Cutting Edge STEM, Griffith University - Teacher Professional Learning Day

Closing Address Speech, by Emily de la Pena (Monday 28 November, 2016)

Good afternoon. Thank you to all of you for attending this wonderful event. It’s great to see your enthusiasm for STEM. Plus a big thank you to the organisers and sponsors for making this event a reality.

There were so many wonderful presentations today. It’s incredibly impressive to see that we are now incorporating the same modes of thinking that today’s innovation consultants use now introduced into the school curriculum. This is cutting edge problem solving.

Now, a bit about me. I worked as a Civil Engineer for over a decade, working on road and transport infrastructure in Queensland and Victoria. I also worked at a bilingual kindergarten in Germany and I worked in digital marketing and community engagement at a social enterprise startup. Now I run after-school coding clubs and school holiday code camps. Because of my background in STEM, I’ve felt comfortable on my adventures doing all these things: engineering, education, marketing, community engagement, tech startups, and now teaching children to code. STEM has been for me a foundation to pursue my interests, regardless of the field or industry and to be agile in the face of rapid change.

Change is inevitable and the rate of change is accelerating. We are heading into an age of exponential technologies.

We are seeing change in terms of digital disruption, automation, artificial intelligence, rapidly improving efficiencies, and economic volatility. Automation and digitisation is changing the nature of jobs and impacting all industries.

And so, what happens to people when they struggle to keep up with change? They can react with fear and potentially support simple solutions to complex technological, economic and socio-political problems. We are seeing this right now.

What happens to organisations when they struggle to keep up with change? As Pierre Nanterme, CEO of  Accenture once said, “Digital is the main reason just over half of the companies on the Fortune 500 have disappeared since the year 2000.”  

Change is upon us, technologically and economically and we are all trying to keep up. But STEM, and scientific literacy and numeracy is not just about jobs of the future and future proofing our children. STEM is embedded in all parts of life. For example: civics and politics, news and media, personal and community health and economics.

Change is inevitable and the cost of getting left behind is too great. We can see these changes in many ways. For example: the rise of internet platforms that within a few years exceed the value of bricks and mortar businesses that took decades to build. For example:

  • Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no taxis
  • Airbnb, the largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate.
  • Skype and WeChat, the largest phone companies, owns no telecommunications infrastructure.
  • Alibaba, the world’s most valuable retailer owns no inventory.

Right now only 50% of the world’s population is connected to the internet. As internet access approaches 100%, how will that impact the value and nature of the internet? This means there will be more people to sell to, to buy stuff off and to work for us remotely.

STEM plays a vital role in all aspects of life. Especially now. We can see right now the impacts of lacking scientific literacy and numeracy in health, social, political and economic problems. There has been an increase in anti-vaccination movement in the last few years. There are still political discussions as to the existence of climate change and its impact on the Great Barrier Reef. When news media quotes statistics, can the audience exercise critical thinking to question the context of those numbers being thrown around. STEM is vital to our community not just in terms of employment opportunities and developing solutions to world problems, it ties in with civic duty and engaging constructively in public discussion.

Artificial intelligence, or AI is being developed and commercialised into professional roles such as doctors, lawyers and psychologists:

Earlier this year IBM’s AI platform named Watson correctly diagnosed a patient within minutes, something doctors had failed to do after months. A female patient suffering from leukaemia had been baffling medical professionals in Japan after all previous treatments proved ineffective. It was a mystery for doctors. The team with no other ideas on what to do decided to call in IBM’s Watson for help and it proved to be a life saving move. Watson spent just 10 minutes studying the patient’s medical information and was able to cross-reference her condition against 20 million oncological records. This case is a glimpse into the future. A supercomputer like Watson is able to store vast volumes of information for example every medical journal, case study, and symptom and can rapidly analyse conditions and eliminate instances of misdiagnosis.

Watson uses cognitive computing and quantum computing. Cognitive computing means that it thinks more naturally, understanding nuance of human language, and can provide smarter answers from large amounts of unstructured data. Its system is fed millions of documents on a subject and then uses machine learning to identify questions it’s being asked, to work out the most logical answer.

Also earlier this year, the world’s first AI lawyer was hired at a law firm. Ross, the AI lawyer, can be used to look up obscure court rulings from decades ago. Ross can find a specific case in an instant and also offer opinions in plain English about the old ruling’s relevance to the case at hand. Ross uses the supercomputing power of IBM’s Watson. Judges decisions are written in everyday language and not issued as structured data in rows and columns, which is how current computer systems digest information. But Watson and Ross AI are able to comb through huge batches of unstructured data and over time learn how to best serve its users.

