Open School

STEM Re-vitalisation, not trivialisation


OpenSchool   |   2017-10-12 19:33:29

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.

Appendix 3 of the Report on “Promotion of STEM Education”, published by the Hong Kong Education Bureau in December 2016, recommends two approaches for organising Learning Activities in STEM Education. They are, and I quote:

1.Learning Activities based on the topics of a KLA, with students encouraged to integrate relevant learning elements from other KLAs; and

2.projects for students to integrate relevant learning elements from different KLAs, the different learning elements being Science, Technology and Maths.

How is the scheme being implemented across schools in Hong Kong?

I believe that schools are doing their best to make the scheme work. However, with teachers facing pressure to accommodate tight teaching schedules whilst also providing extra tuition for students who need additional help on core subjects, it is difficult for them to devote any more time to organising STEM education properly, in the way that our Education Department expects. There are of course some exceptional individuals who have the enthusiasm and the know-how to run such a course. However, this must be the exception rather than the norm.

Schools therefore find it more cost-effective and time-efficient to outsource the programme to external providers who have the resources to run such a course. Whether they have the necessary expertise to do it to the expectation of our Education Bureau is another matter, but they seem to be popular and very much in demand. STEM providers have multiplied as a result and we are seeing many learning centres being established with the sole function of running STEM courses.

This is good news for both the provider and the recipients - the students. Now that the scheme has been running for some time, let's ask the following questions:

• Are the STEM courses run by the independent course providers in line with the guidelines proposed by, and expectations of, our Education Bureau?

• What learning values do they offer?

• How do the students react to it?

On the face of it, I believe the “value for money” part has been loosely fulfilled and widely accepted. Parents are happy enough to pay for their kids to build mechanical robots, create coding for apps, make Lego models etc. But I struggle to find a course that meets and integrates all three elements of KLA.

Yes, building mechanical models certainly raises children's awareness of, and hands-on experience of, an aspect of technology. I guess I can relate one of the key KLA elements, the Technology, to the process of assembling robot parts and adding a few sensors and motors to make the robot carry out its assigned task, but I rarely find that the other two elements exist. There is a distinct absence of Science and Maths in the process of assembling or building a mechanical robot, for instance.

Am I trivialising the efforts shown by our hard-working colleagues in the STEM sector? Certainly not. I understand how frustrated they must be. As soon as you mix any activity with science and mathematics, especially those horrid-looking equations, you will turn the kids off straight away. If you take away these two unwelcome elements, however, you stand being accused of trivialising STEM. They are very much teetering between a rock and a hard place.

Take the burger as an example. It is made up of three elements: the meat patty in the middle, the top bun, and the bottom bun. A burger is sold on the quality and tastiness of the meat. If that doesn't attract the customer, the bun becomes secondary. But consider this. However tasty the meat patty, you wouldn't say that you have a burger if the meat did not come with the top and bottom buns, would you?

In STEM terms, the Technology is the burger's meat patty. The Science and Maths are the top and bottom bun. Only by putting them all together will you have a real burger. If you omit an element, you will have something else altogether. That signifies the importance of the Science and Maths elements in the whole scheme of STEM.

I believe we have got our customers used to the meaty bit of our burger. They all understand what Technology is, albeit less in-depth than what we first expected. As time goes by, though, they will grow tired of just building robots and Lego blocks over and over again. It is time that we introduce something more creative and more innovative, that fuses all three elements of Science, Technology and Maths. If we don’t, the whole scheme will eventually fall by the wayside.

A programme of revitalisation is therefore needed to take STEM to the next stage. This requires it to be introduced with Science, Technology and Maths as an integral object, rather than as fragmented or secondary learning elements. That, we must strive to achieve.


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