Reading the IT Leaves: NSF’s ITEST Program & the Future of Work

By: Keaton Fletcher

Technology is clearly changing the entire workforce, but how can workers change to keep up? To help this massive transition, The National Science Foundation sponsored ITEST (Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers). ITEST works to connect students from prekindergarten through 12th grade with professionals in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers to help students gain the necessary skills and knowledge for a successful career in the modern workforce.

To put the ITEST program into context, Malyn-Smith and colleagues (2017) published a paper reviewing the current workforce trends given the changes in technology. They argue that disruptive technologies and innovations are changing the status quo. Work will look fundamentally different in this new augmented age, when humans are enhanced by working with machines. To be successful, the modern worker, regardless of career path, industry sector, or job, must become knowledgeable about technology.

Malyn-Smith and colleagues point toward multiple technology-driven changes in the modern workforce to which workers will need to adapt. More and more frequently, workers will have to work in interdisciplinary teams of humans, but these teams will also include machine-based teammates as well. Given the technology-based increase in human capacity, workers will now be able to address problems that were beyond the realm of possibility ten years ago. However, these problems cannot be solved by solitary workers, or even teams of workers all with the same knowledge, skills, and abilities. Malyn-Smith and colleagues argue that the types of projects and problems that will become common in the modern workforce will require teams of individuals with unique skillsets and knowledge bases, all of whom will have to interact with machines in order to complete their tasks.

Workers will also have to become comfortable working with massive amounts of data. As machine learning, artificial intelligence, and automation become more common, the role and accessibility of data, especially big data sets, has become great. Modern workers will need, at the very least, to understand the role of data in problem-solving, how to present data, and also how to protect it.

Many organizations, Malyn-Smith and colleagues suggest, are already relying on informal learning in the workplace, and worker-initiated formal learning (e.g., certificate programs or higher education) during personal time to help address these changing demands. As the nature of work continues to change, the modern worker must be driven by personal interest to learn new skills. Malyn-Smith and colleagues argue that organizations may begin to care less about formal degrees or certifications, instead giving more value to evidence of specific skill sets that can be applicable across a variety of contexts.

Enter, ITEST. By exposing children to STEM careers from a young age, the NSF sponsored initiative seeks to not only normalize STEM careers, but also to help the next generation of workers begin thinking in ways that will be necessary in the modern workforce (e.g., data-driven). Since 2003, ITEST has sponsored over 300 projects, working with over 560,000 students and roughly 17,000 educators in the United States. Students learn scientific and technology-based content while being exposed to careers in STEM fields. Through this program, teachers are also given an opportunity to develop their own skill sets to better help prepare their students for the modern workforce. A multitude of scientific papers (e.g., Blustein et al, 2012Christensen et al., 2014) have been published examining the efficacy of ITEST, all of which point toward its success.

Arguably the main takeaway of the NSF ITEST program and Malyn-Smith and colleagues’ paper is to promote early STEM learning, particularly in the face of the current changes in the workplace, so as to best prepare the next generation of workers for what lies ahead.

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