Then there is Ellie. Ellie is an AI psychologist. Ellie is able to read and respond to human emotions in real time and can diagnose anxiety, depression and post traumatic stress disorder. This AI was developed at the University of Southern California with funding from the US Defense Department. People who have had sessions with Ellie say that they enjoy speaking with it because they don’t feel judged. Ellie can also be better than humans at detecting minute facial and body movements.  

Right now we are seeing the greatest rate of change humanity has ever seen. STEM innovation is a good thing. It means progress. Now is the most exciting time to be alive. We are approaching abundance and wide scale empowerment. Everyone is a  creator. Everyone has access to so much more resources. Now more than ever anybody can open up an e-commerce store, or become YouTube star, a social media consultant, an entrepreneur, an inventor or a change maker.

Today a Masai warrior on a cell phone in the middle of Kenya has better mobile communication than US President Reagan 25 years ago. If they were on a smartphone they have access to more information than US President Clinton 15 years ago. We are now in an information and communication abundance.

Technological innovation is accelerating change and progress towards a world of abundance.  We can achieve a future where 9 billion people will have access to clean water, food, energy, health care, education and everything else that is necessary for a first world standard of living, thanks to technological innovation. Creating abundance is about taking what is scarce and making it available. Technology is a resource liberating force. We don’t need to wait for governments or multinational corporations to solve our big world issues. Around the world a swarm of independent innovators will achieve startling advances in many areas of technology. Some of them may be our students.

With STEM we can take on grand challenges of this planet. We can develop children who are curious, empowered and informed. They can grow to become innovators, change makers and agile problem solvers in the face of change.

Some of these advances are happening in our backyard. If your school is in Brisbane, please take the opportunity to share these wonders with your students. There are many world class robots being designed in Queensland. Two examples are COTSbot and Harvey the Harvester

Agriculture and mining on the east coast of Australia has led to increased sediments in the Great Barrier Reef. This environmental change has encouraged the population of crown of thorns starfish, a native organism in the Reef, to flourish. Controlled populations of this starfish is part of the natural ecosystem, however overpopulation is destructive to the Reef as these starfish eat coral. Currently, the only means to control the starfish population is for human divers to find them and inject them with vinegar, which kills them. The COTSbot robot was developed by QUT to navigate the Great Barrier Reef, detect and inject these starfish with vinegar. COTSbot uses machine learning to learn to identify crown of thorns starfish. COTSbot first started with learning to identify images of these starfish, then progressed to identifying 3D prints of the starfish and then was taken to the Great Barrier Reef to learn to identify real crown of thorns starfish. COTSbot has now learned to identify crown of thorns starfish with 99% accuracy. It can now also tell the difference between a 3D print of a starfish a real one. You can see its intelligence progress over time.

Now for robots on land. 30% of crops in Australia are wasted due to lack of workers at the exact time of year when crops need to be harvested. Harvey the Harvester has been trained to identify and pick ripe capsicums. As with COTSbot, Harvey used machine learning to learn to identify ripe capsicums. Harvey started learning using images of capsicums, then progressed to plastic capsicums and on to real capsicums. Harvey can now also differentiate between plastic capsicums and real capsicums.

I’ve taken school groups to visit these robots and they’ve enjoyed interacting with and seeing the real life applications of what they’re learning at school. It’s fun for students to see that machines need to learn too, just like them. Especially when you highlight that machines learn from making mistakes and reflecting on these errors for future decision making.

It’s not just machines that are solving problems. As humans we are tool makers. We use tools to leverage our abilities. The internet is one of our greatest tools. In the age of the internet we can now crowdsource problem solving.

A problem involving how to fold an HIV protein has been stumping scientists for decades. Scientists have been trying to solve this puzzle which is critical for understanding the reproduction of the AIDS virus.

This protein folding problem was uploaded to Fold It - an online game that poses complex puzzles about how proteins fold, in a way it’s like 3D Tetris. How long did it take for online gamers to solve this protein folding problem? 15 days. What scientists spent over decades trying to solve, was solved in 15 days from a swarm of online gamers trying to fold a protein structure. With help from gamers’, researchers were able to identify targets for drugs to neutralise the enzyme. The experiment also discovered that the best protein folder in the world is not a scientist, but a female nurse from the UK who would go home after work and play the Fold It computer game.  

Crowd sourced problem solving is also used in malaria detection. There are over 200 million malaria cases annually worldwide and over 600,000 deaths a year.  The gold standard for estimating the parasite burden and the corresponding severity of the disease consists in manually counting the number of parasites in blood smears through a microscope, a process that can take more than 20 minutes of an expert’s time. This manual process is the bottleneck in the whole process.

So how is this bottleneck resolved? These blood smears were uploaded into an online game called  So if you like playing computer games, instead of shooting aliens in an outerspace game you can shoot parasites in blood smears. Now we have 10s of 1000s of online gamers working through 10s of 1000s of blood smear images. Online gaming has solved this bottleneck.

