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Posts Tagged ‘stem

First it was STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

Then it was STEAM (A is for the Arts).

Recently I chanced upon SHTEAM (H is for the Humanities).

If SHTEAM was personified, might it look like this?

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Might these these acronyms and their purveyors be attempting to steamroll us into thinking this is cool and new? Sort of, but not quite.

The subject silos are not new. The integration is not that new, e.g., multidisciplinary thinking. But the efforts to try to teach and evaluate STEAM (or perhaps SHTEAM now) challenge what we value in pedagogy and assessment. And that is a good thing.

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What if STEM was taught differently so that it was learnt more meaningfully?

For example, this is an engineering video that relies on a Nerf gun.

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Now here is a video about scientists that features a few as superheroes.

Video source

These videos are not just more interesting, they are also thought-provoking. They could get a teacher to redesign the way they approach STEM. They simplify without dumbing down.

This article in The Atlantic provides some insights into the much maligned and overused buzzword STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

A “botanical” native of the USA in 2001, its seeds and saplings have been transported elsewhere (Singapore included) with little thought of its context and purpose.

The article outlines at least three contextual clues that I will summarize as three Es: economy, equity, (academic) excellence.

There was a realization among policymakers in the USA that workers were moving towards servicing customers instead of manufacturing. What the article did not point out, but might be obvious, is that it was and still is cheaper to outsource production elsewhere (e.g., China). However, when service was also outsourced (e.g., to India, the Philippines), the USA stands to lose a competitive edge.

The second element was the need to create equitable access to the learning of STEM subjects in the face of “discrimination and discouragement faced by students who do try to pursue further education in these fields”. We might relate to this given the generally more stringent university entry requirements in areas like engineering.

The third, and perhaps the most pressing, was the USA’s relatively mediocre performance in PISA test scores in Math and Science. However, it is a long stretch to connect test scores with economic competitiveness. In fact, there is research that shows a lack of correlation. Innovativeness and entrepreneurship are not direct functions of PISA test scores.


There is learning STEM subjects and there is learning about STEM. The article focuses on the latter, the origins and the whys of STEM in the USA. This is important if we are to align ourselves with the context and problems there.

But there persists a common layperson’s question: Are we not already teaching and learning these subjects AND doing well in international tests? In other words, what is the new fuss?

What some do not understand is that learning science does not necessarily make you scientifically literate. If tests focus on the regurgitation of facts and even higher order problem solving, this does not guarantee a broader, more critical thinker.

Our students are pragmatic. Given the demands of imbibing more decontextualized and unmeaningful information than one should handle, they resort to the GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) approach for their exams. Teachers invariably find that their students retain very little.

The root of the problem lies in our focus to learn ABOUT science, technology, engineering, or mathematics instead of shifting the emphasis to learning to BE a some sort of scientist, technologist, engineer, or a mathematician.

The problem is compounded by the fact that these subjects are more often than not taught in isolation. Some will argue that each silo of content is so complex that isolated teaching and learning is a necessary evil. If they do, they lose the point of STEM. It is about making connections between these subjects and other subjects as well.

Mathematics and mathematical logic are the fundamental language and process upon which STE rest. Taught and learnt well, particularly by drilling or other traditional methods, students stand to do well in tests.

But if these students are to lead the charge in solving world problems, making real the Internet of Things, or creating new niches, they must be shown how STEM subjects interconnect with each other and with other subjects.

For example, take a water or energy problem in the first world or the third world. There must be knowledge of local factors geographical, ecological, social, and political first. Actual scientific, technological, and engineering solutions need to factor those primary concerns while combining theoretical principles with hardware design and software coding.

STEM is not just about finding the nexus of theory and application in these subjects. It is about being literate enough to do simple things like critiquing myths perpetuated by popular media or informal conversations. It is about being agile enough to transfer knowledge to new circumstances and learn from the unexpected. It is about living in the overlaps of the STEM subjects (and other subjects) so as to innovate and solve problems.

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STonline announced that 42 secondary schools would offer a new programme for students to learn science and technology.

One paragraph leapt at me:

Students will learn skills such as reasoning and problem-solving, scientific inquiry as well as pick up new uses of technology such as programming skills.

The programming aspect might be novel, but should reasoning and problem-solving be new?

I hope that the programming is not limited to programming languages and that it also includes computational thinking.

As for reasoning and problem-solving, what is to stop teachers from doing more of that now? Do they need permission from the top, direction from the centre, and content only from prescribed curricula? Or are they going to cite the sorry excuse of “this is not tested so what is the point”?

That was my reaction to the STonline reference.

The official MOE press release read like this:

This programme will provide learning opportunities for students to apply their knowledge and skills in science, mathematics and technology to solve real-world problems….

The skills and competencies include: Scientific inquiry and literacy; Reasoning and problem solving; Design thinking; Computational thinking; and Data analysis and the use of technology

This clears the air on whether it was about programming or computational thinking. But it still makes me wonder if inquiry, literacy, reasoning, problem-solving, and design thinking should be a special programme instead of an integrated one.

If schools so not pick up on this hint, then local tuition centers might just do this to give some students an edge over others.

In fact, as much as I do not like what tuition has become, I would like to see tuition centres or private education outfits picking up the slack or pushing boundaries. That might show the incumbent schooling system how to serve its stakeholders with meaningful long term skills.

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