Edspresso episode 8: industry needs more than STEM education, with Sandy Plunkett

Black and white image of Sandy Plunkett looking at the camera
Image: Sandy Plunkett

Sandy Plunkett talks about why studying humanities and building technical expertise is a smart investment.

Does industry really value 21st century skills, such as collaboration, over technical expertise? Is it becoming harder for industry to predict the skills it will need? And why should education be thinking about AI and its potential effects?

To answer these questions, we speak to Sandy Plunkett, a leading commentator and analyst of the global technology sector. Sandy's career spans 25 years in the Australian and International technology sectors in venture capital, startups, academia and media.

Credits: Recording and production by Jennifer Macey (Audiocraft), editing by Andy Maher, and voiceovers by Sally Kohlmayer.

Episode 8: Industry needs more than STEM education, with Sandy Plunkett.

Transcript for Episode 8: Industry needs more than STEM education


Welcome to the Edspresso series from the NSW Department of Education. These short podcasts are part of the Education for a Changing World Initiative. Join us as we speak to a range of experts about how imagine technologies such as artificial intelligence are likely to change the world around us and what this might mean for education.

Some media reports suggest that industry values 21st-century skills such as collaboration over technical expertise, but is that really the case? Is it becoming harder for industry to predict the skills that we'll need? And why should education in Australia be thinking now about AI and its potential effects? To get some answers to these questions we spoke to Sandy Plunkett, a leading commentator and analyst of the global technology sector. Drawing on her experience as a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, Sandy talks about why studying the humanities alongside building technical expertise is a smart investment.

Sandy Plunkett:

I'm Sandy Plunkett and I'm a tech sector analyst and commentator. Artificial intelligence is an all-embracing term for a number of discrete new technologies that when combined can be very, very powerful, and in a number of ways, in augmenting human skills and creativity. So, with any new technology, it is important for leaders, policy makers, educators to understand it. The urgency is always to get across the pros, cons and complexities of any new technology, to try and assess the seen and unseen consequences of those things.

AI technology should always be a tool and the servant of the people, it should always be something that helps us become our better selves. Unfortunately, that always get flipped we can become the slaves to technology that is why, it's really, really important human experience, human ingenuity, human creativity, and human assessment and a little bit of healthy scepticism is applied when we look at the introduction of any new technology.

We hear a lot about critical thinking and creative thinking and soft skills like empathy, haven't they always been important though? It's like, oh, critical thinking is somehow suddenly important. No, it always was, it's just that we augmented about critical thinking with different technologies and tools and settings. I think critical thinking really is about making those connections across complex ideas. So, technical skills are absolutely essential but so is the ability to make connections between fields of study.

The thing about AI and algorithms is sometimes things can look quite magical but human coders code these things and smart algorithm is only as smart and unbiased as the people that code it and that often gets lost in the equation. One of the issues for industry, for business and industry, and I think particularly in Australia is too much of a parochial mindset and not enough exposure to global competition but also digital error laws and mores.

I've got to tell you that business leaders really do need to go back to school a little bit to get ahead of this. Business has historically been the loudest critic of education, you know, "we're not educating kids for the workforces of the future." Well, are they building companies that are actually creating the jobs for the future? The best in leading business industries can do is really start understanding more business they are in now, what that business may look like in the future, who is their competition, and what skills do I need in order to survive it?

If business leaders do that better I actually feel that the education and the environment will adapt accordingly and embrace that sense of purpose and excitement. We don't invent and create relatively for the high level of education standards that we have for the sort of baseline ingenuity that we have, we have a terrible ability to building inventing scale them and sell them internationally. So this is what I mean by industry setting an example, industry where R and D, company R and D, is way below the OECD average, right?

So, businesses are saying, "Oh education is not skilling up for the modern era." Well, they're not either, right! I mean, again, put your money where the mouth is. If you were really worried about that, you'd be really doubling up on R and D money and risk and they are not doing that. So, that's why you high performing technical students they go to Silicon Valley or Germany or Scandinavia these days, we haven't got a culture that has actually taken risk. Innovation is risk, it's a risk-based endeavour and with a risk-averse as a culture.

So, all the talk about being an innovation economy, will always just be a wish or ridiculous rhetoric, unless you start to say, is the Australia today enough? Is it sustainable enough? All that health and wealth, happiness that we claim, how do you keep it? How, do you sustain it? What do you have to do to invest in its future?

10 years ago when I was still in Silicon Valley and came back to Australia five to six years ago, it was a lot like a STEM thing was really sort of going a little overboard in my opinion. You need a pipeline of technically oriented research, oriented critical thinking, oriented students and workers in order to just be in the game.

So, music is being defunded in schools, at the primary school level I think that's an absolute mistake businesses don't say, "Oh I need a pianist." They're missing the point - the point is what skills does it require?

What sort of mind and facility does it require to be a great, to be even an average musician? I've seen with my daughter just doing music and how it has built her confidence enough - it's just no doubt about it. So, we always forget that the power of creativity, the power of other languages, music are the languages from French to Latin to Chinese to Mandarin - they are the gateways to another language of science and maths and we often forget this.

If I could give my primary school self some advice to better prepare the future, I was an avid reader, I was intensely curious, I'd ask a lot of questions, I was the pain in the neck - that way I did history and Philosophy of science because I knew exactly what I wanted to do - journalism. But, I didn't know then that I was going to go from journalism into Silicon Valley business and venture capital. So, you start to see that there is no one path to purpose-driven work, you just never know when that job of your dreams is going to require skills that you don't have yet. So, constant learning is what I would say to my high school and university self.


Thank you for listening to this episode of the Edpresso series. You can find out more about the Education for Changing World initiative via the NSW Department of Education's website. There, you can find out to our mailing list or join our conversation on Twitter @Education 2040.

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