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U.S. Millennials Know Technology, But Not How to Solve Problems With It, Study Says

By Guest Blogger Michele Molnar

The U.S. education system isn't adequately preparing students to use technology for problem-solving, according to a newly released analysis, which recommends what public schools and businesses can do to address that problem.

Change the Equation, a Washington-based organization promoting science, technology, engineering, and math, or "STEM" studies, looked at how American millennials—the first "digital natives" because they were born after the Internet—fared in an international study of adult skills in 19 countries.

To do so, the organization conducted an original analysis of data from the 2012 Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies, which tested the key cognitive and workplace skills needed to participate in society.Digital Native Does Not Need Tech Savvy.JPG

"Yes, [millennials] can take selfies," said Linda Rosen, CEO of Change the Equation, in a presentation announcing the organization's findings this week. "Yes, they can use social media."

What they are not so capable of doing is solving high-level problems with technology, she said. In fact, 58 percent of millennials struggle to use digital tools and networks to solve relatively simple problems that involve skills like sorting, searching for, and emailing information from a spreadsheet, the study found.

Beyond that, 19 percent of the U.S. population sampled cannot categorize using technology, she said. That capability involves a task as simple as creating folders to handle the daily deluge of email.

Translated into earning capability, a person with the highest ability to problem-solve with technology is likely to earn more than double what a person at the lowest level earns, according to the organization's analysis.

At the event to announce the STEM study, Jo Handelsman, the White House's associate director for science in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, offered three suggestions for schools and businesses:

  1. Add relevance to what is taught in the classroom by asking students to solve real-world problems, including ones that businesses allow students to tackle. "This is particularly significant for women and minorities," she said. Studies show that they have a higher need for relevance to keep them interested in STEM, according to Handelsman.
  2. Change how teachers teach. "So much of K-12 education is passive," she said. "It's the old-fashioned lecture model, with rote memorization." Injecting the "exciting aspect of real-world work" like coding and creation will increase students' receptivity to STEM, Handelsman said, noting that students need to learn with "hands-on, active techniques" in science and technology. Kids will "start expecting it," she said, "and teachers will come along."
  3. Improve the image of STEM and STEM careers. "That's an area where we have to work with the larger media," she said, emphasizing the importance of "getting images of exciting people in exciting careers" into the public's eye.

The work of Techbridge, a nonprofit that inspires girls to pursue technology, science and math, was also in the spotlight at the event, as was the involvement of Chevron, one of that organization's corporate sponsors. Several organizations' work in trying to increase participation in STEM has been profiled in the new brief published by Change the Equation, "Does Not Compute: The High Cost of Low Technology Skills in the U.S.—and What We Can Do About It."  

To learn more about how problem-solving in technology-rich environments was measured in the 2012 Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, visit this link.

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