Open School

STEM - as it was


劉偉榮博士   |   2017-10-17 15:36:13

At a recent discussion with the Principal of Wai Kiu College, the topic of STEM education in Hong Kong came up. The idea of STEM is not new and has been actively pursued by leading educationists in many countries, with the US claiming to be, historically, the forerunner in the field.
STEM was initiated to promote interest among our youngest generations in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. By boosting these four disciplines in Primary and Secondary education, the hope is that more students will continue these studies in their Tertiary education, and thereby meet the needs of a society that is seeing rapid scientific and technological development in the current century. STEM has some degree of success, but still fails by a notable margin in attracting female students. In the UK, a scheme known as WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) was set up to campaign for gender balance in STEM; a step in the right direction, I would say.

I remember finding that, when I first joined Wai Kiu College almost 20 years ago, most students were primarily interested in following a “career of high returns” such as Law, Medicine and Banking etc. Studying Science and Maths at school was seen as little more than a springboard. These subjects were considered a reliable barometer of ability, helping students to the front of the queue in university admission, rather than as a gateway to a career of creative and innovative thinking. Did all this knowledge remain in these bright kids’ memories once they got past the admission line? I am not sure.

Back then, the term “Science and Technology” was not always enthusiastically received by parents. Many did not know what to make of it. If they did, they would rather be the follower and not the leader in taking it on. I wanted Science and Maths to have a lasting impact on our students at Wai Kiu. I was fortunate that many of the parents here had a pragmatic attitude. They understood the value of a “fit-for-purpose” education and they supported it. They appreciated that Science and Technology as a subject, although relatively new then, could open doors for their kids in the fast-changing world of Technology.

In order to capture interest in the subject, Science and Technology must, in my opinion, be introduced in a fun environment. The learning atmosphere is not just important, but vital. Show students a few equations of motions, and the class will snore through the rest of the lesson. Tell them what sub-atoms are, and they will switch their minds off completely. The challenge of my earlier encounters with the kids was to find a way to excite them into a suitable level of energy and make them curious in the subject, so that they begin to ask the question “So, what happens next?”. The “next” is important to capture their attention. Anything repetitive would be fatal.

My role at Wai Kiu is not to teach the curriculum syllabus, but to arouse the students’ interest in Science and Technology. This was, and still is, done through talks and seminars via video links. I remember introducing students to the topic of circular motion, the relationship between centrifugal and gravitational forces. Half of the students were in a semi-unconscious state. It wasn’t until I mentioned the rollercoaster in the fairground that the whole class suddenly woke up and wanted to find out why people in the rollercoaster don’t fall to the ground when they hang upside down. That was back in Year 2001 when video conferencing was still in its infant stage and STEM was almost unheard of in Hong Kong.

I promised the class a trip to Ocean Park to experience the “upside down effect” on my next trip to Hong Kong. Before we visited the park, we also made a transparent plastic tube big enough for a ball to drop into. This was a simple experiment for the students to see how the ball behaved at various circular positions, and to prompt a discussion about how this would relate to their rollercoaster ride.

We even put a simple spring at the bottom of the tube to allow students to work out how fast the carriage was travelling, by reading how much the ball compressed against the spring etc.

That to me is STEM. It encompasses Science, Technology and Maths.

Over the subsequent years, our seminar topics would wrap around the current topics of either public interests, such the explanation of Nuclear Power when the incident at Fukushima took place, or advanced technological development, such as the drone and the vertical decent of the Space X rocket. This is essential to draw students’ interest – something they can relate to real life events. Every now and then we build models, make prototypes and conduct experiments using simple parts or recycled materials to further awareness of the link between Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths.

That is STEM in a nutshell. You could say that Wai Kiu College was the forerunner in introducing STEM education. We did this without even necessarily realising it at the time. But we are proud to have paved the way for how STEM teaching should be infused into the general Hong Kong curriculum.

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.