Real learning stems not just from funding

| Mansun Chan 10 Apr 2019

Mansun Chan, Chair Professor of Electronic and Computer Engineering, HKUST

As the modern-day workplace evolves, it is clear that science, technology, engineering and mathematics will play increasingly larger roles, prompting the government to provide incentives to increase STEM education at schools.

A one-off grant of HK$100,000 was provided to each primary school to support STEM education and activities in 2016, and HK$200,000 to each secondary school in 2017.

In his latest budget, Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po allocated HK$500 million to implement an IT Innovation Lab program in the next three school years; each subsidized secondary school will be granted HK$1 million to help students build an IT foundation.

There has been a shift in pedagogy to increase classes in computer science, coding, digital media and networks within the standard curriculum, with the goal of creating an adept tech-savvy workforce that will run the economy in the 21st century.

I wonder, with all this hype about STEM, whether it has become just another marketing term schools use to get additional funding? But fiscal input and a change in curriculum are far from adequate to promote STEM.

Simply adding one or two STEM-related classes into a busy curriculum, or buying trendy gadgets for use in classes, without any long-term learning goals and follow up, means that students never get the chance to consolidate their skills.

In order to teach STEM classes effectively, teachers need to move away from the traditional content heavy, top-down lecturing style that is commonplace in SAR classrooms.

Schools and tutorial centers are still too focused on using drilling in past exam papers as a way to prepare students for public examinations.

This creates a very unhealthy competitive environment that forces students to lose their individuality and become test-taking robots.

Not only does this go against the core of the STEM teaching philosophy, it also creates a bigger problem for society as this exam process creates a population of homogenous graduates, each one more replaceable than the next in the corporate world.

What we want from STEM education is that students should become critical thinkers who can use out-of-the-box methods to solve real-world problems.

They need to be able to speak their minds, use their observational skills more and have greater opportunities to apply their knowledge to try and solve problems.

To further promote creative thinking processes, schools can consider developing "divergent testing-styled examinations" whereby there are multiple answers to the questions and students get rewarded for creativity.

To increase interest in STEM, students should also be made aware of how these subjects can be applied to real-life jobs - for example, science and math are often taught separately without demonstrating their applications in technology and engineering.

Like all things in life, society requires a diverse range of people with different skillsets. Let's not be fooled into thinking that one set of education theory will suit all students.

HKUST experts have their fingers on the pulse of a new age of science, technology and innovation

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