[ As published in the East India Chartered Accountants Students' Association June 2021 Newsletter]
Imagine this. A classroom full of third graders, working on blank blueprints, drafting wiring diagrams to wire miniature houses with switches, lights and motorized ceiling fans. The excitement in the room is palpable. They make a plan, test it, and when it doesn’t work, they would look back at their wiring diagrams and start problem solving and troubleshooting. They are going back, replanting and redesigning. Their perseverance is incredible.
They don’t have any models to copy from. They can only learn from their failed designs. When Thomas Edison was asked by a reporter, “Mr. Edison how could you have continued to work on trying to develop the electric light bulb after you had failed a thousand times?”; he had replied, “Sir, I did not fail once. I found a thousand ways that did not work.” Finding out a thousand ways that don’t work – this is exactly what these kids are doing.
This is STEM Education. It is one of the most talked about topics in education. But what exactly is STEM? STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. But it’s more than that. STEM has grown to represent a unique approach to teaching and learning, one that centres around individual students’ learning styles and interests. This means STEM Education has something for every student. Unlike traditional education experiences in which subject areas are concentrated on separately, STEM Education emphasizes technology and integrates subjects in ways that connect disciplines and relate them to each other.
Integration is the core of STEM. For the most part, the four subjects of STEM have been taught in isolation but new reform efforts like the New Education Policy 2020 are placing more emphasis on the connection between and among the STEM disciplines. To understand how this trend might affect teaching and learning in the future, we need to take a closer look at integrated STEM education, not just the separable subjects that make up the acronym. After all, in the real world science relies on technology, mathematics and engineering. And engineering depends on findings from science, the application of mathematics, and the use of technological tools. It can be hard for students to make these connections themselves and this is why STEM Education in schools is required.
In kindergarten through 12th grade, most STEM teaching and learning focuses on science and mathematics. Comparatively, little attention has been paid to technology (the products and systems that meet human needs) and engineering (the creative process used to design these things). One of the reasons for this might be that science and mathematics are the most recognizable fields in STEM Education and many teachers who are comfortable in teaching these subjects end up creating ‘Educational silos’. Many consider technology as just a computer related field. Thus it becomes even more important for STEM educators to focus on the integration of all the four fields.
STEM moves beyond simple test performances and focuses on developing higher level thinking skills by connecting classroom learning to the real world. STEM emphasizes collaboration, communication, research, problem solving, critical thinking and creativity – skills that today’s students need to be successful in the world regardless of specific interest or career goals. STEM is a direct response to the realization that our future will be built on our capacity for innovation, invention and creative problem solving.
Albert Einstein once said, “It's not that I'm smart. It's just that I stay with problems longer.” Kids in school today have that same potential but they are often not given the opportunity to stay with problems longer. The way schools are generally structured, a great deal of focus is on the product rather than on the process. Kids are taught procedures. They are taught the one right way to solve a problem, that is being followed for years; without giving them an opportunity to explore the million other ways that could also work. We teach them to strive for the right answer without considering the fact that there could be more than one right answer that hasn’t even been discovered yet.
In order to truly integrate STEM Education in schools, teachers will need to make the connections between these four fields explicit. Some teachers may use instructional approaches like problem based learning or engineering design to introduce integrated STEM education to their students. They can be exposed to STEM connections in museums and science centers through after-school experiences like some TV shows and STEM focused robotics competitions and internships.
Educators looking to integrate STEM Education can start slow by researching online to find some projects. Schools can partner with field scientists to come into the classroom to make the dream of a career in STEM come to life for the students, highlighting its relevance. Schools can even collaborate with multi-national companies and can conduct mentorship and volunteer programs having professionals come in and talk to the kids about career options.
These are some of the ways educators can try to implement STEM Education. But, we still have a long way to go. We need more research to better understand the benefits, limitations and implications of integrating STEM education. We need to assess whether the schools and teachers in the nation are prepared to teach in integrated ways. We need to get out of our primitive examination systems and come up with ways as to how we can assess what the students are really learning based on their ability to apply these learnings.
Children naturally think outside the box and it's really up to adults to help them cultivate that. In the future, we're going to need some really good problem solvers. In fact, there's even a global race to try to increase the number of people who aspire to STEM fields because of the innovation and needs that await us. So it really is all of our responsibilities to help kids learn to persevere and solve problems. To help them make mistakes and learn from them. To help them come up with solutions. To help them be the leaders of tomorrow.