STEMpathy, via Thomas Friedman, and Sean the teacher

Automation is coming for the American worker.

I have been bothered by our recent election, with all its swirling issues. However, one aspect swirling out of this maelstrom, is the dissatisfaction of Americans put out of work with globalization, and the technological acceleration based on Moore’s law. Much has been made of the President’s claim that he brought Carrier jobs back from overseas.

Much has ALSO been written that the massive forces of “off-shoring” of jobs is NOT just a redistribution to countries with lower-cost labor, BUT ALSO a continuing acceleration of technology and automation. Bringing jobs back is but a brief speed-bump along the way to losing the jobs again to robots and computers.

As a parent, how are we to advise our younglings as they prepare to head out into the world? If globalization and Moore’s law are contributing to the destabilization of our visions of the future, how can we see clearly enough to help them choose wisely?

Tom Friedman’s latest book, “Thank you for being late” is a thoughtful, broadly researched, multi-cultural, geopolitical, economist’s answer to this question. And one of his answers to this question is:


Although, to be fair, a google search on the term first shows a WordPress blog by an insightful 5th grade science teacher: 

that appears to predate Mr. Friedman’s best-selling tome. Thank you Sean.

Nevertheless, I love this term. STEMpathy encompasses two ideas. The first is, that having a solid understanding of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math is a requisite foundation for the coming age of scientifically- and computationally-based Age of Acceleration. AND YET, STEM skills are insufficient to survive into this future, for as computation power doubles every 18 months and costs continue to fall, the capabilities of robotics and automation, powered by machine learning, are sure to outstrip almost all human occupations, from manual labor to highly technical and cognitive fields, including (gasp) MEDICINE.

What is a high-school or college student to do? Friedman notes, and I agree, that obtaining a solid college (and for some, post-college) education would set one up for a lifelong career in some respectable field. No more. Now, one would be lucky to complete a college degree, that might lead to one’s FIRST job for a few years, but that as the speed of change increases, one must learn to find employment as jobs change and entire categories of jobs collapse, or are born.

So, what skill(s) might future-proof a youngling over the coming decades?

This is the second part of the STEMpathy idea: the combination of a solid grounding in rigorous STEM scientific thinking WITH exceptional skills in EMPATHY, communication, human connection. In my experience, this combination of skills rarely occurs “in the wild” and must be explicitly learned. This is the double-whammy of left-brained logical, numerical thinking, combined with right-brained words, story, art, connection, that is so hard to find in one individual.

And perhaps the most hopeful note, is that empathy, communication, and human connection, unlike the mythology that “you’re either born with it or not” is NOT TRUE. In our organization, we have incorporated several Communications and Empathy courses into the curriculum for medical students, residents, and more recently, our academic faculty. For example, our recent Communications Workshop that I teach (more on this in a future post) is from the Institute for Healthcare Excellence. One set of skills taught includes the acronym PEARLS (partnership, empathy, acknowledgement, respect, legalization, support). These are discrete skills that can be practiced, learned, and mastered.

My bet, is that STEMpathy is useful now, and is one way to future-proof yourself, and the next generation. Be safe out there!

Author: CT Lin

CMIO, UCHealth (Colorado); Professor, University of Colorado School of Medicine

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