Education is about taking risks; we prepare our students of today in hopes that they will be equipped for a world that has not existed and whose form we cannot foresee. Certainly, some limited aspects of the near future can be predicted, but reach too far into the future, and uncertainties begin clouding our sight. But that does not mean we should stop considering what we are doing today and wondering if things can be improved in schools. One possible avenue for change that has swept up educational systems worldwide is the prospects for creative, interdisciplinary education in the form of STEM education. NIE guest editor, Dr Michael Tan, curates this issue of SingTeach to introduce the unique challenge of STEM education in Singapore.
At the economic level, STEM education is proposed as a solution to the problem of “how do we prepare students for the novel industries of the 21st century?”. We recognize that even today, knowledge boundaries are porous. There are likely few, if any, scientists who do not use computational resources in their work. Technologies have always contributed to scientific progress, and vice versa. Yet, in schools, we continue teaching in disciplinary silos that do not accurately represent the practices.
There is also an increasing challenge of educating for creativity: What might an open-minded embrace of unforeseeable futures look like? What kinds of school and classroom cultures will best nurture creativity? As education is not about putting information into students’ brains, how might we attend to aspects of learning that are not amenable to rational analysis? For instance: how might we orchestrate emotions and sociocultural resources to convince and motivate students to be creative?
What is STEM Education? Why is it Important?
Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM) has been an acronym from at least the 1980s, as a shorthand used by the US National Science Foundation to refer to the collection of disciplines which were closely related together.
Not long after, economists realized that STEM disciplines were large contributors to the success of contemporary firms, and the rhetoric of education for success in STEM disciplines started to take off. Today, as there is no “standard STEM”, there is no standard STEM education either. Practitioners do STEM in various ways, with different combinations of skills and practices. Educators have been inspired to expand the scope of the possible too.
“STEM education can be an opportunity for educators to rethink processes and goals of schooling,” says Michael, who is also a Research Scientist at the Office of Education Research at NIE. Despite the lack of clear definition surrounding STEM, the diversity of interpretations can offer educators the possibility for increased autonomy and professionalism in the way in which curriculum and pedagogy are conceived.
“If there is a range of practices which are acceptable as STEM, that means teachers can adapt their lessons to the kinds of interests and motivations that their students have,” Michael explains. “STEM can be about building a bridge to withstand heavy loads. STEM can also be about building a robot, designing human-friendly interfaces to help seniors negotiate their world, or building an electromechanical apparatus for a scientific investigation.”
As we better understand the impact contemporary science and technology can have on humanity and its habitats, it gets increasingly crucial for schools to relook what they consider “preparing students for the future”.
We need new questions and new answers, and while school still needs to reproduce disciplinary expertise, the question has always been: How might we transcend what we have?
“If there is a range of practices which are acceptable as STEM, that means teachers can adapt their lessons to the kinds of interests and motivations that their students have.”
– Michael explains how the different interpretations of STEM can offer educators more autonomy and professionalism in STEM instruction
STEM Education in Singapore
Given the numerous possible definitions of STEM, surely many schools are already “doing STEM”?
“Yes,” says Michael, “but more can and should be done.” Typically, schools will approach STEM through the Applied Learning Programs (ALPs) where different programme vendors deliver lessons that excite students and show them what is possible.
“At the entry level are lectures. Because STEM lessons often involves novel, sometimes toy-like devices and systems, lessons do not feel like typical school science, and it will not take much for instructors to captivate students.” Yet, many of these things can bring students to much deeper waters than they are usually deployed. “As we have learnt through our history of deploying computers in education, changing things without changing cultures of teaching and learning can be futile.”
Michael recommends that schools reconsider what it is that they want their students to achieve. “There will always be changes in schools. The question for the educator is to become clearer which of these changes are actually improvements.”
STEM can be part of a holistic school strategy to nurture students that can have an impact on the world. Here, what is needed is not just the skills that help students understand the world; what is also important are the attitudes that can help them leave a positive impact in society.
How to STEM?
“The methods for deconstruction are useful skills to learn in and of itself. We can be true to the ALP ideal, and introduce STEM as a means to understand how science is applied in contemporary technologies.”
– Michael, on how STEM education is more than just telling students what they are supposed to know
Many models exist for STEM instruction, but they often have in common the use of engineering practices to design and make practical solutions to complex problems. It appears that the “secret sauce” is in the selection of a good design prompt. Too specific, and the solution becomes too unique. Too general, and the solution would become too difficult to implement.
For example, if the problem is posed in terms of “find a way to make use of a lever as part of a device to open food containers”, the number of possible solutions are few, and most would be within reach of search engines.
On the other hand, a prompt such as: “Design a method to improve the lives of the elderly” would be far too open. An intermediate problem that delimits the context, but yet contains a problem that is not easily solved, is ideal.
For schools who do not think they are ready for design challenges, Michael suggests that teachers can make use of STEM classes as a means to physically and/or metaphorically take apart artefacts and systems. “Arthur C Clarke said that ‘Any sufficiently developed technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ We are surrounded by magic and this can be very disempowering.”
The goal is to regain control over the inventions that we have become reliant upon. However, Michael reminds us that we should resist the temptation to simply tell students what they are supposed to know: “The methods for deconstruction are useful skills to learn in and of itself. We can be true to the ALP ideal, and introduce STEM as a means to understand how science is applied in contemporary technologies.”
The Future of Education
Does STEM represent a future for education? Michael certainly thinks so: “Much has been said about how information is now ubiquitous. That may be correct, but there are mindsets, qualitative human appreciation, and a subjective ‘feel’ for things that cannot be expressed even in videos.” For these kinds of knowledge, nothing beats actually getting one’s hands dirty, at least metaphorically.
As events of this year have reminded us once again, we are not solely rational machines that can be programmed by exact sequences of instruction. We have different preferences, different desires, different values, and the teacher-as-professional should be able to take these into account to develop instruction that attends to their students as individual autonomous agents.
Michael tells us of his favourite quote from Yeats and what it means for him: “If ‘education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire’, we can understand that education is an inherently risky process: things may not catch on fire. On the other hand, it could burn far stronger than we can ever imagine. Yes, we would love to be able to create standardized fire starting procedures that always work, but what might this reduce our students into?”
Instead of thinking of STEM as thrust upon teachers as merely more work to be done, STEM can be seen instead as a means to bring us back to the core of what it means to educate. For this, Michael seems to raise a glass to toast: “Let’s set the place on fire!”