STEM innovation is leaving a positive impact on communities and industries. But STEM is not just about learning STEM skills. Developing STEM skills also builds fundamental skills: resilience, creativity, curiosity, being comfortable with uncertainty, learning from experimentation, collaboration, communication of and selling your ideas to others. These fundamental skills are transferable to any industry, problem or situation.

STEM does not exist in a vacuum, it is heavily integrated with humanities. STEM is embedded in everything and will be the driver for human advancement and social change. With STEM we can develop children who are empowered, curious and feel enabled to create their vision of the world. By being comfortable with uncertainty and experimentation they will be able to create innovation for a better future. STEM encourages curiosity, drives lifelong learning and empowers to create change.

Economically we are now moving away from commodity based capital such as mining to intellectual capital. Skills that are valued are creativity, imagination, analysis, doing science, problem solving, and engaging communities.

Creating this world of abundance and technological innovation, and developing children with a love of lifelong learning and curiosity is beautiful and worthy ideal to strive for. It is possible and the signs show that we are heading in this direction. But it won’t be easy to achieve. These are what I see at the top 3  challenges.

  1. Number 1. If you’re here already then you are most probably already engaged with STEM. But there are many more teachers, educators, parents, and organisations that need to get on board. STEM is now integrated into everything, all industries, all jobs and all organisations. It’s not good enough to say, “Oh but I was never good at maths” or “ I’m not very good with computers or technology”. I know. I used to be that person. This is a whole other discussion. We can talk about this afterwards. STEM is for everyone, not just the gifted students. STEM is vital in terms of developing solutions to world problems, and in civic responsibilities and engaging in public discussion. STEM needs to be accessible to everyone. It’s not just for nerds.
  2. Number 2. This potential obstacle is what I like to call post hype activation. At the moment STEM and especially coding and robotics is getting a lot of media attention. The key for us early adopters here today is that if and when all the hype is gone that we are still here to remind those around us of the importance of STEM and the fundamental and transferable skills that it delivers in a world that is rapidly changing.  
  3. Number 3. Don’t get fooled by shiny objects. STEM is not about having the latest tech gadgets, such as 3D printers, state of the art tablets, the whole kit and kaboodle. STEM is about 2 things: 1) modes of thinking, how you can approach problem solving, and 2) mindset, believing in yourself, feeling empowered to create and invent, resilience and agile to change.

With so many challenges why are we doing this at all? Because the cost to the individual and to us as a community is too great to not do anything about it. They are our students and our future. STEM will drive social impact and human advancement.

Children around the world are enthusiastically engaging in STEM. They are developing projects to create solutions for themselves and the wider community. There were 1000s of extraordinary projects that students entered at the Google Science Fair this year. It is a worldwide science competition for 13-18 year olds.

Nikhil, a 15 year old student from the USA, had a serious family health scare when his aunt nearly died of a particularly resistant malaria strain in 2015. Malaria mostly affects less developed countries like Africa and India. Nikhil's aunt lives in a rural part of India, and while she was able to receive basic diagnosis and treatment, her doctor did not have access to laboratories that could determine to what degree her medications were working to remove the parasites. His aunt almost didn't recover because of this, so Nikhil was determined to create an affordable solution for tests. He built a test for analyzing malaria levels in the blood that requires no lab and minimal power: all you need is a smartphone and $50 worth of materials.

Here in Brisbane there are many STEM competitions. If you get the chance, visit one, walk around and see the projects students have built. This is an impressive experience and you get to learn from some amazing projects. One of my favourites this year was at the Young ICT Explorers competition. A group of 4 Year 5 girls had built a device using an Arduino that tests water turbidity. They thought about the use of the device which would be by rivers in rural areas and they created a design that would be robust for use in that environment.

This year at Bulimba State School one of my student teams developed TED, a companion robot. TED, T-E-D stands for talking, entertainment droid. TED tells jokes and stories and is designed to provide companionship to a person who is lonely.

When we foster curiosity and love of lifelong learning, then everything else will follow.

Now it’s the end of the event. Where to from here? STEM is just the surface. The fundamental traits are curiosity, lifelong learning and resilience. This means being comfortable with uncertainty and experimentation and to be empowered to create change.

I’ll give you a minute now to reflect on today. Think about your top 3 actions that have come from today’s experiences.

Here are my top 3 actions from today:

  1. Enjoy the adventure and share in your optimism of the future. Now is the most exciting time to be alive.
  2. Continue to build on and share what you have learnt today.
  3. Nurture the new connections you have made today. We are stronger if we work together as a community.

I look forward to watching everyone’s journeys and adventures in this space. Thank you.