My “Burger Analogy” (my previous article) has highlighted the challenges we face in getting STEM to meet the expected learning objectives while maintaining its fundamental principle of being a fun and creative extra-curriculum activity. We have, by and large, succeeded in dressing up TECHNOLOGY as a “user friendly” pet toy that even kids find cute to cuddle up with, a bit like the BFG (Big Friendly Giant) in Roald Dahl’s classic children’s story. The key to making the scheme work is ensuring that our kids love it and continue to be attracted to it for a long time to come. Both the Government and the schools are working hard to keep this momentum going through generous funding and active participation. When one sees our ever popular Tutorial centres doubling up as STEM project learning centres, one gets a sense of how in-demand the project is.
While STEM remains popular in its current format, it seems to be centering largely on the assembly of parts and apps programming etc. There is nothing wrong with this of course. For the newcomers, this is still very exciting and something that they take pride in when the project is successfully accomplished. But for those who have done it once before, what is the “next project” that can still thrill them, and the “project after” that can inspire them into edging towards innovation? Let us not forget that the very fabric of STEM is to help our students build a lasting interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths, and it should not be treated as a class exercise that one can forget about once completed. The current range of STEM projects is, in my view, somewhat narrow in variety and shallow in long term sustainability. If no new projects or ideas are forthcoming, we are in danger of recycling what were once new and exciting models, diminishing their appeal and reducing the objectives that were once strong and solid. That will see the gradual demise of STEM. The phrase “Standing water helps breed mosquitoes” is a good reminder of the consequence of being complacent.
But where can new STEM ideas come from?
Progress has to be, in my view, industry led. After all, the only sustainable way to grow our future economy is through strengthening our industrial core which is increasingly tech-driven and is facing fierce competition from other developed countries. To achieve this goal, we must look to the wider use of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Its importance is highlighted in the government work report in China for first time this year. It places AI high up in the priority of the nation’s strategic development. Such is its importance that its Education Bureau has listed AI as one of the core subjects in both the Primary and Secondary school syllabuses in the coming academic year. China has also actively encouraged Internet companies to invest in AI to help manufacturing companies reduce their costs and increase their competitiveness. A large number of startups have already been established with AI as their core business. Its significance is on par with the industrial revolution that happened over two centuries ago.
So, what is Artificial Intelligence?
In short, Artificial intelligence started off as a computer system that can perform functions typically associated with the human mind. It used to be a futuristic speculation, but has now
developed to present-day reality. Give it a generalized strategy for learning, and it will adapt new data inputs without being explicitly reprogrammed. AI encompasses all the Key Learning Areas that STEM demands. The techniques and algorithms involved have been widely used in industries, from factory production lines to the service sectors where cars and planes can be operated without the physical presence of any human. Battles can be fought in armchairs thousands of miles away from the battlefield without the deployment of a single soldier. Drones can be guided to kill and to destroy with pin-point accuracy. The threat of AI taking over our human brain is no longer unreal. Google's DeepMind AlphaGo program which beat South Korea’s Go world champion Lee Se-dol in 2016 and IBM's Deep Blue that beat chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov in 1997 are powerful reminders of how AI can conquer human minds without mercy. When we saw what the Mars Rover could do after travelling millions of kilometres and dropping to the surface of a planet never visited before, still able to drive around and take soil samples for on-the-spot analysis, we began to wonder if it was all just a science fiction film. No, it was real. It was AI doing what we can never do. Such is the supreme dominance of AI that one day we may be totally lost without it.
How do we connect STEM to AI?
Artificial Intelligence shapes tomorrow’s world. Right now it is at the centre of everyone’s attention. But can we realistically expect our high school kids to get into the thick of Artificial Intelligence? Obviously not. What we can do is connect them to the world of AI through STEM, thereby allowing them to stretch their imagination and consider what AI can do to help. Imagination is what kids do best. Many of the science fictions in Hollywood movies, however weird and unthinkable at the time, have slowly turned into science facts. But imagination without a framework is just day dreaming. There must be guidance and supervision to collate and materialise the ideas.
We can use STEM as a platform for our kids to display their ideas and relate AI to everything they come across in their daily life, from improving household accessories to creating new apps in social communication. You would be surprised by what they can come up with. Feeding these ideas into our STEM framework (the inclusion of the 3 KLA), you have a tailor-made program that meets the objectives of STEM and gets the support of the end users. It is a win-win solution. The list of potential STEM projects derived therefrom is endless. Each project will be different and each has its own merits.
That to me is the way to reshape our STEM approach. It is the training of thoughts, the expression of visions and the ability to spot opportunities that are essential to turn our youngsters into a workforce that can meet the challenge of a 21st Century. If we don’t do that soon, we risk being left behind and permanently detached from the rest of the world.
That said, the process of reshaping is not a trivial matter. It requires teachers, project providers and experts in the field to work closely together to make it work. Whatever they come up with must be interesting, deliverable and within their capability and affordable means. There is no point in coming up with something grand that takes years to make.
The synchronisation of STEM with the development of Artificial Intelligence is the direction I consider STEM should be taking in the immediate future.
About the author :
Dr Wing Lau is the Education Consultant for Wai Kiu College, a position he has held since 1999. He is a Fellow of the British Institution of Mechanical Engineers, a Fellow of the British Institution of Nuclear Engineers. He studied Aeronautics and has a Master degree in Mathematics.
Prior to his retirement, he was the Chief Engineer at the Department of Physics, Oxford University. He worked with scientists there on a number of leading Particle and Astrophysics research projects.
He is a governor of the Cokethorpe School in Whitney, Oxfordshire. He is also the College Advisor for the Green Templeton College, Oxford University.