According to a recent report published by the European Parliament, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) occupations are among the top 20 bottleneck vacancies in the European Union. In the Netherlands, the amount of people who choose to pursue a technical career is much lower than it was 30 years ago. Women in particular are underrepresented in most technical fields, despite the fact that slightly more women than men choose to pursue college education. This poses a great challenge to companies, as the demand for STEM talent is expected to increase. It also puts pressure on educators to redefine their curricula and rethink their approach to STEM education. We spoke with Marcel van Wijk, a pioneer that is connecting business and academia to bridge the STEM talent gap. Marcel is in charge of the HighTechCenterDelft (HTCDelft), a foundation that works with educational institutions and companies to prepare students for this changing labor market.
Marcel, can you tell us a bit more about yourself and your background?
I’m an enthusiastic engineer who wants to inspire students to learn about science and technology. As the Director of HTCDelft, I work with companies and schools to stimulate technical education and enrich the curriculum of academic institutions.
What does HTCDelft do?
HTCDelft specializes in creating a playground where students and companies can work together on innovation projects. This playground is a learning environment where students can experiment with the latest high tech equipment. Every quarter, we organize a type of marketplace where companies have to write down a problem they are trying to solve. Students are then invited to work on the problem and prototype solutions to address it. We’ve had many interesting examples of companies changing their processes or an approach to a certain issue thanks to innovative solutions put forth by students.
Together, we have developed many exciting projects. For instance, we’re working on cars that can deliver energy to smart grids and we’ve developed robots that can separate items to facilitate separation and recycling.
Our upcoming event is a hackathon that aims to develop solutions to reduce CO2 emissions. We expect many interesting projects to emerge from it.
Can you tell us more about this hackathon and what makes it unique?
The challenge of the hackathon is to develop Smart Industry solutions for CO2 reduction. Participants (young professionals, students and experienced hackers) will be able to work on a wide range of areas, from smarter street lighting to energy transition and monitoring. It’s an open challenge. Solutions will be judged according to their impact on CO2 reduction.
There are two things that make this hackathon unique. The first is that we, as the organizers, are forming the teams to ensure that we have a good balance of young professionals, students and experienced hackers. Teams will be multidisciplinary. The second is that we’re stimulating teams to create a prototype or proof of concept that covers both hardware and software.
How do events like these foster an appreciation for STEM?
Events like these improve the operational connection between companies and education partners. Technologies are evolving so fast that it’s almost impossible for teachers to know everything. The role of the teacher is transforming and it’s challenging to get teachers excited about STEM. At the same time, there is a big talent gap so educators are under strain to promote STEM fields. Hackathons like these build an excitement about these fields because you’re making things that actually work. You’re encouraging students to think outside the box and you’re also helping current professionals to develop their skills. Through our work at HTCDelft we hope to radically change education to deliver people that are adaptive problem solvers; not specialists in a single technology.