STEM education in a changing employment landscape

Virtual reality is one of the tools being used to train students in STEM. Copyright: Wiraporn Srisuwanwattana/USAID, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. This image has been cropped.

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  • Half of knowledge acquired in college becomes obsolete by the time students graduate
  • STEM imparts an integrative, interdisciplinary approach to problem-solving
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STEM education has become vital in a world influenced heavily by science and technology.

[SINGAPORE] At no other time in the history of humankind have we been so influenced by science and technology in our everyday lives!
Communication with mobile phones, transport using motorised vehicles and consuming genetically-modified food, demand technology literacy. So do vocations in engineering, finance and education. Jobs are also being created by the so-called 4th and 5th Industrial Revolution, with one estimate saying that 65 per cent of children entering primary school today will have jobs that do not yet exist.
These and many other reasons are why we are seeing a resurgence of interest by governments in education on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, commonly referred to as ‘STEM’ education.

But what is STEM education?

“Using STEM education to ground students in the processes and attitudes of mind associated with science and mathematics, and engineering and technology implicitly recognises the differences among the four disciplines”

Paul S. Teng, Nanyang Technological University

Nature of STEM education

There is still no universal agreement on the scope and nature of STEM, or on its anticipated student outcomes.
STEM is made up of elements from Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. It is generally accepted to not mean taking all four in toto and combined into a single mega-discipline. In many respects, STEM education is what we want it to be, and the educational community’s response in each local situation is framed to meet the goals associated with it.
As an acronym “STEM”, has been variously used in any of the following contexts — as a catch-all term to include the disciplines associated with Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics; as a suggestive ‘integrative term’ for an approach to put all these four together, or as a descriptive term for a heuristic approach to provide desired 21st century skills and competencies.  Politicians and policy makers have often lamented the lack of STEM skill sets and generally take these to mean producing more scientists and engineers to power economic growth.
In a presentation made at the Regional STEM Symposium 2019 held in Bangkok on 27—30 May 2019 by The Head Foundation and Asian Development Bank, this author suggested that the question of “What is STEM Education?” may be more appropriately phrased as “What do we want STEM education to be?”
Is it necessary to ask ourselves what the goals of STEM education are?

Goals of STEM education

STEM education has been advocated on both philosophical and pragmatic grounds. Philosophically there are arguments about the weaknesses of curriculum which stress narrow but deep content and inadequately account for cross-discipline explanations of many real-world phenomena.  Pragmatically, the goals associated with STEM education have included goals aimed at the workplace and those aimed at improved citizenry.
The “workplace or employability goals” of STEM education include a) grounding students in the processes and attitudes of minds associated with science and mathematics, and engineering and technology; b) inculcating ability to take an integrative, interdisciplinary approach to problem-solving; and c) acquiring content competencies and character qualities for a future work force. 
The “citizenry or good citizenship goals” of STEM education include developing a minimum level of science and technology literacy to allow informed decisions as responsible citizens and developing citizens who care for the environment and society on an informed basis.
Using STEM education to ground students in the processes and attitudes of mind associated with science and mathematics, and engineering and technology implicitly recognises the differences among the four disciplines.
Science is used to teach enquiry and ask questions which demand evidence to support conclusions while mathematics is used to train logical thinking and inductive/deductive processes (1). Engineering nurtures design thinking and helps draw on other disciplines for solutions, while technology provides the means to prototype and create models.
From these, the hope is that students acquire the ability to take an integrative, interdisciplinary approach to problem-solving, as well as acquire competencies and character qualities for a future work force, such as critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration.
The citizenry goals of STEM education recognise that modern societies are increasingly dependent on science and technology in everyday life. Without a basic acquisition of science and technology literacy, it would be hard to imagine how informed decisions can be made on the plethora of issues, products, devices and services that are also increasing in their complexity. Examples of daily life choices which require some minimal level of science literacy acquired through STEM programmes include GM food versus “natural” food, organic versus conventional food, bottled water versus potable tap water, frozen versus chilled meat and vegetarian versus meat-based diets.

Integrating STEM into school education

Getting students interested in science and mathematics as a prelude to preparing them for careers in science, technology and engineering has challenged educators for a long time.
At the recent 8th International Skills Forum: Future of Skills and Jobs in the Age of Digital Disruptions on 27—29 August 2019 held at the Asian Development Bank headquarters in Manila, I shared several ways used by Singapore to promote more interest in STEM — promote STEM education through a dedicated initiative called STEM Inc. in the Singapore Science Centre; STEM Applied Learning Programmes in schools; developing two STEM-focused schools; and ground-up efforts from schools and teachers in offering STEM co-curricular activities, competitions and research projects. Private education service providers in Singapore additionally offer education camps with outdoor or indoor maker activities outside classroom time.  
The same forum showed that other Asian countries have tried a variety of approaches, such as using application (real world problem-based)  projects, New Generation Schools in Cambodia; building additional skills like on ICT, communication, entrepreneurship during school time in the Philippines; introducing third party professionals to encourage STEM in Vietnam; authentic learning using local contexts and situation in Vietnam; and Training to integrate ICT into solutions to local problems in India and Uzbekistan.
Practical approaches that have been tried to have more STEM content in schools include:

  • Authentic and meaningful STEM curriculum (Curriculum developers have to work with industries to develop curriculum with real-world problems);
  • Make resources required for STEM education available (for example 3D printers, coding software etc.
  • Availability of high quality ‘just-in-time’ teacher professional development courses by universities and teacher education institutes (courses can include designing STEM activities, implementing STEM activities and evaluating STEM learning);
  • Formation of STEM teaching teams with members of different disciplines; and
  • Organising national STEM symposiums or meeting to share best practices in STEM education.

