STEM Education

Requires An Overhaul Of Education System And Changing Mindset

HGS Prematunge

STEM is an educational paradigm that combines science, technology, engineering and mathematics in an interdisciplinary approach. Tsupros, Kohler and J. Hallinen in their 2009 paper ‘STEM education: A project to identify the missing components, define STEM education as an interdisciplinary approach to learning where rigorous academic concepts are coupled with real-world lessons, allowing students to apply science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to make connections between school, community, work, and the global enterprise facilitating the development of STEM literacy, arming them with the ability to compete in the new world economy.

The above may prove a heady definition in the local context. The Sri Lanka STEM Education Strategy provides a more acclimatized version. According to it, STEM Education is a ‘multidisciplinary, integrated approach to build interest and competencies in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics as a lifelong process that would produce a creative citizen with the capability of contributing innovatively to sustainable national development in a global context’.

It is hoped that products of this new education system will acquire problem-solving skills, innovative and designing skills, adaptability to live in a multicultural society, leadership skills, subject related competencies, social responsibility and ethics, collaborative and teamwork skills, critical thinking, global and cultural awareness, information literacy, civic literacy and responsibility, technology literacy and entrepreneurship.

Definitions and objectives aside, how successful have Sri Lankan educators been at adapting this new paradigm to the local context? Not very much as Sri Lanka falls short of the Research and Development percentage of GDP recommended by UNESCO, i. e. one percent of GDP, sadly in Sri Lanka it is 0.11 percent of the GDP. If the STEM promoters were doing their job this percentage would have been much higher. But popularizing a completely novel education system can prove challenging.

Strategies

A cabinet paper to incorporate STEM subjects to the local curriculum was passed in August  2017 and the 2018 budget allocated Rs 85 million for the purpose. But to do so the education system would have to be overhauled. General strategies recommended by the Education Ministry for the introduction of STEM Education are restructuring of the curriculum, implementing a monitoring mechanism for implementation of STEM, career guidance based on skills, creating STEM related career opportunities, output orienting all universities and technical colleges, introducing an accreditation system for schools using a national level examination, creating a web-based examination system, teacher training, increasing budget allocation and finally popularizing STEM subjects.

To achieve these strategies the ministry has a line-up activities such as, developing new STEM-related curricula, exhibitions, awareness programmes on available and emerging career paths and shortages in the global context, seminars where experts in STEM fields explain the challenges, opportunities and skills required to join their respective professions, aligning tertiary education structure to support career paths, conducting an international exam such as PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) locally to benchmark Sri Lankan students, STEM-related professional development programmes, establishing teacher training facilities and the list goes on.

Challenges and solutions

As one would observe this kind of overhaul takes a lot of planning and money. All examinations, from the grade five scholarship examination to university exams would have to be STEM reoriented, curricula would have to be developed and textbooks and teachers guides reprinted and teachers trained.

According to the 2017 School Census Preliminary Report by the Education Ministry, only 10 percent of schools 1,029, have Advanced Level Science stream classes and the student teacher ratio of these schools are 21. However, according to the Report 44.2 percent of the teachers are Graduate teachers and 53.7 percent are teachers with teacher Training colleges/National Colleges of Education Certificates and teachers having two years’ diploma in science or mathematics. In fact, the number of teachers who mostly teach mathematics and science are more than the number recommended by the Ministry of Education.

Three thousand two hundred and twenty five Diploma holders from the National Colleges of Education were given teaching appointments in 2017. (courtesy Ministry of Education)
Three thousand two hundred and twenty five Diploma holders from the National Colleges of Education were given teaching appointments in 2017. (courtesy Ministry of Education)

Teachers

A study by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) of Sri Lanka observes that this does not necessarily mean that the teachers are qualified. The major problem is not a deficiency of teachers, rather not having enough Subject-qualified Teachers. The IPS study points out that of the 109 percent of science subject teachers only 80 percent are subject qualified and of the 102 percent of math teachers only 61 percent is subject qualified. According to the IPS analysis some schools have an excess of science and mathematics teachers, while others are sorely lacking in this regard.

According to ‘Perceptions on STEM Education in Secondary Schools in Sri Lanka: Trends and Challenges’ by Polgampala, et al., due to a dearth of competent subject teachers to teach STEM subjects in the English medium, English language teachers were allowed to teach STEM subjects. Polgampala, et al. observes that this mainly caused a lack of confidence in STEM. The solution would be to introduce a system where teachers are required to be especially certified to teach a particular subject.

According to another IPS research close to half the students who sit for O-Levels fail the exam. Most of those who are unable to meet the minimum requirement of a credit pass for science and mathematics are denied the opportunity to follow A/L science or mathematics streams, which, in fact, is the main reason for the low number of students in these streams.

Students

It is then very unfair that the school going population in Sri Lanka is not offered equal opportunity at a STEM education. According to the 2017 School Census Preliminary Report 18 percent of the schools have only A/L Arts and Commerce streams but no Science stream. Thirty two percent have classes only up to grade 11 and 40 percent have classes from grade 1-5 or 1-8. Which means,  only 10 percent of schools with a student teacher ratio of 21, as mentioned above, can offer STEM subjects for university hopefuls. The only silver lining is that this 10 percent of schools cater to 40 percent of the student populace.

According to the 2017 School Census report, even of those who qualify for A/Ls only 36,482 is in the science stream, while only 19,120 is in the technology stream. The majority, numbering 77,762 are in the arts stream and commerce is next in line with 38,116. A good foundation in STEM subjects in primary and secondary education is vital for these students to move on to tertiary level education. Consequently, this skewed student population distribution is observed at university level, as was pointed out in previous articles.

A total overhaul is necessary to ensure all Sri Lankan students have access to STEM education.
A total overhaul is necessary to ensure all Sri Lankan students have access to STEM education.

As averse as we are to privatization of education, there’s no denying that private and public sector partnerships are essential to establishing a STEM education system in Sri Lanka. With the cooperation of the private sector, the government can set up tertiary level STEM education institutes, with upgraded curricula, that in turn collaborate with private sector companies to secure internships and eventually job opportunities for their STEM graduates.

Changing outlook

But the biggest challenge is probably changing the mindset of teachers as well as parents.

Teacher training is a whole other ball game. STEM requires student-centred learning. Gasiewski, J. A., et al. in their 2012 research ‘From gatekeeping to engagement: A multicontextual, mixed method study of student academic engagement in introductory STEM courses’ point out that in a STEM education system teachers are not information distributors and students become responsible for their own learning. As such, a STEM oriented education system requires a rethinking of the traditional teacher role. How comfortable teachers will be with their new role remains to be answered.

The earlier school kids get STEM exposure the better and, although older students are left to make academic choices on their own younger kids are often forced to follow their parents’ wishes blindly. Once a child is made to believe that the only way to make a decent living is to become a doctor, it is difficult to change this mindset later in life. Not that Sri Lanka has enough doctors but it also needs engineers and scientists more in a growing economy with a focus on R&D.

Given the country’s policy of aspiring towards becoming a knowledge hub driven by a competitive economy, increasing the number of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects graduates is a priority.

(This article is Part II of STEM education and the 12th instalment in a series of articles which discusses education related issues on a fortnightly basis in counterpoint.)

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