember that the work of STEM education should be preparing our young people for precisely such work.
As educators, our goal is to expose young people to means and methods of problem-solving through experimentation and innovation. Today, we must take up that task with an even greater sense of urgency, because the problems that lie ahead of us — those issues of access, information security and the role we want to allow corporations to play in our daily lives — those problems can only be solved with the kind of innovative thought that STEM fosters in classrooms all across our country and our internet.
This article was originally featured in Forbes Community Voice™ on December 7th, 2017.
The digital revolution that we’re currently living through has already made the world better in a number of immeasurable ways. In just a few short years it’s become possible to work anywhere, anytime, thanks to the power that cloud computing brings to the table (1). Information sharing has become effortless and, thanks to analytics, largely automated (2). Even industries that are largely disconnected from the tech sector now rely on these types of advancements on a daily basis to work smarter, not harder, improving bottom lines across the board.
Unfortunately, the “always connected” environment that we’re now living in has also made the world far more dangerous at the same time — particularly as far as cybersecurity is concerned. According to a study that was recently conducted in association with IBM and the Ponemon Institute, the average cost of a single data breach incident is on the rise (3). Last year, the consolidated cost of a single event grew to a new record high of $4 million — up from the $3.8 million total the previous year. If you consider things in terms of each record that is lost, stolen or otherwise compromised, that breaks down to a cost to businesses of roughly $158 — also up from its previous record high of $154.
In an effort to keep up with the rapidly changing demands of an inherently dangerous Internet-driven culture, cybersecurity as a very concept has had to evolve just as rapidly. Even the United States government has begun to acknowledge just what a pressing issue this is with cybersecurity becoming a major focus of the Department of Homeland Security in recent years (4).
Understanding what cybersecurity is, why it’s important, the types of threats it helps to protect us against and the future of an entire industry is one of the keys to remaining protected in the understandably uncertain years to come.
What is Cybersecurity?
“Cybersecurity” is traditionally defined as the collection of technologies, processes and best practices designed to protect IT systems around the world from harm. It’s a term that has come to encompass the techniques used not just to protect individual computers, but also hardware and software resources, entire networks and the data that moves across them on a daily basis from attack, damage and unauthorized access (5).
It’s important to understand that in today’s world, cybersecurity encompasses both digital technologies (like proactive network scanning) and physical security (like data warehouse management systems) (6). Everyone from private businesses to government agencies to financial institutions, medical organizations and beyond work diligently to ward off the growing number of cyber attacks that are happening each day, both in an effort to safeguard confidential business or personal information and (in the case of the government) protect our national security.
The key takeaway is that in 2017, “cybersecurity” doesn’t describe any one particular solution or technique — it’s a combination of elements that, when taken together, all add up to something meaningful and proactive. Everything from traditional antivirus software to proactive network scanning, disaster recovery and business continuity planning efforts, operational physical security and even end-user education is all essential in terms of fighting off modern day threats.
To the last point, end-user education is simultaneously one of the most “low tech” and essential ways for a business to stay protected in the digital age. While it’s true that many newer attacks are growing more sophisticated by the day, the “tried but true” techniques that have been around as long as the Internet can still be alarmingly effective. The massive Russian cyber attackthat ended with the release of nearly 10 years worth of emails that were damaging to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, for example, had its roots in one of the oldest malicious techniques that exists: a phishing attempt (7).
In March of 2015, Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta received an email saying that hackers were in the process of trying to infiltrate his Gmail account. The problem was that the email wasn’t legitimate at all — it was a counterfeit Google email aimed at tricking him into entering his username and password (7). After clicking on the fraudulent link and falling directly into the hands of hackers, the rest is history. Remove politics from the equation: had John Podesta not fallen victim to one of the most “low tech” methods of intrusion that currently exists, the world would likely look very different today.
All of this underlines the importance of looking at cybersecurity in the modern era less as any one particular technique and more as a complicated network of systems and processes, all working in tandem to guarantee 100% proactive protection at all times.
The Importance of Cybersecurity: By the Numbers
John Podesta and the Hillary Clinton campaign are not alone — it is growing increasingly common to wake up and read about yet another massive data breach that has struck some of the largest organizations on Earth. Consider the following statistics as made available from a study from the Identity Theft Resource Center:
Between January 1, 2005 and February 8, 2017 there were over 7,000 different breaches confirmed by media sources and/or notifications from government agencies.
Throughout the course of those breaches, the 888,600,656 compromising records were stolen.
In 2015 alone there were over 169 million records stolen in 781 breaches across sectors like healthcare, education, financial, business and government.
In addition to hacking or computer intrusion (which includes things like phishing, ransomware and other malware), the leading causes of many of these breaches included things like insider theft, physical theft, employee error, employee negligence, improper disposal, unauthorized access and vulnerabilities that could be attributed to a subcontractor, third party or business associate.
This is a trend that shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. In 2015, the total number of data breaches and other security incidents rose by an astounding 38% over 2014.
