Has science lost its lure for the young?

“Their parents have been laid off numerous times, and seen their start up companies die or be amalgamated. Kids have seen their parents burn out and have no time for anything. The high pay does not make up for the lack of a life or the demands put on the workers.”

By Susan Hickman
From SCAN's Print Edition

In Christopher Landon’s 2007 thriller, Disturbia, the teen uOcompclass-181X131.jpgprotagonist tinkers with an array of electronic gadgets – a digital camera, a cellphone, an iPod, the Internet . . . He’s obviously a problem-solver – a skill high-tech companies are crying out for. Science and engineering graduates acquire these kinds of skills in post-secondary education, notes Frédéric Boulanger, who has been operating a local software development firm for the past decade. “People coming out of those programs,” he says, “are more likely to start businesses in the future because of their problem-solving skills.”

Unfortunately, like others in the industry, Boulanger, president and co-founder of Macadamian Software, and board member of the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC), is worried that kids today aren’t passionate enough about the sciences, which are too abstract in high school. “And it’s a sign of how high-tech industries are going to fare in the future. In a way, it’s a sign of the health of the economy.”

Industry, he says, “needs to roll up its sleeves and go into the schools and talk about the growth. We need to message the fact that problem solvers need to go into science and engineering. We need to get kids to play with robots and solve concrete problems, get them interested in hacking and noodling. This is how you innovate as a country.”

Fortunately, some entrepreneurs are taking matters into their own hands and approaching high school students directly to entice them to pick up sciences and consider going into computer sciences at the university level.
ICTC has a national Focus on Information Technology (FIT) program for students in grades 11 and 12, providing a head start on post-secondary education goals by giving students a foundation of technical, business and interpersonal skills.

Locally, the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation (OCRI) is involved in a pilot project with an Ottawa high school to determine levels of interest in science. Most students in the surveyed school admit they would be more interested in science, technology or computer courses if they were building robots, programming remote controls or otherwise involved in interactive projects, hands-on work or field trips.

Many find they have too many choices or are afraid they won’t earn good money in technology jobs, which require constant upgrading of skills.

Scott Pemberton, a technology teacher at Earl of March Secondary School, located in the heart of Ottawa’s high-tech area, says students are wary of the industry for many reasons.
“Their parents have been laid off numerous times, and seen their start up companies die or be amalgamated. Kids have seen their parents burn out and have no time for anything. The high pay does not make up for the lack of a life or the demands put on the workers.”

Pemberton also says children have witnessed their parents’ knowledge become quickly outdated and they don't want to spend the rest of their lives in school.

“While IT is going to be a part of our lives forever,” says Pemberton, “there is no reason why it should ever take off and be red hot again. It was an artificial economy and now it's over. It is a good industry to choose for those with a strong interest but it's not a ‘jobs for everyone’ environment like it was 12 years ago. I think these university profs are more worried about declining enrolment in their classes than they are about the work world.”

Boulanger remains optimistic that interest will increase with the right focus and effort. “There are kids shying away from the sciences for the wrong reasons. Yes, it’s a market that will fluctuate, but it’s not worse than any other market, and there’s good money and good potential.”

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