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Istanbul, Turkey – Behind the displays of fighter jets and attack helicopters on show at Istanbul’s Teknofest last week sat what is arguably Turkey’s best hope for realising its high-tech ambitions.
The rows of air-conditioned tents housed teams of mostly secondary school and university students competing in dozens of contests showcasing inventions created on home computers and in science labs across the country.
Although many visitors to the aviation, space and technology festival came to see attractions such as the fly-bys of the Turkish Stars aerial display team at Ataturk Airport, it is the young innovators who will likely make or break Turkey’s future economic competitiveness.
To underscore how much importance Turkey is placing on encouraging the young innovators of tomorrow, the man doling out awards to the winning team – Selcuk Bayraktar – was the driving force behind Turkey’s home-grown drone industry.
Clad in a scarlet bomber jacket as he handed out awards over the six-day tournament, the doyen of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) beamed with goodwill and pride as he presented trophies and offered congratulations and encouragement to his young admirers.
Outside sat Bayraktar’s latest and most sophisticated steed, the Akinci PT-2, fresh from its unveiling last month and carrying the signature of his father-in-law, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on its nose cone.
Turkey’s armed drones, which have proved their worth in the skies above Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, are the most obvious outward sign of the country’s race to develop its potential through enhancing education in STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Some 200 teams competed at this year’s Teknofest in fields such as intelligent transport, biotechnology, educational technology, robotics, flying car and UAV design, unmanned underwater systems, agricultural technologies and tourism innovations.
“Teknofest started a few years ago to engage the public in science and technology, and it’s a good movement,” said Gultekin Cakmakci, professor of science education at Hacettepe University’s STEM and Maker Lab in Ankara.
“Like in any country, people want to see that we have some engineers and scientists who can innovate and find solutions to problems,” he told Al Jazeera. “It’s an optimistic approach, which is good.”
Unleashing tomorrow’s talent
The goal of STEM education is to make sure there is a healthy flow of young scientists, designers and engineers to feed the talent and innovation pipeline that is critical to an economy’s global competitiveness.
Some 38 percent of Turks are under 25, meaning the country has the raw talent. The trick is nurturing and unleashing it.
In recent years, STEM centres and laboratories have been set up across Turkey, and growing numbers of teachers are being trained in the application of STEM to real-world problems.
“In particular areas, coding is really strong and will lead to new innovations in the future and could have a real impact in the next five years,” said Mehmet Basaran, educational sciences associate professor at Gaziantep University.
But there are still pockets of weakness in the pipeline.
“We are now in a good position in STEM education but not in the field, for example, [with] job opportunities,” Basaran told Al Jazeera.
And most specialists would like to see STEM education start much sooner for Turkish students.
“It is actually very important to try to implement STEM education at pre-school to the end of high school,” said Devrim Akgunduz, director of Istanbul Aydin University’s STEM education research centre.
“But what needs to be done next is to carry out the right integrated STEM education that enables the development of various skills such as critical thinking, creativity, communication, collaboration and solving complex problems,” he told Al Jazeera. “This way, students become producers.”
Cakmakci said access to university is also problematic for many young people.
“After high school, some 80 percent of the population cannot go to university,” he said. “If we want to create an innovation culture in Turkey we should start with young people and those who don’t have the opportunity to go to university.”
Another issue that troubles policymakers is brain drain. In 2019, more than 330,000 Turks emigrated, 41 percent of them aged 20 to 34, according to the Turkish Statistical Institute.
Prominent Turkish scientists have built their reputations abroad, such as Nobel Prize-winning chemist Aziz Sancar and the husband-and-wife team Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci – creators of the BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.
“There are lots of reasons for brain drain, economic reasons, opportunity reasons, funding reasons” said a leading scientist familiar with the matter.
“But we also need to look at how scientific knowledge is produced. Science is a social activity. It needs discussion, equipment and it also needs freedom to tell your ideas freely. It needs a more democratic approach,” he said.
One potential contributing factor to STEM students leaving could be a lack of suitable work opportunities, which also puts off pupils.
“Young learners, especially from high schools, don’t want to learn mathematics or science because working in these fields is very hard and it’s really hard to find a job,” said Basaran, who researched a recent report for parliament on STEM education.
But Akgunduz said STEM graduates who had previously drifted away from their academic fields in the job market were now securing relevant employment. “We expect an increase in the employment of graduates from these fields,” he added.
To maintain the momentum, Cakmakci is calling for the Teknofest initiative to be broadened to encourage engagement in STEM. “That would be a more sustainable approach rather than just once a year,” he said.
“Not everyone can go to Teknofest but our aim is to increase and give equal opportunities to everyone and we should work on different approaches for public engagement.”