CYBER SECURITY MAKES STEM EDUCATION REAL
The industry likely to suffer the most severe impact is information technology. Because Microsoft stopped supporting its Windows XP operating system at the beginning of April this year, it will no longer release fixes for bugs or patches for security leaks. Some blithely point out that the Windows XP operating system is 13 years old, and they argue that businesses need to update their software to take advantage of modern developments. After all, since students are being trained on the best operating systems available, shouldn't businesses also use this updated medium?
Many businesses may not have a choice. In niche industries around the country, specialized software has been built to support the needs of specific companies. In many cases this software was built on demand by external groups that may no longer be in business. Such software may not be able to function on Windows 7 or 8, or other modern operating systems. And many standalone devices such as point-of-sale checkout systems and ATMs operate using a Windows XP background. Updating all of these systems will be massively expensive, requiring trained information technology specialists to smooth the way through the transition period.
The bumps of transition are not the only problem. Smaller businesses may not have the resources to update technology because of low incomes and profit margins. But they will still need to use computers to run their businesses, maintain their books, and process customer transactions. With no additional security support coming from XP, their operations are more vulnerable to currently-unknown security holes.
But what do these business problems have to do with STEM education? Everything! Cyber security is not a new concern. As an increasing number of businesses have gone online, there has been a concomitant increase in the number of security breaches in institutions entrusted with consumers' sensitive financial data. Banks like RBS, defense contractors, and even the popular Target retail chain have all had their servers hacked and valuable information stolen. This is not a problem that a simple infusion of money can fix. Analyzing systems to ensure that they are safe, and that new holes are patched quickly and effectively, must be done by qualified professionals. Ongoing support by new information technology professionals will be required to help manage transitions and maintain software that is industry-specific and vital to businesses' ability to maintain their workflow goals.
In sum, it may seem that STEM education has little to do with America's multifaceted niche small businesses. But the truth is that any business that relies on technology to achieve its goals has a vested interest in ensuring that students are well trained in STEM education, and that they pursue information technology as a career after leaving school.
Computer science will account for over half of the new STEM jobs over the next decade, but formal STEM education does not seem to be adequately preparing students to fill these roles. Numerous strategies have been put forth to fix these problems. Some include creating charter schools to attract students interested in STEM to provide them with better training and career guidance. Another option is to increase public-private partnerships to ensure that adequate resources are available for every program targeting students seeking STEM training. But perhaps the best starting point for solving the problem is simply the dissemination of clear and accurate information about the current situation and what it means for the future if left unchecked. STEM education is not just about ensuring a supply of high-tech workers for high-tech fields; it is also about ensuring that support services are available for the industries that support the rest of the work that goes on in America. While this article has focused on cyber security, the same argument could be made about biomedical research, computer networking, new technologies, and engineering. STEM is foundational to the American business model, and ensuring that tomorrow's students are ready to take the torch of economic success should be one of today's STEM education priorities.