A quick glance at the latest global education rankings for Science and Mathematics shows a near total dominance of the top positions by Asian countries including Singapore, Japan and China, alongside a smattering of affluent Western nations such as Canada, Switzerland and Finland. However, right up alongside these major players there appears one country that consistently punches well above its weight when it comes to STEM education - the small Baltic nation of Estonia.
A former Soviet republic that reclaimed independence in 1991, Estonia is not only streets ahead of its Baltic neighbours Latvia and Lithuania when it comes to education, they also routinely outrank major world powers including Germany, France, the UK and the USA. In the 2016 PISA rankings published last month, Estonia ranked third worldwide for Science - the highest ranking for any Western country - and ninth for Mathematics, based on average student performance among 15 year-olds in these subjects. 72 nations in total participated in the study.
So what's the secret to Estonia's success? One key factor is their long form with exploiting the benefits of digital technology. Globally successful businesses such as Skype and TransferWise originated in Estonia, while the country was an early adopter of various online technologies, declaring internet access to be a human right in 2000. Free WiFi became available in most public places as early as 2002, while digital systems were rapidly adopted for numerous processes, including online voting and their celebrated concept of a paperless 'E-Government'. Today, 95% of Estonians file their taxes online, for example.
The country's troubled road to independence also contributed to their present success. Emerging from the collapsing Soviet Union in the early 90s, the Estonian government declined a proposed donation of a dated analogue telephone system from neighbouring Finland, opting instead to start from scratch and build a digital system of their own. With no legacy technology to speak of, the country was free to skip certain transitional stages that would slow progress in larger countries and commit wholeheartedly to developing a digital culture.
Today, technology industries account for around 15% of Estonia's GDP, which - in addition to a thriving start-up culture and widespread availability of digital resources - creates job opportunities and major incentives for young Estonians to pursue STEM subjects at school. Digital education starts early too, in 2012 an initiative called ProgeTiiger - which translates as "Programming Tiger" - was launched in a partnership between the Government and the Private sector, providing lessons in the basics of coding to Estonian children from the age of five years old. There is also significant investment in ensuring equality of educational opportunity for children from all economic backgrounds,
Like their Nordic neighbours Finland and Sweden, Estonia can leverage high taxation and a relatively small population to provide high quality education to the majority of their citizens. However, their forward-thinking approach to digital is also reflected in their politicians. Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who served as Estonia's president from 2006 to 2016, was raised in New Jersey USA and learned how to program as a teenager, giving him an appreciation for STEM subjects that he carried into his political career.
""For the people who do laws and policy, very often the last time they took math was in grade school. They don't really follow these things and it is all kind of mystical to them" he explained in a recent interview. "But there's a correlation between quality of math education and tech success." Indeed, with digital literacy and startup culture so widespread in Estonia, the relationship between young tech entrepreneurs and the government is unusually close, helping STEM initiatives like ProgeTiiger and Tech Sisters - which aims to provide more women with the support and resources they need to pursue IT and technology - to thrive.
"In the 80s, every boy in high school wanted to be a rock star" explained TransferWise co-founder Taavet Hinrikus in a 2013 interview with The Economist. "Now, everybody in high school wants to be an entrepreneur". Thanks to Estonia's dedication to STEM education and engagement with digital innovation, the next generation has not only the aspiration to realise this dream, but the tools as well.