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Has the STEM train lost steam?

Henry
Lewis

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

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During the previous Government, former Education Minister Ronald Thwaites and the Ministry of Education and Youth and Culture at the time were on a policy shift to transform the education system by incorporating science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) methodologies in the curriculum of schools in Jamaica and some schools were to be re-branded STEM academies.

In July 2015 the Sydney Pagon Agriculture Science High School in St Elizabeth became the first STEM academy and is now referred to as The Sydney Pagon, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). The Government of the day spent approximately $20 million to upgrade the science laboratories, classrooms and library. Thwaites had announced that there would have been a full roll-out of the STEM curriculum with a greater emphasis on STEM methodologies with more activity-based, problem solving and real-world issues.

I am not sure, but can somebody remind me whether the current Government has lunched the STEM curriculum which was 90 per cent complete from my information. Did Dunoon Park Technical, St Andrew Technical, Kingston Technical in the Corporate Area; Herbert Morrison Technical, Manchester High School; Dinthill Technical, Vere Technical, and St Mary Technical received the curriculum promised to them since 2014/2015.

Has the STEM train lost steam?

Education, Youth and Information Minister Senator Ruel Reid, could you give the country an update on STEM and the government policy on STEM. Please tell us the following:

• How much money has been budgeted this fiscal year for STEM-related activities that's in addition to the $50 million that you have committed to the National Robotics Jamaica STEM initiative earlier this year in New York?

• Who is the go-to person at the ministry for STEM? Is there a STEM coordinator per se?

• What has happened to the STEM curriculum that was been developed by the ministry during the tenure of Minister Thwaites? If you have not rolled it out as yet it may be a blessing in disguise, because the question we should be asking is do we need STEM, STEAM or STREAM.

Humanising STEM

I am suggesting to Minister Reid that we take another look at STEM, because it lacks steam, it needs the humanities. Can a STEM scientist function well without an understanding and appreciation of human behaviour? Can he/she become truly academically astute without the proper 'groundations' (my word) in technical writing and the arts, in general? How can he/she function without sitting at the feet of the ethicists to fully appreciate that that his/her conduct as a scientist is guided by general and discipline specific ethics? How on earth can this scientist function?

My argument is simple. This scientist would be a lopsided, out of sorts, if he/she is only STEMised with any exposure to the humanities. So let's cool down and begin to talk about how we can avoid making the mistake of producing STEM toads (A STEM toad is a graduate from a STEM institution who has not sufficiently grounded in some essential non-STEAM disciplines.)

STEMites must realise that the skills required by innovative STEM professionals include what I call artistic thinking. But what does that involve? Scientifically it involves recognising and forming patterns; modelling; getting a 'feel' for systems; and the manipulative skills learned by using tools, pens, and brushes, generating mental images and concepts, these are all demonstrably valuable for developing STEM abilities. The powers that be, therefore, must consider offering funding for collaborative and productive research into the benefits of teaching at the intersection of STEM and non-STEM disciplines. It is only then we could empirically and emphatically say, yes, STEM cannot exist without the arts and other non-STEM disciplines.

I must hasten to say, however, that adding the arts to STEM is not enough. We should seriously consider adding the thinking skills embodied in reading and writing. STEAM must now be reconfigured into STREAM or Science, Technology, Reading, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics.

Writing, like any other art, teaches the entire range of “tools for thinking” that are required to be creative in any discipline. To be a lucid writer one must observe acutely; abstract out the key information; recognise and create patterns; use analogies and metaphors to model in words some reality that takes place in another dimension; translate sensations, feelings, and hunches into clearly communicable forms; and combine all this sensual information into words that create not only understanding but also delight, remorse, anger, desire, or any other human emotion that will drive understanding into action.

Let's think for a moment: What was just described is what our STEM scientists do too.

So, don't despise writing; it isn't just wordsmithing. It's also a skill. I might even add it is a technological skill, because it teaches mastery of the creative process. Whether it is academic writing, fiction or non-fiction, creative non-fiction or poetry, the process of taking facts, trends, feelings, impressions, images, and emotions and translating them into words requires mastery of all the tools for thinking required to perform any other creative activity.

Moreover, since words are our primary means of communicating, anyone who has not mastered their creative use is simply underprepared for any discipline, including STEM subjects. If you want a highly trained, professional and innovative scientist then I am convinced that they must be taught how to love and cherish writing, human behaviour sciences like psychology, languages whether foreign, or the local vernacular, then and only then you would have prepared a true STEM scientist; and he would be forever grateful.

Let's hear what the minister of education thinks. Stay tuned!

Henry J Lewis is a lecturer at the University of Technology, Jamaica, School of Humanities and Social Sciences. Send comments to the Observer or hjlewis@utech.edu.jm.

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