Basic education (primary and lower secondary) and upper secondary years help shape the subsequent technical abilities and leanings and also the “habits of mind” (problem solving, life related skills), necessary to effectively operate in society with much technology. The K-12 years are also important years to form values associated with caring for the environment.
So, integrating STEM into school level education provides an approach to prime students for careers in science, engineering and technology. But this all depends on having teachers who are equipped with the appropriate pedagogies to implement STEM education.

Expected outcomes

A conference in Singapore titled “Ecosperity 2018” warned of contradictions in education. While more young people are staying longer in schools (Asia claims 7 out of 10 top spots in global PISA mathematics, science and reading rankings for the most recent PISA study), at the same time, education is not adequately preparing them for the workforce (46 per cent of Asia’s employers report difficulties filling jobs today and only 40 per cent of executives believe new employees have requisite job skills). 
Table 1. 2015 Results of the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) which measures students’ scholastic performance on mathematics, science and reading (with Asian countries highlighted).

Rank Country Rank Country
1 Singapore 11 Ireland
2 Hong Kong 11 Slovenia
3 Japan 13 Germany
4 Macau 13 Netherlands
5 Estonia 15 Switzerland
6 Canada 16 New Zealand
7 Taiwan 17 Denmark
8 Finland 17 Norway
9 South Korea 19 Poland
10 China 20 Belgium

Ecosperity 2018 warned of the reality that 65 per cent of children entering primary school today will have jobs that do not yet exist, and nearly 50 per cent of subject knowledge acquired during 1st year of a 4-year degree will be outdated by the time students graduate from a university. Workers therefore need to ensure relevance of their preparation for the workforce. 
STEM education is being touted as one approach to help students prepare for the future of work and empower them with the skills needed for a much-changed uncertain future of employment. STEM is increasingly used as a platform to prepare students who are “Future-Ready” with “21st Century Competencies” (such critical thinking, complex problem-solving, collaboration, communication and creativity).
The same OECD PISA report eloquently stated that a focus on science is timely, as with rapid scientific and technological progress, the digital revolution and the prevalence of social media, the ability to understand and discriminate information based on evidence and facts is critical. In many countries, a growing number of students further expect to pursue a science-related career. Governments need to put in place policies which lead to improved capacity of the education system to teach science and mathematics in interesting ways by linking these to real life situations.
In countries like Singapore where structural transformation of the economy has gone through distinctive phases (labour intensive, industrialisation, knowledge-driven, innovation-driven), STEM education has also evolved from focus on the hard content to more “soft” skill outcomes.  In many respects, these are the expected “soft” outcomes of learning from K-12 school systems, on top of the mastery of content. 
So, looping back to the earlier discourse on how STEM can engender some “attitudes of mind” provided through the four component disciplines, the question that is to be asked is what pedagogies enable STEM education to provide these skills. Some which have been proposed are the set of four “PBLs” – Play-based Learning, Problem-based Learning, Project-based Learning and Phenomenon-Based Learning.  Underpinning all these is some level of authentic learning.

Concluding Remarks

In the end, a question that has to be asked is: “Can STEM education help to provide the skills and ‘attitudes of mind’ needed for graduands (a student who is about to graduate or receive a degree) of our current school systems to fit into the new environment?”  Much progress has been made using STEM to break down traditional disciplinary thinking and imbue more soft skills into otherwise “hard” subjects which produce “hard” graduands, as shown during the two meetings mentioned in this article. 
But challenges remain, such as the need to strengthen and even revise school curricula (e.g. whether to teach STEM through separate subjects or to teach STEM through an integrative subject), to change assessment modes for STEM education, and to address the weak “chinks” such as teachers and pedagogies, and parent expectations.  Apart from these, education system-level and systemic enablers need to be provided to encourage a more holistic STEM approach.
But ultimately, STEM education has to prepare citizens to cope with “Disruptive Technologies” in everyday modern life and to have the capacity to make responsible, informed decisions on today’s issues concerning society, the environment and sustainability.
Professor Paul S. Teng serves as Adjunct Senior Fellow (Food Security) in the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies (NTS Centre) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore, while serving also as Dean and Managing Director of the National Institute of Education International Pte Ltd (“NIE International”) at NTU. He is also chair of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.