Why STEM Students Should Keep Up with Current Events

By Ginette Mayas Samwel

True success in the STEM fields is not only dependent upon one’s dedication to innovation and study in the field, but to be aware of the world events and to understand that the commitment to science technology, engineering, and math are more than just academic disciplines. Knowledge and skills in these fields are key in identifying important issues and leading the way to intelligent solutions. However, keeping up with the news should not solely be the activity of political junkies. Those studying STEM should have a deeper understanding of how their fields can have a profound impact in political and social realms.

Reading a newspaperOn July 17, 2014, two events made the headlines. First, there was the tragic destruction of the Malaysian flight, MH17, carrying 298 passengers including the crew, that was brought down by a surface-to-air missile in Eastern Ukraine in an area controlled by pro-Russian separatists. It was also the second airline disaster this year. U.S. carriers had been directed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in April to avoid this area in the wake of the ongoing hostilities. Malaysian Airlines alleged that the pilot that day was somehow instructed to fly at 33,000 feet, 2,000 feet lower than what they had proposed, but 1,000 feet above the optimum altitude, meaning that the deviations were for reasons other than the flight path. The big chase weeks later was not only for the black box, which lay scattered among the debris at the crash site, but also for verification of the U.S. intelligence satellite images, phone intercepts, and navigating the media response, much of which pointed the finger at direct Russian involvement.

Often, we view the news and geopolitical conflicts as between politicians behind closed doors; however, our leaders depend on STEM experts to interpret data, which is what will hopefully happen with the black box of the Malaysian flight in Ukraine. We need STEM experts to make wise decisions, such as with the deviations in altitude and flight path and consider political conflicts as they arise.

On the other hand, the tech news almost always carries some significant social impact. Such is the case with the announcement by Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, that 18,000 jobs would be eliminated in the coming year. Out of the 18,000 jobs to be cut, 12,500 were professional level and factory jobs.

Yes, the Microsoft layoffs were certainly not welcome news for the employees directly impacted by them, but a closer look at the Microsoft case presents an opportunity for students studying technology to understand the complexities of technological innovation and the social consequences, positive and negative.

One week prior to the layoff announcement Nadella distributed an internal memo about the role of value propositions. The memo discussed the importance of ambient intelligence and technology as the pathway for Microsoft’s future success. “We live in a mobile-first and cloud-first world,” Nadella wrote in the memo. Ambient technology requires powerful and pervasive computing. However enabling these devices are, they still present significant changes in our professional and private lives.

It is clear, with just these headline examples, that the skills of STEM professionals play a major role in political and societal events. The way STEM factors into politics and society-at-large is a fascinating discussion, one that challenges the future of STEM’s professionals to think bigger than themselves and their universities, but much more globally.