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STEM learning in the 21st century

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 March, 2017, 5:45pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 April, 2017, 3:00pm

Numerous reports highlight concerns about the gender disparity between boys and girls choosing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects at school. But Sylvia Martinez, an author and advocate for student-centred project-based learning, believes a move from worksheets to more hands-on experience can help in addressing the issue.

“We need to rethink how we provide STEM education in the 21st century,” she says, adding that her work with teachers around the world has shown the benefits of discovery-based learning.

In particular, research confirms that girls, despite having the same natural curiosity as boys, often don’t get the same exposure to STEM-related activities. In the school environment too, certain stereotypes still tend to suggest careers in science and engineering are for men rather than women. 

“For boys and girls, inspiring STEM skills must begin early and continue throughout primary and secondary school,” says Martinez, who was a speaker at the recent 21st Century Learning Conference, which drew about 700 delegates from around the world.

She also notes a lack of consistency. In kindergarten, by playing with toys, children learn some basic science and engineering along the way. But at a certain age, everything becomes serious, with the emphasis on facts and formal knowledge, not discovery - an approach which many find boring.

“We need to empower students of all capabilities to explore STEM topics, not only those who are good at mathematics,” says Martinez, noting that this is a key facet of preparing students for life in the digital age.

Indeed, according to the World Economic Forum's latest Future of Jobs Report, men now gain one tech-related job for every four old- economy jobs being lost. But for women, the ratio is one to 20, clearly indicating a need for action to balance things out.

“We need teachers and parents to work together to instil in children the idea that science and technology are part of everyday life,” says Martinez, co-author of Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, which stresses the importance of learning by doing.

Instead of overloading students with textbook jargon and worksheets, the focus of STEM should be on experiential learning and inspiring interest. For instance, the more advanced classroom projects can even look at developing wearable technologies fitted with microcomputers.

“The rigours of conceptualising, design, development and problem solving, which connect maths and science, are just the same as making a robot,” says Martinez, who began her career designing high frequency receiver systems and navigation software for GPS satellites. “These are useful skills for the modern world.”

Another speaker at the conference, Dr Lian Pin Koh from the University of Adelaide, explained how his team has adapted drones to monitor the world’s forests and wildlife to combat poaching, track animal populations, and monitor the state of endangered habitats. Such surveillance technology, costing little more than a good laptop computer, is increasingly being used to support conservation work and access new sources of real-time information.

“Building and operating the drones allows students to engage in real science and discover more about the wider world around them,” Koh says.

Also at the conference, visual art teacher Brittany Morgan and science teacher Peter Hennigar from Shekou International School in China explained how students benefit from integrating the subject matter and approach of different disciplines.

“The marriage of the art and scientific thinking allows students to apply their learning in a real-world context,” Morgan says.

Tim Carrell, vice principal at Hong Kong’s King George V School (KGV), noted the importance of reinforcing the idea that mathematics plays a role in everyday life. Nowadays, he rarely uses textbooks in his maths classes and finds that computer technology provides a bridge to wider applications.

“This approach now helps to define the essential skills for maths students,” Carrell says. He believes the ability to calculate is becoming less important because it can be automated. But asking good questions, finding the right approach, using and understanding data, and communicating results have become increasingly important skills.