STEM as a vehicle for the future not a destination
STEM principles should be employed to develop innovative graduates with critical thinking skills to solve problems in whatever field they are employed.

In recent times there has been much discourse about the University of Technology, Jamaica (UTech) and STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education. The general interpretation seems to regard STEM as a destination.

Since everyone cannot be involved in all four areas, a more cosmopolitan interpretation is required. This entails the use of STEM principles to develop innovative graduates with critical thinking skills to solve problems in whatever field they are employed. Graduates so equipped would be able to transfer knowledge and adapt it to their relevant fields.

Role of STEM in education and sport

It is my belief that a STEM approach that integrates the engineering design process (EDP) and the scientific method can be adapted to any subject. EDP allows students to identify the problem; brainstorm in groups to solve the problem; imagine/develop possible solutions; select a promising solution to create a proposal/prototype; and test the prototype, then improve or redesign as needed.

This is a strategy that can be employed in sport, law, humanities, or business as it uses a sequential plan for problem-solving whilst building teamwork and leadership skills. The scientific method employs a similar method — making an observation; finding out more about the topic; and developing a theory, which is then tested and the data analysed before reporting the conclusions. Again, another method of problem-solving using a logical step-wise approach.

Both strategies under STEM would require instructors to identify the elements of the syllabus aligned with STEM areas. The instructor engages the student, allowing them to be involved by exploring the topic. After explaining the concept, students should be encouraged to elaborate based on what they learnt about the topic. Students can test the concept through evaluation of the merits of the concept and extend knowledge by adding based on inferences from their readings and exploration of the topic.

All this application builds curiosity, creative thinking, critical thinking, and leadership skills that are needed whether you are a lawyer, doctor, Indian chief, computer technologist, mathematician, or entrepreneur. These are skills an athlete, sports manager, or coach would need to be successful — problem identification, research of the problem, thinking of a solution, then testing the solution.

These are skills employed by coaching greats such as Dr Dennis Johnson, Stephen Francis, and Glen Mills. They observe; identify the issues of the athlete they are coaching; and propose solutions, which they try or test and improve as needed. When we see the gold medals, these are the results of application of the EDP steps. Our coaches have been using STEM in sport before STEM was a thing.

The sport sciences programme at UTech was started after the 2007 release of the Government of Jamaica-commissioned study by RA Shirley. This report recommended that academic sport training be created to support our achievements in sport. The sport training programme at UTech also embraces the Vision 2030 plan for an educated workforce, new careers (with the athletic training specialisation), and creating an environment for all Jamaicans to reach their full potential. This cannot be limited to science and technology.

It would be remiss to omit that Paul Francis, the coach of Shericka Jackson and other successful MVP athletes, is a graduate of the athletics training specialisation at UTech. One only has to listen to Jackson speaking of the corrections her coach will make to improve her start to realise that Francis is using the engineering design process of STEM to improve the speed of his athletes. STEM sport in action!

STEM Distraction and Institutional Support

The proponents of the current discourse, who propose more science and technology graduates, should evaluate whether we have the space to accommodate these graduates and whether we are building the love for science and technology from the primary and secondary levels. Comparisons being made with China and India are unrealistic unless the geopolitical and economic factors are also considered.

I don't see parents embracing the coerced entry into careers that their children do not wish to pursue, neither do we have the technological industry to absorb thousands of technological and engineering graduates. We do have the capacity to use STEM principles and strategies to produce graduates with superior problem-solving and innovative skills, creating a globally competitive workforce in any career path they choose.

Does UTech need to employ STEM? Yes, it does, and in some cases this is being done. We now need to formalise the approach across all disciplines so that it is widely utilised and seen. This should also be the approach at the primary and secondary levels, where students' career interests are developed before they get to the tertiary institutions.

Should UTech limit its faculties to science and technology? If UTech does this, will competing universities cull their science and technology programmes? Is this question being asked of The University of the West Indies (UWI)? Should UWI cut the newly created pharmacy and engineering programmes, since these programmes have been resident at UTech since its inception?

If the powers that be desire a completely polytechnic university, will UTech be given the financial support to be competitive? Will other universities be asked to focus on other areas so that competition is reduced, with each being known for certain disciplines?

Another part of the discourse claims that UTech created too many posts. If that is the issue, why not resolve this issue through due assessment and an increase in the number of posts to match the increase in student population? There were too few medical doctor posts in the public hospitals despite the increase in population size. This oversight was recently addressed. Similarly, for UTech, student numbers have increased based on the country's population and the programmes given to UTech by the Government.

At what point would one realise that new posts would be required that should be financially supported? If we look at the subvention per student, this is woefully below The UWI and teachers' colleges, not to mention even some high schools. At what point do we address this disparity and right a wrong that is being perpetuated on this institution? Let me not even mention the salary negotiations that are stuck at 2017/18. The employees at UTech have to deal with inflation and cost increases that have not been frozen in time at their 2016/17 salaries.

I consider the pressures on UTech to create a value proposition and a focus on STEM disciplines distractions that do not focus on the issues related to the underfunding of the institution. Every time salary negotiations start, the arguments surrounding the value proposition of the institution and cuts resurface. This would be extremely demotivating if we were not professionals committed to excellence through knowledge.

If programmes are to be cut, please do the necessary analysis! One would hardly let a blind surgeon perform an operation because he has great intuition. Don't cut without the full view and analysis of the issues. Employ the STEM approach to the viability of UTech. Observe the issues, do the background research, develop solutions, and test the solutions before simply cutting.

Give UTech the resources and support to continue to produce world-class, work-ready STEM-produced graduates who will have the necessary problem-solving and leadership skills to make a difference in any field!

Dr Donna-Marie Wynter-Adams is a senior lecturer in pharmacology and head of the Caribbean School of Sport Sciences, University of Technology, Jamaica.

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