Science & Technology Education: A Dutch Perspective

Policy makers who want to stimulate innovation need to look at the new generation of people coming into the workforce. But are they properly prepared to play a role in invention and change? Rob Blaauboer looks at Dutch experience of teaching them how.

It is interesting that the country that we, in many cases look up to in innovation matters, the United States, is equally worried about its declining position. For decades the US was the world innovator, churning out innovations. Early 2010, Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt sent a letter to the Washington Post with a warning: the US has an Innovation Deficit.

In this letter he wrote that the next green Silicon Valley might find root in Germany or China. Innovation is no longer the prerogative of large companies but increasingly coming from start-ups. For innovation to thrive, you need the right innovation climate. The innovation deficit is also recognised by the US government and an action plan was announced.

Educate to Innovate is campaign started by Obama administration to get more children and students interested in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM).

Reading the announcement, my first reaction was: why doesn’t the Netherlands do this, on the premise that the US is an innovation leader (they rank 3rd on the WEF GCI index, Netherlands ranks 8th). Until I realised: the Netherlands has been active stimulating interest in STEM for 6,5 years. America is not leading, it’s following.

National Platform of Science & Technology

The National Platform of Science & Technology’s goal is to get more students graduating with a STEM profile and get kids and students interested and enthusiastic about Science and Technology. One of the ways this takes place can be seen on the bi-annual Summit organised by the platform. The most recent Summit called “Meet the future” was held in The Hague in November. On the public event, top notch speakers like Neil Armstrong (1st man on the moon) and Steve Wozniak (one of the Apple founders) told their story and vision on Science & Technology. There was something for everyone from hands experience to lectures like ‘Einstein’s E=MC2 for dummies’.

© Erik Van Brugge

The Platform really covers the whole education chain – from kids in the age of 8 – 9 to students on all types of schools and universities. We need all kinds of people with a stem profile, from process operators to professors and everything in between.

The Platform is the Dutch approach to get more STEM students. It is a government initiative which started 6,5 years with a real sense of urgency. The goals, increase the number of students with a STEM profile by 15% has been reached and the results were presented by the chairman of the Platform, Jeroen van der Veer, former CEO of Shell.

I interviewed Jeroen van der Veer, former Shell CEO to get his view on STEM and the importance of STEM for society.

Why did you choose the National Platform from all the possibilities you had when you retired from Shell as Chairman?

— Shell showed me the importance of Technology and Science for a company. Two out of ten people in The Netherlands study science & technology and that is not enough. A better balance would be four out of ten. We need more scientists, engineers and so on. I’ve been active in this field for many years, founding Jet-NET (Youth and Technology Network) together with 4 partners (Philips, DSM, Akzo Nobel and Unilever).

Did you hear about the Educate to Innovate initiative?

— Vaguely. Many western countries have innovation programs or stimulate innovation. Education is always a part of that.

The US is often seen as guiding light in Innovation. Isn’t it strange that they follow when it comes to education?

— When I was with the Dutch Innovation Platform (a think tank for government) we learned that we were filing patents but we failed to convert it into new companies and business. Knowledge, Capabilities and Cash, the translation from knowledge to capabilities, that is the problem for us and where other countries like the US are better.

Educate to innovate looks to also have a focus that stimulates literacy in science and technology whereas the national platform looks to focus on the number of science and technology graduates. Is that true?

— We try to interest kids from an early age for science and technology. That is where it starts. We introduced a (Dutch) booklet that describes what science and technology has done for you on a regular day. This booklet is written for schools in primary education.

Can we, 16 miljlion Dutch people, ever compete with more than a billion Chinese?

— If you import Chinese products we must export something, otherwise you can’t pay for it. We do not have raw materials so we need to export knowledge. So we come back to the goal of strengthening the knowledge economy. We need more excellence, the US might score low on PISA but they also excel (e.g. Universities like MIT). We are somewhere in the middle and need to get to the top, going from 2 out of 10 students in science and technology to 3 out of 10 which we achieved now is a star but not enough yet as I stated above.

Do we need top universities like MIT in the Netherlands?

— We need excellence in all types of education and keep the bigger picture in scope. We have three technical universities, they cannot all become MIT. Work together, focus and see where which excellence is offered. We need to make choices. Rotterdam with its harbour and chemical plants need the best process engineers so offer excellent education in that area, close to where it is needed.

What is your opinion about the Innovation Union as one of the seven pillars of Europe 2020? How realistic are these plans?

— Politicians like to be ambitious. But if you ask them so what are we going to do on Monday morning it remains quiet. It is easy to be ambitious but difficult to keep the momentum and act. A good example is the Co2 reductions. Let’s say the goal is 20% reduction. The first debate in the Netherlands is that we want 30% not 20%. Just start and if you reach your goal, then you can go for 30%.

Children are by definition curious. They want to discover things. What is the parent’s role with regards to science and technology?

— When you are young and already see something of science or technology, in a museum or ‘bring your kid to work’ programs that is a good start. For primary schools we have a program called ‘Giving parents eyes’ where we teach parents to stimulate their kids when they have questions. Some parents find it easy; others need to learn to do that.

Educate to Innovate

How does the US government stimulate STEM?

— The message and the reasoning is the same as in the Netherlands: we have great schools, excellent teachers and successful students but there are signs that students should score higher in maths and science. There is too little progression. Three goals have been defined:

  • Increase STEM literacy so that all students can learn deeply and think critically in science, maths, engineering, and technology.
  • Move American students from the middle of the pack to top in the next decade.
  • Expand STEM education and career opportunities for under-represented groups, including women and girls.

Save the World, study STEM

The First steps have been taken. Five public private partnership have started that will use media, interactive games, hands on learning and volunteers to stimulate students to become the next generation of inventors and innovators.

The movie shows the value of STEM education:

  • Science helps you understand things;
  • Most Fortune 500 CEO’s have an engineering degree, not business or law
  • You can change the world with innovations and inventions, but you need knowledge of science and technology

The Americans put it very boldly: “Save the world, study science and technology”, a little too bold for us Dutch. But the importance of Science and Technology is quite clear.

About the author

Rob has more than 13 years of innovation experience and he is currently the Innovation Practice Manager at Logica, responsible for, among others, participation in research projects (like FP7 and national programmes). Furthermore, he manages Logica’s contribution to the Norm for Innovation Management (TC 389) and is part of Logica’s Global Innovation Council. In the past, Rob has worked as Interim Innovation Manager, Global Funnel Manager, Innovation Thought Leader and a number of other innovation positions both internally as well as for clients. He also has extensive experience in Financial Services. Apart from the contribution to this website, he also blogs frequently (in Dutch) on Frankwatching.com on innovation, trends and gadgets.
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