Interview Series: Nestor Garcia -- By Asabi Rawlins— STEM and innovation in the Caribbean

We talk a lot about innovation being important for the advancement of Caribbean economies. The usual rhetoric is that with technological adoption we can streamline processes, modernize antiquated systems and better integrate into the world economy. 

As a young woman from Trinidad and Tobago, I have often felt that rhetoric or “old talk” is abundant but we are weak on follow through. I have long opined that high-level policy is meaningless or ineffective without commensurate, and sustainable action. Is this just view of a cynical 25 year old? I set out to interview a cross section of young women and men across Trinidad and Tobago to gauge their opinions on science, technology, innovation and their impact on the development of our dear nation. 

Let’s talk about #STEAM # Innovation #Development # Trinidad and Tobago

I interviewed Mr Nestor Garcia, an International Tax Analyst from East Trinidad. Mr Garcia is also an MSc student at the University of the West Indies. 

Asabi: As a young person, how do you feel about economic opportunities in your country?

Nestor: Overwhelmingly negative. There is a paucity of economic opportunities. We have a high level of university graduates being churned out, but there is a real lack of employment opportunities for them. People are languishing because they have certain qualifications, but the job market is not prepared to receive them, which is problematic and worrying. If we want to push our society forward, we have to be able to retain our qualified personnel. The current economic landscape is encouraging people to simply migrate and in the long run that will prove counterproductive for our development. 

Asabi: What is your understanding of STEM? 

Nestor: It’s an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. 

Asabi: Do you think there is a link between STEM and development?

Nestor: Yes. For example, countries such as Singapore have leapfrogged in development by investing in education in STEM fields. I think STEM could be a leveler for most Small Island Developing States, it is not a question of creating economies of scale for us. It is about cultivating ingenuity, carving out a niche in which your country could be highly productive, whether it is in pharmaceuticals or conducting R &D (research and development in a particular area). Trinidad and Tobago can merge, for example, STEM with our indigenous practices or medicinal herbs to carve a space in the pharmaceutical sector. Of course, this is just one example of monetizing what has historically been ours, while embracing modern STEM [combined with innovation]. This would also provide a means of countering the longstanding approach by foreign companies who look at developing countries as just sites for extraction. By becoming more adept at innovative approaches to STEM, we can exhibit a greater degree of ownership. This clearly spurs economic development. 

Asabi: What role do you think art plays in innovation and how does it allow us to think differently about processes? 

For example, when we think about arts and creativity, we think with a different side of the brain. How do you think that adding arts to the typical STEM model could promote creativity and innovation? What is the potential to shift the typical STEM curriculum to add in arts and innovation (STEAM) in order to create more unique interest and further opportunities for employment in our changing employment landscape?

Nestor: Art has a place in innovation. Some people construe the sciences as a rigid, step-by-step, systematic process of using x and y to get a particular outcome, while art may be viewed as freeform or not stuck to a particular process. It is more flexible and creative. I think that when you are approaching certain questions in the STEM field, some people may get stuck on the process and the well-trodden path. They may not think outside the box. I think implementing STEM in concert with art, and emphasizing the intersections, people in the arts could transition to STEM and vice versa to bring about new perspectives, new creations. 

In the Caribbean, we are creative people. That creativity could be cultivated further and leveraged in the STEM field by highlighting linkages between science and art. 

Asabi: Do you think enough emphasis is placed on introducing STEAM into the classroom or even informal learning centers locally? 

Nestor: No not at all. I think that in our country, many things, even beyond STEAM, that are necessary for development are not well implemented. I digress but look at the idea of Spanish as a second language, not in name only but in actuality, we are lacking in that area. The same is the case for STEAM. When I was in secondary school, apart from sporadic, ad hoc visits to NIHERST (The National Institute of Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology ) we did the traditional CSEC curriculum, but STEM was not specially emphasized. There were not any after school programs, any adjunct programs, I do not know if that is afforded in private or more affluent schools locally, but speaking generally, the majority of Trinidad and Tobago does not have that. And the thing is, there may well be a swath of people that are interested in that. What tends to happen is that we have certain “prestigious” professions of doctor or engineer but there is so much more to STEAM beyond this. There are so many alternative pathways to use local genius and expand minds within STEAM. 

Asabi: So what I gather from you is that 1) We talk about STEM without actually promoting it as a viable career beyond being a doctor or an engineer and 2) Not much is being done to promote credible ingenuity, R&D and 3) There is a problem regarding continuity or STEAM being looked at as a sustainable avenue for economic growth and opportunities for people at large. 

Nestor: Certainly

Asabi: Are you aware of any resources available locally to support STEM and innovation? 

Nestor : I know of the engineering program in Trinidad, but I think there is a lack of support. We are too short sighted in our planning and looking at other avenues of economic growth and diversification. Just because STEAM may not be traditional to us, does not mean that we should remain in our comfort zone, we need to reach out to the world. We need to be brave, be bold!

Asabi: How do you feel about the proposed opening of a STEAM Center in the Caribbean? 

Asabi: I think that would be brilliant! It depends on how it is operationalized though. I think it is good to have a head center, but there must be other centers within the region and not only in the “Big” countries like Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. Very small countries can carve out significant niches in STEAM, this is why we cannot overlook the smaller Caribbean islands. STEAM can have a transformative impact on all the regional nations. This proposed Center can positively impact nations like St Lucia, Dominica, to train young minds and spur innovation. It can open up new avenues for growth and advancement. 

Asabi: What particular services should this center offer? Particular areas of focus?

Nestor: I would want there to be an emphasis on medicine and pharmaceuticals in some way - this is a real potential growth area regionally. Also technology broadly, but we can find specific areas that are technology-intensive for our islands to thrive. If we invest in our populations and find particular products within that technology value chain to establish ourselves as competitors. 

Asabi: So, do you have any final thoughts to offer on the issue of STEAM and development?

Nestor: Just to conclude, I think that if we do not seriously embrace STEAM, it would be a missed opportunity. I am glad that your organization is engaging work in the STEAM area and I hope you get the requisite support from relevant governments and other pertinent stakeholders.

Hermina Johnny