Of the many areas of scientific research that demand attention, arguably none is more important than healthcare. A report compiled by leaders from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) suggests that our current Science, Technology, Education and Math (STEM) initiatives in the American education system are failing to adequately prepare students and professionals for the realities of a field in desperate need of new approaches to problem-solving.
The report, “Convergence: The Future of Health,” outlines the current state of healthcare research and the possible strides that the American science community could make if it embraced the idea of Convergence in Healthcare. The report states that members of each science community must move beyond mere interdisciplinary collaboration and approach today’s pressing healthcare issues from a place of collective, comprehensive research and discovery. Advocates believe this approach will encourage healthcare innovations in a way never before seen.
For professionals to come together in this way, the U.S. must have an increasing supply of new students who are interested in launching STEM careers, and who also have been trained to “think convergently” and to seek out convergent opportunities in education from their earliest years. Listed below are the challenges that Convergence in Healthcare faces at every level of the American educational system.
Challenges facing K-12 education
The good news about STEM education in American schools, grades kindergarten through 12, is the federal government is committed to initiatives like 100Kin10 — an effort designed to bring 100,000 talented STEM educators to classrooms across the nation by 2021. The downside to ventures such as 100Kin10 is many secondary schools in the country do not include advanced STEM subjects in their curricula. As of 2016, half of all American high schools failed to offer calculus courses, and more than a quarter did not offer physics courses. Seventy-five percent of schools serving students in grades K through 12 failed to offer computer science classes that included lessons on programming and coding. An early introduction to each of these subjects is crucial to help students understand the concept of convergence. However, even as the country takes initiative to prepare talented, skilled teachers, there is a little evidence that employment opportunities will be available to them.
Beyond a distinct lack of widespread access to convergence-related education in K through 12, this demographic of American learners is also affected by an issue that prevents the spread of convergence learning: a lack of curricula that integrate multiple STEM disciplines into one learning experience. For example, an engineering design class combines aspects of both engineering and computer science to help students learn to think across multiple disciplines and solve traditional problems in new, innovative ways.
Challenges facing undergraduate university and associate degree programs
The first problem facing convergence at the undergraduate level is students in STEM fields change their focus with greater frequency than any other group. A 2017 study by the U.S. Department of Education indicated that one in three college students changed majors prior to graduation, with students in STEM majors six percent more likely to change their major than others. In addition, switching majors and undergraduate dropout rates in STEM fields disproportionately affect female and minority students, resulting in a loss of diversity among future researchers and a critical talent loss for the convergence movement.
As in grade school, undergraduate students take classes that are narrowly devoted to a single scientific subject and typically fall within the boundaries of a single department. This is especially true in subjects related to biomedical science. While offering courses that teach key concepts in disciplines such as physical science, computer science or mathematics alongside the course’s own foundational lessons may be difficult for many universities, there are actions to encourage interdisciplinary learning in the modern higher education system. For example, teachers committed to convergence from different scientific disciplines could experiment with novel teaching practices, such as team teaching, or pair students from their classes who study different STEM subjects to collaborate on research projects.
For certificate and associate degree programs, one of the most pervasive problems is students are under the misapprehension that working in a convergent healthcare role requires knowledge obtained from high-level education. In reality, studies show that 50 percent of jobs in STEM require only mid-level skills that can be obtained through certificate programs or an associate degree. The addition of these mid-level professionals could greatly supplement a convergent workforce if students at this level had access to curricula designed to help them gain cross-field experience.
Challenges for graduate and postdoctoral students and college faculty
At the graduate and postdoctoral levels, a student’s level of exposure to convergence in the sciences has a more profound impact. A lack of convergence-friendly education at the highest levels of academia creates a workforce of professionals devoid of the multi-faceted knowledge and tools necessary to solve the complex issues facing healthcare today. While a small fraction of these students graduate with experience in the convergent approach to research, those who don’t will not lead the convergence revolution that the healthcare industry so desperately needs. What’s more troubling is the small group of students who are prepared to lead this revolution may face scrutiny from research organizations, academia and employers that adhere to a strict, longstanding tradition of individual containment without crossover of different areas of scientific research.
To change the way the education system prepares its high-level students for a convergence-friendly future in an affordable and sustainable way, officials from the National Science Foundation (NSF) recommended four helpful initial steps. First, academia should develop a new, collective vocabulary to allow core ideas to be easily expressed across all science disciplines. Next, higher education institutions should deploy online courses to provide education in convergence basics to the greatest number of students possible. In conjunction with this idea, solid, verifiable metrics should be established to measure the effectiveness of instruction in basic convergence principles. Last, all sciences should place a greater emphasis on the importance of interpersonal skills to facilitate more interaction and collaboration with professionals within and across traditional disciplines.
The prospect of overhauling a system as steeped in tradition as education is undeniably daunting. However, with a belief in the potential impact of convergence on the future of healthcare and focusing on educating students at every level, the U.S. could be the leader of the most impactful, life-changing healthcare research in this century.