Put ‘wow’ into STEM

Thursday, 30 January 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Three buses pulled up near the Colombo National Museum and school students from an outstation school got down in a hurry. Guided by their teachers, the student group walked to the museum in a long queue. The expressions on their faces indicated that the mere presence at the destination was making them happy and they all looked excited. For most of these students being from outstations this is their ‘Going to Colombo’ visit. A unique event in their school life and perhaps a trip very much looked forward to.       March past Once inside the museum it is evident that the line keeps on moving. There are no real stops beside what had been displayed. They will get to know that the familiar term ‘Katu Geya’ comes from the giant skeleton of the whale that is hung on the roof in one area of the museum and that may be as much detail they get in the absence of any detailed audio visual aids or guides. Their speed of movement is not conducive to any meaningful engagement with the exhibits. The students do not seem to engage much with each other and their teachers as well. If the student line shows signs of slowing down, the teacher would remind them that they have more places to visit and restores the march past! It really is a march past in front of everything that is displayed. There is no real opportunity for a student to stop, read and admire a museum object. It is true that they have more places to visit. Their visit to the capital is packed with a long list of destinations. The day may come to an end at the Dehiwala Zoo and that too by being there just in time for the elephant dance. At the end of a long day all would return having visited a few places with some images but that may be all that they have done.         Minimal learning Moving from place to place just to ensure ‘have visited’ means that the learning from the visitation is minimal. A place like the National Museum has so much to offer but the take up is minimal when students from outstations do not get any quality time to spend at an institution of this nature. Hence when the numbers of visitors is calculated with respect to the service delivered, it is doubtful whether the data means anything under these circumstances. Places such as the Zoological Gardens, Botanical Gardens and the National Museum are real and important places for informal learning and it is a pity if these are unable to function in that manner. An income analysis from the number of footfalls from a management perspective is too simple for an enterprise of this nature and really does not do any justice to the potential. A journey of such nature should leave a lasting impression on a child and that should be an objective. It is reputed that Albert Einstein once stated: “I have no special talents, I am just passionately curious.” Today we can understand the distance his curiosity took him and as a result the world too. We are also aware that he was not a student who really excelled in the formal education system, hence sparking creativity or getting a child to be ‘curious unlimited’ is important.         Deficiencies in early education All too often we may hear the advice ‘do not do that and that,’ etc. It is no secret that this is the general advice we give whenever a risky activity is attempted. Such advice has a lasting influence on one’s outlook and behaviour as one grows up. While values are important and should be inculcated at an early stage, interest in the outside environment and why things happen is important. One should not be growing up thinking and believing that all that one needs to be available for asking. This is indeed a wrong way to grow. We do have a situation of voting and expecting everything and if not voting for another with the same expectations. Our responsibilities are not properly understood. We also see situations of employees leaving private sector placements while having high salaries and taking up basic level jobs within the State sector with much lower salary. Are you thinking only about the safety, security and the final pension and what are your personality traits when you only think like that? With such thinking one cannot dream big nor envision significant outputs – a sad state of affairs with our workforce. We appear not to understand the issues stemming from deficiencies arising out of early education in moulding the future society.         Informal education There are many places in the country that can serve as informal educational centres but there is a need to uplift them to truly serve in that way. You can create informal learning spaces in small ways embedded into an already existing formal institute too. Informal education means learning while immersed in a creative environment and usually implies the absence of a standard school setting. Some of the skills that may get developed such as problem solving and analytical skills during informal learning are lifetime skills. How to extend the current setting at Pinnawala Zoo for instance to provide such an informal learning experience beyond what it may already doing is a discussion point. Walking into Anuradhapura and seeing the world’s tallest brick building – the Jethavana Stupa – and pushing for a line of thinking in structures and achievements in a young mind is still a challenge as the setup is really not geared for that. The challenge posed for enhancing informal education in the country to thrive at present is once you are outside the school classroom you are again inside another room taking tuition – hardly the way to develop a young mind. While outstation students may be keen to visit the much-heard-about ‘Katu Geya,’ students from Colombo and suburbs may only have visited the place once, if at all. They are not the places to go to during a weekend to spend time. We need to pay attention to these deficiencies and the sooner we do so, the better.       STEM to the fore Of course these places are mainly for creating an interest in science. If the objective is to create an excitement in marketing or finance, these are not the places though one can argue against that. Why the stress on places mentioned is because we do have a significant interest in commerce and related studies. It is really strange to hear some recommendations to the effect that ‘even if your child is selected to do medicine, why not still engage in some accounting studies?’ The issue we have at present is with science or to be more accurate on STEM streams. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics and STEM knowledge is vital as we go deeper into the 21st century. In a formal setting science may come out being a difficult daunting subject and the stereotype scientists may be a too serious looking picture to be excited about. Remember we are living in an age when ‘YouTube’ sets the stage for attention and some uploaded clip for no real reason can go viral. Most records so far would indicate those are not on science but on quick fun. A cue from this is as the subjects are so vital, preaching only the importance is not going to do any good but one must seek ways to ensure that the attention of the young minds is taken and held on to by a creative process.         Moulding young minds Studies have revealed that there is a ‘make or break’ time for children to become interested in science. The accumulated wisdom in this area suggests that by year 11, one’s interest should have been developed and the informal science experiences at an early age would dictate the career path. How many Nobel laureates in chemistry have stated their fascination on chemistry originated from the home chemistry set and how many engineers may have had their early focus resulting from the Meccano or the Lego set that they handled as a child. The young of our land needs to be moulded to become responsible citizens. Today we do have a serious gap in interest in STEM streams which is quite visible. There is an urgent need to cultivate a stronger informal learning environment. The story that I started out with was an observation. A ‘wow’ factor is desperately needed in STEM and the way forward is changing the way we do certain things! [The writer is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is the Project Director of COSTI (Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation), which is a newly established State entity with the mandate of coordinating and monitoring scientific affairs. He can be reached via email on [email protected].]

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