Michael Holmstrom is a man on a mission to teach “21st-century skills to solve real-world problems” and change the face of STEM Education.
STEM Punks, which Michael co-founded, is considered a global leader in STEM Education. One glance at their web sites (one for parents and one for schools) will explain why. Michael and his team’s enthusiasm for STEM education being available to all in a highly immersive and enjoyable way is tangible.
Michael studied for a Masters in Science and Engineering at Mälardalen in Sweden. One year of that, he spent at the University of Queensland, Australia, and decided to stay and settle there. At the end of his degree, he stayed on at the university to do research before co-funding GroundProbe, a global leader in advanced hardware and software solutions to the mining industry.
Michael was then headhunted to be CEO of Mail Shopper during its pilot phase for an Australian launch. Mail Shopper aimed to make digital technologies easy for retailers to use and promote their businesses, thereby bringing more customers to the stores.
He then co-founded Breadcrumb Digital, a consultancy specializing in implementing digital-enabled strategies. During the next few years, he would hold various Non-Exec roles, including work for the Enterprise Workshop Organization, which aimed to teach managers how to harness the power of innovation. Others included MEC Mining, a consultancy specializing in mine planning and management, and IOT Technics, an organization re-inventing how “things” can improve our lives.
Michael says he has over the years “created some good businesses and some horrible businesses” and worked with start-ups, mentoring new business owners. Two of those he co-founded were Drobotix, experts in remote and autonomous flying and terrestrial robots and STEM Punks.
Michael says that people have plenty of ideas in his experience, but even Ph.D.’s struggle to turn them into something of value. Innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship are in short supply. STEM Education should change this with a combination of problem solving, immersion, and relevance.
STEM Education the STEM Punks way
STEM Punks operates from Samford in South East Queensland, Australia. It brings together all of Michael’s passions; his vast knowledge of Robotics, drones, engineering, his passion for innovation, and making STEM Education relevant to the 21st world.
Michael’s wife came up with the name initially, and they managed to trademark it, which was incredibly lucky. Now, STEM being recognized as an acronym, that wouldn’t be possible. They always intended to be the punk in the education system, disrupting it.
Michael explained that generally, in STEM education, people develop apps to teach kids how to code. Michael thinks that just assembling 30 kids in a classroom to learn to code for a year is a waste of time. Few relate it to anything they want to do in life. STEM Punks do not do that.
They start with a problem. From looking for solutions to a problem, the kids see how STEM Skills can be applied in all areas of their lives and whatever career path they want to follow, from being a chef or going into agriculture.
STEM Punks have educators designing and delivering the content in their STEM education, but they also have exceptional industry contacts. For example, they work with the scientists who train astronauts for NASA. They encourage the children to look at world issues, which means they also succeed with more gender diverse groups. They aim to appeal to everyone, not just to scientists or engineers.
They run a range of immersive programs on coding, app design, robotics, drones. They cater for the novice to the advanced. Small wonder the kids are inspired, attending diverse events from 3d printing, drone flying, or robotics workshops.
STEM Punks provides immersive programs for both students and teachers, from primary to secondary. The aim is to take all aspects of STEM Education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) and make it understandable and relatable and, in doing so, inspire creative, problem-solving, and entrepreneurial thinking in the leaders of tomorrow.
Michael passionately believes that these programs should be available to everyone and that everyone should learn at their individual pace to get the desired outcome. They call it a precision curriculum.
STEM Punk’s Growth and impact:
The company is less than five years old yet is already recognized for its transformational work in STEM Education. They have already won the State of Queensland Telstra Business Awards and been a finalist in the Australia Small Business Champion awards.
During 2019, they had experienced tremendous success and super-fast growth. The team had found the education system quite conservative and more receptive to their work live in the schools than remotely. Therefore they had been particularly busy with their one- and two-day live events, holiday courses, and after-school clubs.
To Michael, it wasn’t the best situation, but they were growing and thriving. However, the work took a great deal of time and focus. Michael knew that it was the online side that would need to be developed if they were to scale their STEM Education in the way he wanted.
In February 2020, COVID hit. Large numbers of Australian students come from overseas. STEM Punks lost 80% of their revenue in the space of a fortnight. Michael says he spent two days just walking around the house, wondering what to do.
In retrospect, COVID has been the best thing that could have happened for them on a purely strategic level as it forced them to move up their on-line presence. Michael says the IKEA minded Swede in him knew nothing about video or live streaming and determined that they should take it on themselves to keep the costs minimal.
Schools were desperate for content, and Michael decided to offer it for free on YouTube and Facebook while learning how to make the best education content possible. This was on the principle that no-one could complain very much if it were free, till it got better. Michael says the challenge was not the information, but to make the learning journey retain the same standards and values.
I had seen on the STEM Punks web site that they sell the kits needed, from drones to robotic elephants, and asked Michael if there were large sums of capital involved both for them as a young company and for the schools. Michael says that many of their programs need no kit at all. They are currently working with children in Ghana who only have a couple of laptops that they are watching on.
Once again, it is a case of changing the approach to STEM Education. Three years ago, in Australia, there was a new rollout of money for schools to invest in STEM. Most of the schools bought one giant, scary robot for all the money. Michael has small sets, such as their SMART gardens, from the BBC, which are only around $30 Australian. He believes in their responsibility to schools to get the best learning outcomes with the money available.
Education systems are the same worldwide, Michael says, perhaps with Scandinavia being slightly ahead. How education is delivered has not changed or developed, but is still a classroom with one teacher at the front. These days, with knowledge so readily available, the teachers cannot be expert enough in everything.
Michael says that with STEM Punks, they have to be careful to work within the education curriculum and achieve change once they have got in the door. He sees too many teachers losing their passion and becoming administrators. The teachers can feel threatened by this new approach to STEM Education. It is down to Michael to change mindsets and show them that newer ways are better, and they can become facilitators within the teacher PD courses STEM Punks also offer.
Plans for the Future
Michael is hugely excited about the future. He says they have assembled a great team and can now build and deliver high-value content very fast. Michael wants to create more platforms to deliver this on so that they have even greater reach. Michael’s enthusiasm is highly contagious.
They also plan to have more inter-action STEM education between countries and continents. For example, students in the UK could be taught to code on their program, and then the codes they develop be applied while they watch in Australia. They will have STEM Punks TV next year, which will also massively increase their reach.
Michael believes that education post-COVID will be of a hybrid model between the classroom and on-line. The one thing it has taught us all is the need for more human connection. They are ensuring this human touch by developing teacher hubs, currently with one in Austin, Texas, so that there are local teachers world-wide.
STEM Education and Innovation in Business
Michael returns to the problem he consistently finds world-wide; plenty of ideas, but a lack of people who can transform those ideas into value. He finds that in business, AI or Blockchain are tossed around in discussion, but without the right STEM education, no-one really understands them, and that is when the fear creeps in. That has got to change to enable real progress, and real progress can, therefore, only come from a good education and development of critical thinking.
Michael says that many people are scared of the development of AI or robots and job losses. He sees it differently. He believes that, for example, few truck drivers are really passionate about spending their lives driving trucks or few security guards about standing outside a tower block for ten hours a day.
As long as people are ignorant and fear robotics, they will be rejected and misused. Their real capacity is to enable humans to have a completely different quality of life, stop spending most of their time doing things they don’t enjoy, and instead spend all of their time on things they want to do. That is what AI and automation should mean.
Another company changing education with tech is The Access Partnership – read more here.