Columns

Put fire under STEM now!

Franklin
Johnston

Friday, September 29, 2017

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There is a corrosive discourse about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) versus a subversive variant which includes the “A” for the arts. It may be unintended, but the discourse is useful.

Check your campus or workplace; we can dance, sing, quote the Bible, talk reggae, politics, but why is a machete 26 inches, the shovel 7 lbs? Can we estimate mass, distance or reset a breaker? We give innumerate directions as “just round the corner” and do not use height, weight, bone structure, skin tone, or gait to describe people, or know the right words so we use the “ish” as “brownish” or “tallish” or “fattish”. Age- appropriate STEM begins as kids play see-saw; learn ratio, balance and levers, but will not be taught the concepts or words for years. This is true STEM and we must not contaminate it.

The USA is a rich, innovative nation, yet in 2006 the Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy recommended that President George W Bush “increase America's talent pool by improving K-12 science and mathematics education; strengthen the skills of teachers through additional training in science, mathematics and technology; and enlarge the pipeline of students prepared to enter college and graduate with STEM degrees”.

The America Competes Act became law in 2007 and “the nations investment in science and engineering research and in STEM education from kindergarten to graduate school and postdoctoral education” was reaffirmed in law by President Barack Obama in 2011. When will we embed STEM in law?

If it has volume, mass, dimensions; visible or invisible; living or dead; solid, liquid, gas; electricity, it is of STEM. So let's stay on the path to reasoned, numerate, nimble, critical-thinking citizens who can manipulate sensible quantities, negotiate and innovate. So why STEM?

STEM entered our lexicon as the College of the Arts, Science and Technology transitioned to being the University of Technology, Jamaica (UTech) and its president, Rae Davis, commissioned a report 'UTech 2020', which proffered a vision to occupy the high ground in growth and innovation. Our preference for humanities is known. Why? People choose the familiar; it's easier, and most do not like maths or science. Why? Colonialism biased the substrate of education to Europe's classics, humanities, so it's hard-wired into us for 300 years via Sunday school or endowed schools as Wolmer's; centuries of brainwashing in good faith. Were our ancestors lashed to fix sugar boilers, analyse juice brix, proof rate rum, and not to cut cane we might be maths geniuses. Now, few Jamaicans know how to find north or plumb a post, so we must rebalance education until we declaim Shakespeare and reset a circuit breaker with ease. Then we are ready to create sustainable growth and prosper.

We should implement age-appropriate STEM, full-strength, to mainstream critical-thinking and problem-solving. Democracy won't work if citizens are easily duped and if our labour force is not tech savvy, flexible, productive, expect no growth. But school is process, not magic; if we infuse STEM at kindergarten in 2018 the first cohort may join the workforce in 2036. It takes nine months to make a baby and from age three to 18 to make thinking, productive Jamaicans. Minister, put fire under STEM now!

During the Ronald Thwaites era in education a reality check indicated need for people to anchor the proposed logistics hub, new media, business process outsourcing industry, etc, so age-appropriate STEM would be infused into the new curriculum to replace colonial underpinnings; students may transition to a generalist or the specialist campus or work at graduation. Using the missionary tack, STEM would begin early; so by fifth form mathematics is known and loved like the 'easy' subjects. Habit is powerful and critical-thinking citizens may reorder personal choice, productivity, and complement our 300-year artistic sense and brio. We would be unstoppable!

Second, UTech should be the acme of STEM in the Caribbean by strategic linkages to Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University College London. Our neighbours have huge demand for goods, services, higher education, and would gravitate to our STEM node. Science is now the area of greatest creativity as philosophy, arts was in the Renaissance. STEM is art. The beauty, function of cars, structures, medicine, industrial robots, computers, light and sound, electronics, space, communications far outstrips the analogue arts in products and creativity. Colonial education gave us Bible, Latin, art, song, dance, but few numerate areas. Bend the twig in childhood and the tree follows. The result is we are now intuitives — sing, dance, mimic, plait, carve, daub paint, and beat taut animal skins with sticks. From infancy Anancy stories embed scamming in our psyches, but no tales of Tukuma's anguish and family suffering when he loses his wages. We learn no caring or empathy as all the tales promote the selfish, nasty spider.

STEM teaches action and reaction; responsibility; that every choice has consequences and values are important in nature and society. Go, STEM!

STEM will meet resistance as our 300-year-old mistress has many lovers. STEM is not a zero-sum game and will fill a void which left us vulnerable to forces of nature and forces of man for which we have no fix. With age-appropriate STEM a six-year-old knows John is too heavy to see-saw with Jacob, but knows not why. By teenage he learns about weight, leverage; at 35 he knows the consequences of overloading his truck — age-appropriate STEM in action.

Yesterday I saw a woman standing by a car (her body language said, “I own this criss German car)” as men rummaged under the rain-scarred bonnet. Her face said, “A wah dem deh a look fah, eeh, gyal?” So she gave the helpless look and pouted so smart men might stop to examine the couture. Imagine when driver education (this is STEM, too) is mandated for all schools? By 2020, when Uber comes, drivers in Kingston and MoBay will be mainly women. Stay conscious!

Franklin Johnston, D Phil (Oxon), is a strategist and project manager. Send comments to the Observer or franklinjohnstontoo@gmail.com.

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