STEM: an essential learning experience or educational fad?

STEM: the teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics through a coherent project, like 21st century skills has been defined as a means of promoting critical thinking and problem-solving skills, communication skills, collaboration skills, creativity and innovation capabilities. In the US these are commonly referred to as the 4C skills:

(a) Critical thinking and problem-solving skills

Critical thinking skills are the ability to understand complex problems, to connect information, and ultimately to solve problems from different perspectives. Pupils with critical thinking skills can effectively solve social, scientific and practical problems.

(b) Communication skills

Communication refers to a person’s ability to communicate clearly in spoken, written and non-verbal languages.

(c)  Cooperation Skills

Cooperation has become a trend in the twenty-first century. People needs to think and cooperate on major issues of concern, which increases the shift of emphasis from individual efforts to collective work and from independence to community.

(d)  Creativity and innovation skills

Creativity is the ability of a person to generate new ideas from existing ideas. Creativity depends on a person’s creative thinking, which generates new ideas and leads to new discoveries, often referred to as innovation.

However, why are these skills defined as 21st century skills? In fact, these skills have been used throughout the history of human development. Creation of the terra cotta army required hundreds of artisans, who mass-produced the soldiers’ bodies but gave every face a fine-tuned individuality. These craftsmen would certainly have cooperated, communicated, innovated, and solved all kinds of problems. Therefore, these skills are equally important in the past, as well as in the future, not just 21st century. Indeed, the technology of the time was consistent to the technology we recognise as currently advanced, thus we must not be fooled that STEM or that 21st century skills are a current phenomenon.

But how can we prepare our students for the 4Cs in the current context of international or bilingual education in China? This is challenge for all the educators. As we all know, economic strength and civic prowess have always been dependent on the talents and skills of its citizens. As we face the future, the role of scientific and technological innovations will continue to provide both challenges and opportunities. To be successful, the citizens of the world need to be better prepared with the knowledge and skills encompassed by the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

STEM education is being promoted as a key emphasis around the world in the ongoing renewal of the school curriculum that is essential for their lifelong learning and whole-person development. In February 2017, the Ministry of Education in China announced to officially add STEM education into the primary school curriculum, which is the first official government recognition of STEM education. Many domestic schools have started to promote STEM education, but what is STEM education and how to have a good STEM course? Teachers urgently need professional STEM training to support them in implementing STEM courses in school.

In late 2018, at the invitation of British Council, the Cultural and Education Section of the British Consulate-General and the Suzhou Teacher Development Centre, Huili Education Institute of Learning conducted two rounds of three-day training for 60 leading primary and secondary school math teachers in Suzhou on the application of STEM pedagogy in math classes. The aims of this training were:

(1) All participates will be prepared to integrate STEM projects into their school curriculum and practice

(2) All participants will leave the workshop with a planned STEM project ready to implement.

This three-day training module was designed as a practical training. There were 3 phases of training:

(1) Introducing the core underpinning principles of STEM and exemplifying these through a range of practical approaches

(2) Explore a range of practical examples and approaches to developing and implementing STEM projects.

(3) Developing and planning a STEM project in the context of their own school.

After this three-day intensive training, teachers all understand the following five underpinning principles of STEM:

(1) Independent learners and thinkers

(2) Creative thinkers and problem solvers

(3) Collaborative learning

(4) Concepts of evidence

(5) Synthesis of knowledge

After two days of theoretical and practical research and learning, teachers started to design STEM projects based on the context of their own schools. Participant projects included:

  1. How to solve the traffic problem on the main school gate during the pick-up time?
  2. Can we design a garbage can in class to prevent the breeding of germs?
  3. Can we design a house with better earthquake resistance and flood control?
  4. An experimental approach to optimise the learning space in the school.

We believe that there’s no single, die-cut STEM curriculum that every school or teacher should be using. No one lesson is right for all pupils. As a STEM teacher, they have plenty of opportunity to hand-craft an effective lesson for their pupils. Teaching STEM is an adventure trip with a great destination.

Aiming to provide professional learning solutions that empower educators and leaders, Huili Institute of Learning is holding a series of educational workshops in cities like Hangzhou and Tianjin.

Four kinds of topics will be introduced and discussed in the following workshops, which are “Middle leadership: leading learning”, “Research Methods: Leading research in a school context”, “Excellence in Early Years provision: The role of the adult” and “Effective strategies for English language acquisition”.

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Institute of Learning Workshops