Science and tech education could shape Cayman’s future

Minds Inspired supports STEM education and competition, including robotics, in Cayman's schools.

As Cayman looks to rebuild its economy in the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis, the Cayman Compass is exploring ideas for meaningful reform of education and training.

In a featured interview this week, Glenda McTaggart, education programmes manager for Dart’s Minds Inspired programme, discusses the ripple effects of the virus, and advocates for more technical and vocational training and a greater focus on science and technology in schools.

How do you think Cayman’s economy will change post-COVID and what should that mean for the way we approach career development?

COVID has sped up the digital transformation. Technology will be the way forward and Cayman’s economy needs to be much more digitally focussed.

This has already created greater needs (and demand) for tech-savvy workers with a range of skills such as programming, data management, artificial intelligence, digital security and more.

Artificial intelligence will also drive changes to the retail economy in areas such as analytical insight and customer engagement.

New careers could come from increased investment in infrastructure and the shift to a more sustainable, carbon-neutral economy.

Glenda McTaggart

So not all future jobs will be ‘digital jobs’, but whatever the industry, whatever the role, there is likely to be a tech component to understand and work with. Cayman’s workforce will need to upskill, and currently the choices are very limited and are not needs based.

What do you think Cayman needs to do to better prepare school leavers to play a role in its economy?

21st century learning is critical as Cayman faces the challenges of both globalisation and a knowledge-based economy. Students need to develop their capabilities in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) to levels higher than what we felt was acceptable in the past. 

Cayman must place a greater emphasis on technology within the schools and needs to start at early learning levels so that, by middle school, students have a high level of computer literacy.

By having that solid foundation, students are able to move to advance-level course work and qualifications in high school preparing them for advanced studies. Higher-level tech, such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and the like, require students with good foundation skills, such as coding, scientific curiosity and drive for innovation. Entrepreneurship and basic money-management content should also be included in the curricula.

What is Minds Inspired’s role in this?

The Minds Inspired programme is guided by the belief that investments in education deliver high-yielding dividends to individuals and their immediate families, and indirect benefits to the community and economy.

Dart views education as a foundation for success in school, work and life. Minds Inspired promotes STEM through a range of programmes, including mathematics, robotics, engineering, and career mentoring.

Glenda McTaggart and the Minds Inspired high school scholars on an AI & Coding course at Cambridge University last summer.

STEM education creates critical thinkers, increases science literacy, and it enables the next generation of innovators. Innovation leads to new products and processes that sustain our economy.

It is clear that most jobs of the future will require a basic understanding of math, science and technology. Despite these needs, the popularity of math and science has declined over the past 10 years, and educators and business are trying to find ways to encourage students in STEM subjects.

What is the responsibility/requirement of the private sector in this discussion?

There needs to be a collaboration between government, employers and educators allowing a cohesive plan to be developed and tracked. That means strategic workforce planning to help employers identify the emerging skills of the future and collaborate with educators to make these part of the curricula.

Both government and private sector need to invest in workforce development and reinforce messaging to students and parents about future needs, upskilling and lifelong learning.

Private sector can help drive conversations about emerging career areas and the skills, knowledge and agility needed to move into those new career areas. Access to basic infrastructure, such as internet and data for learners, is a basic utility that must be provided at no or low cost. 

How important do you think higher education will be in the modern economy?

Over the last 2-3 years the trends are changing and some graduates are rethinking the traditional degree route. Industry-specific certifications and qualifications are replacing generalist undergraduate degrees.

The availability and flexibility of online learning is changing the landscape. Technology moves so quickly that programmes of study are more like short ‘bursts’ of learning. A great example of this is Nanodegree Programmes, such as Udacity, where online degrees, such as artificial intelligence, data science, or cloud computing, are typical. Companies like Google and Facebook hire candidates directly from these programmes, rather than mainstream universities.

How can we get a greater percentage of Caymanians into higher education of one form or another?

It starts with the school programmes. Students need exposure to a wide range of career options and to be given opportunities to see how their interests and strengths line up with areas of interest.

In my experience, high schools focus on the traditional career areas of law and accounting because they are familiar with them and tend to avoid careers within more fluid areas such as healthcare and technology. Education needs to be accessible and flexible to meet the needs of working families and those without reliable transportation.

What else can Cayman do to better prepare for workforce development in the coming years?

There needs to be a focus on workforce upskilling initiatives and a longer term plan for workforce upskilling across multiple industry sectors.

Governments need to extend their influence across public and private sectors, embracing technological change and digital upskilling to future-proof Cayman and ensure no one is left behind.

Existing TVET training is extremely limited and the offering of it is not consistent. The content and delivery rarely takes into account the needs of the employer. Without employment data, including work-permit stats, there is no basis for what TVET programmes should be offered. Few programmes currently offered meet the requirements of private sector business.

There needs to be a national TVET framework with clearly articulated standards so educators, teachers, funders are all working in the same direction and toward the same outcomes.

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