STEM education – Part I

An Imperative Policy Decision

H G S Prematunga

To pun on the now clichéd educational term, STEM is indeed the stem of a healthy education system. STEM is a curriculum which combines science, technology, engineering and mathematics in an interdisciplinary approach, integrated into a cohesive learning model. Theoretically, what sets STEM apart from the traditional science and math education is the blended learning environment and the fact that students are shown scientific method applications in everyday life.

The objective of STEM is to teach students computational thinking and its applications for problem solving to produce innovators, educators, researchers and leaders. In other words, STEM couples academic theory and real-words lessons in the application of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

The key word here is theoretical, this is the internationally accepted definition of STEM and its success or failure depends solely on how it is adapted to the local curricula. Talk of incorporating STEM education in the local curriculum has been doing the rounds for over two years but with low educational expenditure and lack of qualified teachers at secondary level, this is easier said than done.

Waning interest

The term, STEM, originated in the US when a programme for talented under-represented students of Washington, DC called the STEM Institute was founded by Charles Vela, founder and director of the Center for the Advancement of Hispanics in Science and Engineering Education (CAHSEE). He was subsequently asked to serve on numerous NSF and Congressional panels on science, mathematics and engineering. The acronym was adopted by Rita Colwell and other science administrators in the NSF in 2001.

The waning interest in STEM subjects is a major concern for Sri Lankan educators.

Internationally as well, a drop in interest in taking up STEM subjects has been apparent over the past 20 years, even in US which pioneered this leaning paradigm. This may be due to the inadequate number of teachers skilled in these subjects.

Revival

Many other countries such as Hong Kong, Australia, Canada, Finland, India, Malaysia and Singapore have adopted educational reforms to promote STEM education. China currently leads the way in number of STEM graduates produced each year. According to the World Economic Forum the other academic powerhouse, India, is hot on China’s heels, with approximately 2.5 million new STEM graduates produced a year.

In the US, millions of dollars are awarded annually to support STEM education proposals from schools. As a result it is estimated that by 2027 the number of STEM jobs will grow by 13 percent in the US. Finland already boasts of the greatest proportion of STEM graduates, with over 30 percent of graduates produced by science, mathematics, computer science, and engineering programs.

In a revolutionary education policy, Malaysia is hoping to produce the 493,830 personnel required in STEM related industries by 2020. The 60:40 Science andTechnology Enrolment Policy, requires 60 percent of students to be enrolled in science with the remaining 40 percent in arts subjects, bringing the increase in STEM graduates to 31 percent.

Singapore, which already ranks first in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) evaluation of Science and Mathematics education, has set up Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Applied Learning Program (STEM ALP),which enables secondary school students, ages 13 to 15, to apply what they have learned in STEM subjects to develop solutions to real-world problems.

Sri Lankan scenario

While China and India alone produce 700,000 engineers annually, Sri Lanka produces only a few hundreds of them. The Labour Demand Survey of 2017 indicates that one third of our labour force is engaged in unskilled labour. According to the Sri Lanka STEM Education Strategy there are approximately 200,000 unfilled technical and semi-skilled job vacancies in the Export Processing Zones and an estimated 150,000 new technical and skilled jobs are to be created in the proposed industrial zones in Ingiriya, Horana, Millaniya.

STEM vs Art

It is also apparent that a majority of students pick the Arts and Commerce streams over STEM subjects such as physical and biological sciences and technology streams, which includes Engineering and Bio-system Technology, Science for Technology, ICT and other subjects that fall under this category.

According to the Sri Lanka STEM Education Strategy, of the approximately 300,000 to 500,000 students who sat for the O/Ls, 73 percent students passed science, while 68 percent passed math. According to University Grants Commission (UGC) statistics a total of 8,702 students enrolled in the Arts stream in 2017 and only 1,562 and 2,016 enrolled in computer science/IT and Technology streams respectively.

A gender imbalance is also apparent according to higher education statistics, with a total of 9,506 males and 15,694 females having entered university in 2014. In fact, this gender imbalance is most pronounced across STEM and other subject stream divides.

For example, according to 2017 UGC statistics, arts stream undergraduate females outnumbered males at 7,181 to 1,521 as opposed to 840 to 1,176 in the Technology stream.

As discussed in a previous article, the majority of rural schools lack qualified teachers, principals and other facilities. According to Social Inclusion: Gender and Equality in Education SWAps in South Asia: Sri Lanka Case study by S. Jayaweera and C. Gunawardena, as such rural schools only offer arts subjects, rural students are denied STEM education, which in turn affects their socio-economic mobility.

Brain drain

According to the Sri Lanka STEM Education Strategy and National Centre for Education Statistics (NCES) – Digest of Education Statistics, 60 percent of those who qualify for A/Ls only 33 percent take up STEM subjects and only 30 percent of these qualify for university admission, but in fact, only 30 percent of these make it to university. As a result, only a fraction of the university population major in STEM subjects. To make matters worse, the majority of those who graduate migrate in search of better paid jobs.

As discussed in a previous article on education expenditure, according to the paper Economic Benefits and Options for Financing Higher Education in Sri Lanka by Harsha Aturupane, Sri Lanka’s public investment in education is the lowest among East Asian countries such as South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand; Latin American nations such as Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia and Costa Rica; and other South Asian countries such as India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. The healthy percentage of national income invested in education for an advanced middle-income country is normally about 4.6 percent.

In the long run, this low investment in education hampers the country’s ability to develop STEM related education assets and infrastructure such as buildings that incorporate new technologies, IT laboratories, libraries, science laboratories and science and IT equipment, further reducing the quality of education provided, consequently aggravating the brain drain issue.

Why does SL need it?

Buckminster Fuller in his ‘Knowledge Doubling Curve’ demonstrates how until 1900 the sum total of human knowledge doubled approximately every century. By the end of World War II, it doubled every 25 years. But this differs according to the field. For example although human knowledge doubles every 13 months, nanotechnology knowledge doubles every two years and clinical knowledge doubles every 18 months. To add to this momentum, IBM projects that ‘internet of things’ will lead to the doubling of knowledge every 12 hours. The Sri Lanka STEM Education Strategy quite correctly points out that those who are not equipped to handle this knowledge challenge will fall through the cracks.

In the years to come, the highest paid jobs will be in STEM fields. Knowledge insoftware, engineering, technology and various sciences is imperative to securing any occupation in the country. It is hoped that STEM education will add value, efficiency,productivity and innovation to the economy.

In this backdrop, where job opportunities are decided by science and technology, it is imperative that education policy fall in line to develop a curriculum that is capable of developing the requisite skill set that would allow individuals to effectively engage in a knowledge-based economy. Consequently, if Sri Lanka is to rise above the middle income level driven by this knowledge-based economy, honing STEM skills in the workforce is vital.

(This article is 11th  instalment in a series of articles which discusses education related issues on a fortnightly basis in counterpoint.)

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