As the digital education sector continues to grow, pioneers like MindFuel are ensuring inclusive, diverse, and engaging innovation ecosystems are being built. We spoke to MindFuel’s CEO, Cassy Weber, about redefining STEM education and what it means to be a woman in tech.
As a woman in a male-dominated tech field, what barriers have you encountered in your career? How did you overcome them?
I’ve been in many early-stage tech startups and have frequently been the only female or in the female minority. Generally speaking, there has been and still is a deficit of female mentors in the industry, which creates a twofold problem: first, from an optics perspective and because leadership in the ecosystem is still greatly male-dominated, corporate culture isn’t dynamically representative of the true demographics of our national population; and second, this homogenous corporate culture can lead to myopic influences in the development of disruptive technologies.
This can lead to unchecked biases that affect how technology is developed, often catering to the represented without engaging or utilizing the underrepresented. Ironically, the underrepresented population in a typical Canadian classroom is usually the majority — girls in STEM, Indigenous peoples, newcomers, and more. So, the call to action is to invest in programs that change this disparity.
The solution isn’t simply a matter of affirmative action in hiring practices. It’s a longer-term investment in engaging youth in K–12, particularly the underrepresented populations, onto post-secondary STEM pathways, with access to diverse mentors, into industry. Building an inclusive and diverse innovation ecosystem is where MindFuel focuses its skills and expertise.
How has Canada’s digital education sector changed over the years? How do you think it will grow?
MindFuel entered the digital education sector at its beginnings in the early 1990s, and since then our nonprofit has adjusted and pivoted with changing technology and advancements in STEM fields. Obvious shifts include moving from static, downloadable content to dynamic, interactive, and user-generated content.
Facilitating this evolution of ‘smart’ technologies over the past 20 years is ubiquitous connectivity, authoring tools, access to devices on an any-time basis, and user interest in adopting and adapting to the latest technologies and applications — be it laptops, cellphones, social media, or something else. This has created the opportunity for the digital education sector to bridge gaps in curricula and overcome barriers of inaccessibility, and has also, by default, created opportunities for immersive digital literacy skills development.
As technology continues to advance in the realm of augmented and virtual realities (AR and VR), these tools will be another resource the sector can rely on to push the boundary of what is possible in classroom and distance learning.
Why is it important for Canadian youth to become involved in STEM fields?
By engaging with youth and feeding their curiosity in the world of STEM education, we’re inspiring tomorrow’s scientists, engineers, doctors, and innovators, which has never been more important. These future leaders need to be armed with the tools and knowledge to identify creative solutions to real-world problems, from global pandemics to ways our nation can move forward in the tech and innovation sector.
The reality in Canadian classrooms is a precipitous decline in STEM enrollment as certain student demographics advance through school. This is due to inaccessibility of representative resources, non-adaptation to diverse learning needs or a culmination of other factors. MindFuel addresses these issues by ensuring STEM topics are engaging and inclusive, working to directly target underrepresented demographics, such as girls, visible minorities, newcomers, and those living in poverty.
We have succeeded in this endeavor through our Canada Tech Futures — Innovation Gateway (CTF) program, giving students the expertise and resources to find solutions to real problems, and then helping them commercialize their projects as a successful and fruitful career path if they choose. Through this program, we are directly contributing to Canada’s innovation sector by helping underrepresented youth create jobs, address needs, and find success in a STEM career.
Do you have any tips for parents or educators when it comes to sparking children’s curiosity for STEM?
Innovation doesn’t just happen. Rather, it results when a problem and the desire for change are identified, coupled with the right mindset and support network. Innovation will be a critical factor in achieving a durable, inclusive, and diversified economic recovery for Canada.
With this in mind, one of the best things you can encourage your child to do is to ask questions. Teach them to constantly question the world around them, and you will see their curiosity and interests flourish. When children start asking the overarching “why” and “how” questions, a deeper level of thinking is encouraged, which supports a broader comprehension of how STEM plays a part in everything we do.
As their understanding of STEM topics develops, we can engage children’s entrepreneurial spirit and creativity through problem solving. MindFuel encourages this through its game-based learning programs, where they’re encouraged to think critically, through to CTF which allows students to take these skills and apply them. By making STEM topics engaging and palatable for youth regardless of their age and learning level, we’re ensuring a higher chance of them finding success in their classes and future careers.