STEM Conference 2020, organised by Science Centre Singapore in November 2020, brought educators, researchers and industry experts together to discuss how STEM education in Singapore and worldwide is evolving and adapting to the changing global landscape.
by Oh Sher Li
Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education (and its many variants) has evolved tremendously over the past few years, progressing even as the world came to a standstill in 2020. The STEM Conference 2020 was held virtually on 5 and 6 November 2020, with the theme “Learning without boundaries with STEM: Engaging in Exploration”. The event was organised by Science Centre Singapore in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, Singapore and supported by the National Institute of Education, Singapore. It brought together educators and STEM professionals worldwide, who discussed new developments in education and how pedagogy is improving to help students better adapt to global challenges.
Learning and studying has come a long way from being based around a teacher-centred approach, in which students play a more passive role in learning while teachers present lesson content and deliver instructions. The departure from this more “traditional” method become even more apparent when COVID-19 struck, and schools were forced to take lessons online. On one hand, the delivery of lessons needed to be changed, to work within the limitations of lessons being conducted through conferencing applications. Furthermore, as teachers made use of resources online and came up with innovative new methods to engage students, they experienced first-hand the importance of being adaptable and well-versed with technology.
In this article, we explore some ways in which the STEM education landscape is changing in Singapore and worldwide, as discussed during the virtual conference.
Departure from Teacher-Centred Approaches
The focus of STEM lessons today is shifting from solely content mastery to inculcating essential 21st Century skills and preparing students for future challenges. Several speakers at the conference discussed how it is more effective for teachers to act as facilitators, rather than as the key drivers of learning, and how pedagogical models should aim to promote scientific inquiry in students by linking scientific concepts to everyday events, the society, and to the environment.
In Singapore, some secondary schools have already started adopting alternative methods of teaching STEM subjects. These schools place an emphasis on scientific inquiry skills and creativity, by allowing students to come up with their own innovative solutions to real-world STEM problems and learn about science concepts in the process. Students are involved in planning, building, and testing their own prototypes, and are encouraged to include concepts from different scientific disciplines.
The Science Buskers Festival, organised annually by Science Centre Singapore, is another programme that aims to help students improve their science communication skills. The festival is also a competition among teams of students ranging from primary schools to tertiary institutions, in which participants conduct live demonstrations and present scientific concepts behind their demonstrations not just to the judges, but to their peers and the public as well. As students plan and carry out their own experiments and explain their concepts to others, they can better appreciate the science behind the phenomena observed and learn how to communicate STEM concepts more effectively.
In addition to being alternative teaching methods, these methods also do not limit students to working only on pre-determined topics from the syllabus, instead allowing students to explore and learn more about any scientific concepts of their choice. This freedom encourages students to pursue their topics of interest to a much greater breadth and depth and develops a greater appreciation of STEM beyond the textbook.
Updating Methods of Assessing Scientific Mastery
New methods of teaching call for new ways of assessing students’ academic performance. As approaches such as the Science Buskers Festival and cultivating science inquiry skills become more widely adopted, STEM education can no longer depend only on pen-and-paper assignments and examinations, and educators need to find ways to assess students’ performance in fair and reasonable ways. Furthermore, as the focus of STEM education branches beyond familiarity with lesson content and extends into helping students develop essential skills for the future, even in more traditional classroom settings.
During the conference, researchers from the Chinese University of Hong Kong proposed a new evaluative method, known as the “STEM Assessment for Hong Kong (SAHK)”. This is a large-scale quantitative assessment fine-tuned to the aims of Hong Kong’s STEM education scene. The assessment takes into account students’ mastery of 21st Century skills, as well as their proficiency in innovation, technology, and soft skills needed to succeed in life. The SAHK was developed following a comprehensive systematic review, in order to identify the components to be assessed. While it was developed with Hong Kong in mind, the components can be adapted to different countries’ needs.
Bringing Technology into (Physical and Virtual) Classrooms
There is little doubt that keeping up with technological advancements is essential, particularly when schools today are trying to equip students with skills that make them future-ready. Fortunately, companies and curriculum developers are working together to create products and programmes to expose students to STEM knowledge and new technology. This can be done by teaching students about new technology that could be vital to the way they work in the future, by using technologically advanced tools in the classroom, or by using digital apps and software to facilitate students’ learning.
Companies like Amazon and Google have developed educational programmes to teach students about cloud computing, which is becoming increasingly important in many industries. Cloud services are employed by a vast majority of organisations today, and cloud computing skills have been consistently ranked among the top skills required by jobseekers in the past few years. The AWS Educate programme from Amazon Web Services provides resources to students, educators and institutions to help them adapt to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, and online learning modules to teach students cloud computing skills at no cost and at their own pace.
STEM education and learning cloud computing skills to remain future-proof extends beyond the classroom and applies even to individuals who have already entered the workforce. Grow with Google and Google Career Certificates are programmes catering to adult learners, small business owners, jobseekers, students, and educators, with different resources for every individual’s unique purposes, curated by industry experts. These programmes also offer collaborative opportunities and workshops, and certificates can be earned to help individuals find jobs and showcase their new skills.
Educational tools and products have also evolved over time. 3Doodler, a company that produces 3D printing pens, is working together with schools to teach students how to create their own prototypes and 3D models, while also explaining concepts of physics and engineering. These 3D printing pens, specially developed to be safe for young children, are an inexpensive and convenient alternative to 3D printers, making them much more accessible to schools and families.
Many developments and future directions of STEM education were presented over the two-day long virtual STEM Conference 2020, with insights from educators, researchers, and industry experts. As COVID-19 made online lessons a necessity and many institutions were forced to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances, it became more evident than ever that education systems must teach students to be better prepared for future challenges. The approaches highlighted during the conference a just a few ways in which STEM education is undergoing a revamp in many parts of the world. These discussions offer a glimpse of the directions of education systems worldwide, as they prepare students for the future.