You would think that with numbers like these, people and especially businesses all over the world would already be taking steps to protect themselves from the dangerous digital environments that we’re now operating in. Unfortunately, you would be wrong. Consider the following statistics:
According to the Cisco 2016 Annual Security Report, the number of small businesses in particular that are taking steps to protect themselves is actually decreasing. Only 29% used standard tools to prevent breaches in 2015, while 39% indicated that they had done so in 2014 (8).
Roughly 52% of those who responded to a survey said that they were confident a successful cyber attack would strike their organization at some point within the next year (11).
Only 38% of those who responded to a survey said that they felt their global organization was prepared to handle a “sophisticated cyber incident” executing using multiple techniques (11).
When surveyed, 74% of CISOs indicated that they were at least somewhat concerned about their employees stealing valuable information (11).
81% of people who had become victims of a data breach said that their business did not have the necessary system in place, nor the resources to manage it, to detect data breaches in real-time. Instead, almost all of them relied on notification from a third party partner (11).
The Lurking Implications of the Internet of Things
The Internet of Things (also commonly referred to as the IoT) is a concept defining a network made up of billions of devices, all connected to both the Internet and to each other, that are creating, storing and sharing information with one another in real-time. It’s the same fundamental technology that lets you automatically adjust the temperature in your home using an app on your smartphone, or that lets you instantly share real-time healthcare information with your primary care physician using a wearable device like a smartwatch.
Now, consider two things. First, the fact that any device connected to a network — from the most powerful computer to a smart television set — is a potential vulnerability just waiting to be taken advantage of by someone who knows what they’re doing. Next, think about the fact that Cisco estimates there will be 200 billion devices all over the world that make up the Internet of Things by 2020 (13). Those two facts paint a very broad picture about the potential cybersecurity implications looming just over the horizon as the IoT becomes a more ingrained part of our lives in the not-too-distant future.
According to estimates from the research firm IDC, spending on the Internet of Things will top $1.7 trillion annually by 2020 (13).
This number is made up in part of the massive “smart home” industry, which itself generated $79 billion in revenue in 2014 (13).
By 2020, 90% of all cars sold worldwide will be connected in some way to the Internet of Things (13).
If you limit the discussion to just smart watches, fitness trackers and other types of wearable devices, there will be 173.4 million devices in the wild by 2019 according to IDC experts (13).
WIth the sheer volume of data being created and transmitted thanks to the Internet of Things alone, it is imperative that cybersecurity move away from reactive strategies of “wait and respond” and into proactive territory. Even techniques like network scanning must evolve to not only offer real-time identification, but must embrace predictive analytics in an effort to identify suspicious behaviors and patterns to stop problems before they have a chance to occur.
Likewise, the demand for talented individuals trained in state-of-the-art cybersecurity techniques and systems is expected to grow rapidly — according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for information security analysts is expected to grow at 18% per year between 2014 and 2024, which is much faster than the national average for other positions (10). For reference, the media pay for an information security analyst in 2015 was $90,120 per year, which breaks down to roughly $43.33 per hour (10).
People like information security analysis are so important moving forward because they’re not just tasked with making the best use of existing technologies to allow us to stay protected. They’re also tasked with coming up with all new ones (10). As the techniques of hackers and others with malicious intentions become more sophisticated and advanced, cybersecurity efforts must change along with them. These are the people who will be mission-critical in terms of actually creating the innovative solutions needed to combat the digital threats of tomorrow, let alone the ones of today.
Potential employers for future cybersecurity professionals include nearly every sized business in every industry that you can think of. The major factor to understand about cybersecurity is that it is an issue that doesn’t discriminate. Hackers can potentially steal just as much from private citizens as they can from state governments depending on the information they obtain and the value of that data on the black market.
Even healthcare, which one probably would not think about when making a list of high value targets, is actually the single most targeted sector there is(12). A hacker who obtains someone’s credit card information might be able to make a few hundred dollars in fraudulent purchases before getting shut down. A hacker who obtains medical records, on the other hand, could potentially make hundreds of thousands of dollars in fraudulent equipment or medical purchases that can then be resold at a premium on the black market.
Because of this, cybersecurity isn’t just an in-demand form of employment — it’s needed by any business or other organization that uses the Internet in any way. Which, in 2017, is “all of them.”
In the End
Technology isn’t just an important part of our lives — it is perhaps the most important part, both in terms of our personal lives and in the world of business. “Cybersecurity” no longer involves just “making sure that your computer doesn’t have a virus” or “helping to protect you if your credit card information gets stolen on your next shopping trip.” The implications of a data breach in 2017 have potentially devastating consequences, to say nothing of how things will grow more severe incredibly rapidly as the Internet of Things and similar technologies take hold.
Cybersecurity, along with the hardworking men and women who make up this field, will become our first lines of defense to help guarantee that we as a society enjoy all of the benefits that our connected lives bring to the table with as few of the potential cyber cataclysms as possible. Make no mistake: the importance of cybersecurity as a very idea and as a value simply cannot be overstated enough.