YOU may have noticed the term STEM has been making headlines and introduced as the “next big thing”. Most of us know what the acronym stands for, but do we really understand what it means, how it shapes our lives and why it is vital to the future of a country?
STEM refers to the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, but the term has a broader meaning in education.
Last week, I had the opportunity to sit in a session with a group of Terengganu teachers who attended the ExxonMobil-Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) STEM club programme to undergo pedagogical training and build content knowledge in STEM.
With my last formal exposure to science and maths coming from secondary school days, I had many questions on what STEM is from an educational perspective.
Can science and maths alone be STEM? What makes a STEM lesson? Are technology and engineering integrated in science and maths only when appropriate?
The three-day programme for teachers majoring in science, mathematics and technology is one of ExxonMobil programmes leading the charge in STEM initiatives to support the country’s pursuit of a STEM-driven economy.
It is understandable for ExxonMobil, a multinational oil and gas corporation operating in Terengganu, to broaden its STEM support, particularly in this state. This pilot project, in its first phase, aims to develop a group of 64 STEM Master Trainers with the hope that the programme will be self-generating by the third phase.
Educationally, STEM is about creating innovators of the future. The programme’s training modules and content, developed and delivered by UKM, emphasises questioning and discovery rather than rote memorisation.
With the declining appetite for science among Malaysian students, the programme aims at improving the quality of STEM teaching and, subsequently, increasing students’ interest and participation in these subjects.
ExxonMobil-UKM STEM Club programme leader Dr Mohamad Sattar Rasul said while the science and mathematics curriculum had changed in the last few years, changes in teaching practices had been minimal.
“While our students are good in memorising, they lack application and reasoning skills. They may have good grades, but they are not literate in science because they do not understand the science concept in depth,” said Sattar, who is also a senior lecturer in the Department of Innovation in Teaching and Learning at UKM’s Education Faculty and a UKM STEM research member.
Data analysis by his colleague, Professor Dr Lilia Halim, shows that the cognitive domain of knowing the content in science among students in Malaysia and Japan, within the same age group, is similar.
Japan is one of the top performing countries in TIMSS, a global assessment of maths and science education.
However, there are indications that some of the cognitive domains, such as applying and reasoning skills of our students, which can be developed by STEM lessons, are lower compared with students in Japan. This is the reason why our students did not score high in TIMSS.
So, are our teachers implementing the best practices for teaching STEM in schools? Or, maybe the question should be: Are our teachers prepared to implement STEM education?
At present, it seems that there is inadequate attention to the teaching of STEM in school. As with almost all new initiatives, conceptual challenges are a major roadblock.
Talking to some teachers during the programme, I came to the conclusion that the meaning of STEM education has not been properly clarified to them, yet the term is widely used these days in relation to the need to increase the number of science students.
Our students are so used to a teacher talking at the front of a classroom while taking notes and doing worksheets. There is no practical science activities during lessons.
The limited attention to STEM subjects may also be due to other priorities, such as the number of As achieved in exams.
Traditional testing poses a challenge to STEM integration. The culture of overtesting in the last two decades has led to students facing more pressure than ever to get the right answers during exams.
The results of these exams are also being tied to teacher evaluation systems. Teachers feel pressured to teach to the test, drilling students so that they can regurgitate information accurately.
At the same time, only a handful of these teachers have taken the full complement of STEM courses in life sciences, natural sciences and mathematics as part of their formal education and may need formal training in these fields as part of their professional development.
An effective teaching system needs to be developed before STEM learning can be fully integrated. Research has provided evidence that conceptual teaching has benefits not offered by traditional teaching and students do as well if not better in tests.
A STEM lesson must provide students with the opportunity to explore hands-on real-world scientific problems. The goal is to make clear that science is a process. Students identify a real-world problem, ask questions to explore and solve the problem, and develop solutions and explore a hands-on activity.
An example: When covering renewable and non-renewable energy, students examine which renewable energy type would work best for a fictitious town and why.
Research also shows that students can understand relatively advanced concepts in STEM and enjoy learning experiences that explore such subjects.
I was a science stream student who chose arts for my tertiary education. I would not say that I was not much good in physics, chemistry and biology, nor was there a lack of interest in these subjects. Could this be changed if the teaching of these subjects were more engaging for me at that young age?
If we really want to improve the country’s future, we need to rethink not only our education system, but also the teaching methods of these subjects in schools.
The writer left her teaching career more than 20 years ago to take on different challenges beyond the
conventional classroom. As NST’s education editor, the world is now her classroom.