How STEM education can help Hong Kong children to live their dreams

UChicago professor says that taking the right approach to science, technology, engineering and mathematics teaching within the school system can help prepare students for the world that awaits

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 July, 2018, 10:03am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 July, 2018, 10:03am

No one who sees how the world of work is changing can question the increasing emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) teaching within the school system.

Every sector will become reliant on systems, software and the know-how that makes it all come together, meaning that those entering the workforce – in whatever capacity – will have to be adept in the lingua franca of the global economy of the 21st century.

Those requirements explain the ongoing shift in Hong Kong to include more classes in computer science, coding, digital media and networks within the standard curriculum.

However, according to a US-based expert in the field, doing that is just one part of process. For STEM education to have maximum impact and truly prepare students for the world that awaits, it is also essential to take a different approach to teaching.

“It is more difficult to customise instruction than to stand in front of a class and lecture; it takes time and practise and a lot of support,” says Jeanne Century, director of outlier research and evaluation at the University of Chicago. “There is no simple model, but in the US we have seen how different school districts have thought about STEM education and focused on integrating the disciplines in the context of problem-based learning.”

The starting point is to establish a framework and philosophy to help students develop certain skills and characteristics. For example, they need to become critical thinkers who are creative and innovative in their approach to solving problems. They should be able to analyse data, support conclusions with evidence, and consider alternative arguments and viewpoints. And they must, of course, be able to communicate clearly and convincingly and show leadership.

“STEM education is about all of these things,” says Century, who recently visited Hong Kong. “It is a process of inquiry, finding answers in the natural world and the man-made world. It is to help students develop skills and knowledge they can apply in anything they choose to do.”

STEM is the way each subject is taught; you need the right strategies to personalise learning
Jeanne Century, director of outlier research and evaluation, University of Chicago

That could be science and mathematics. Equally, it could be history, languages, social sciences – or anything else. The principle and priority is to educate problem solvers who can think for themselves. That involves more than simply adding an extra computer science class to the standard school day or training teachers to make use of the latest digital tools and technology.

“STEM is the way each subject is taught; you need the right strategies to personalise learning,” Century says. “Models have to be adaptable because people and places are different everywhere. I’m a firm believer, though, that you shouldn’t underestimate the abilities of younger children. They are quite capable of collecting data, aged three or four, and drawing conclusions from it.”

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She is now working on a project focused on elementary schools in the US. The specific aim is to help teachers develop skills like showing third graders how to argue from evidence. Kids are told about the importance of hearing different points of view and discerning which seem reasonable, and are expected to offer and consider suitable evidence.

“In STEM education, these are the conversations we want to happen,” Century says. “This approach is transforming the classroom into somewhere real learning takes place, where students are communicating newly created ideas. And it is transforming teacher-student and school-community interaction with new kinds of partnership building.”

However, initiating and effecting such change is not straightforward. Therefore, it is essential that teachers involved in the process receive adequate backup from principals and administrators. Some opt to join professional learning communities; others may prefer peer-to-peer coaching at their school.

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“Teachers as a category are like any other people,” Century says. “There are early adopters and those who come along in time. Any kind of change is difficult, so it’s important to remove barriers and provide support.”

She is quick to dispel any misconception that students may find their career opportunities restricted in the years ahead. “True STEM education is about expanding options for kids to pursue whatever they are good at. One of the basic aims is for them to be successful in all disciplines, so that they can go on to have healthy and productive lives.”