Megan Smith: Online Networks Are Key to Student Achievement in STEM Fields

Megan Smith, Vice President at Google [x], speaking at a recent STEM education event. [AAAS/Robert Beets]

When asked which single technology held the most promise for helping students advance in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), Megan Smith of Google[x] answered without hesitation.

"The Web. I would give the kids the Web," she said at a recent symposium at AAAS. "Because what's so interesting about the Web is, it's the content and us."

The Internet's capacity to connect people to information and to each other, fostering cooperation among people who want to solve problems, could make education in STEM disciplines much more engaging and accessible for students around the world, Smith said in her keynote address at the event.

Such enthusiasm for the Web may not be surprising for someone who works for one of the world's largest Internet-related corporations. But, as Vice President at Google[x], the company's secretive lab where researchers work on developing radical, "moonshot" technologies such as a self-driving car, Smith has seen firsthand how critical it is for engineers and researchers to have strong STEM skills and to be able to collaborate.

Smith spoke at a one-day symposium on broadening access to and participation in STEM education through technology, which was hosted by the MaDTECHEd interest group within the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows program and co-sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. MaDTECHEd (MOOCs and Disruptive Technologies in Education) is an AAAS affinity group that explores the policy and research implications of massive, open, online courses, or MOOCs, and other technologies that have the potential to radically interrupt or change the course of STEM education.

Such radical change is needed, because of what Smith called "this weird problem of supply and demand." The United States has an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 jobs available each year in STEM-related areas, whether in Silicon Valley companies or sectors such as pharmaceuticals or robotics, according to Smith, but not enough students are pursuing degrees that would prepare them for these jobs.

She championed the Internet for its ability to address this problem in two ways. With its potential for connecting people, it can inspire students by offering them ways to work together on interesting STEM-related projects. And, it can link up teachers, industry leaders and other education professionals, so they can collaborate as well.

Moving forward, the challenge for inspiring and preparing students will be "less about the content, because you'll be able to get the content and learn it," Smith said.

"If you think about 21 century skills, they're about are you able to work with other people, are you passionate, are you engaged, are you able to learn? And that's what we actually need to be driving for, and not filling [students'] heads with all the content and urgently giving them so much homework. Let's teach them to love this."

To becoming passionate about doing science and engineering, students need to see it as fun and exciting -- and not just for boys only. Smith has been working on a project about the history of women in STEM fields and wants all students to learn about trailblazers such as Ada Lovelace, who wrote a paper in 1843 that became the basis for computer programming, and Katherine Johnson, an African-American mathematician born in 1918 who calculated the trajectories of flights by Alan Shepard, John Glenn and the Apollo mission.

The success of Harvey Mudd College in California in recruiting female students to pursue computer science – a field that employs roughly 15 percent women -- is also instructive. With leadership from president Maria Klawe, the college increased female students' enrollment in computer science courses in five years, so that around 40 percent of the students in these classes are now women, Smith said.

To make computer science classes more welcoming to students who were new to the field, Harvey Mudd created two tracks: one for students who already had prior experience, and one for students who didn't. It also made a targeted effort to prepare graduates for the computer science industry and place them into jobs quickly. Since many incoming female students said they were seeking careers that would better society, faculty made a point of explaining how technology is at the heart of many humanitarian advances, describing, for example, the mobile phone's great impact on poverty.

Smith herself offered an abundance of examples of how the Internet and related technologies are helping society in areas around the world. A group of entrepreneurial computer science graduates in Herat, Afghanistan have formed a start-up incubator and launched six new companies. A vast online archive of satellite images of Earth are now available for scientists to use to study climate change. A website created in Nairobi called offers quick messaging to assist rescuers during natural disasters or other crises.

"People are online. People are networked. This has never happened before at this level. So it means we can really think differently about how we approach these problems and that we're really actually available to each other…to collaborate in extraordinary ways," Smith said.

Over 80 people attended the MaDTECHEd event and more than 160 watched it live via webcast. Smith's talk was also broadcast via C-SPAN. The symposium also included panel discussions on MOOCs and online education, portable technologies and mobile computing, gaming, and maker culture. Ed Deieterle, Senior Program Office for Research, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, delivered a plenary address on "Broadening Access and Participation in STEM Education Through Personalized Learning."

Watch a webcast of the full MaDTECHEd symposium.

Watch the CSPAN coverage of Smith's presentation from the MaDTECHEd event.

Review Twitter coverage of the symposium on STEMconnector.