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Engaging Students in STEM Education

As global dependency on technological innovation increases and economic competition becomes more reliant on the technical skill sets of human resources, the importance of effective STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics-based curriculum) continues to grow. In addition to economic growth benefits, STEM education is widely perceived as a catalyst for employment and career opportunity, as well as the basis of sustainable community development.

The Caribbean Science Foundation’s “Implementation Strategy and Action Plan to Promote a STEM Education, Innovation and Employment Program for Barbados” promotes STEM education reform to be the basis for achieving a diversified economy that complements tourism and financial services.

According to the Foundation, cultivating “a supply of highly skilled scientists, engineers and technicians capable of carrying out research and developing and adapting new and existing technologies, is critical for the development of the country.” An effective economic development growth model requires a progression from STEM education reform, to promoting science and technology-based innovation through science and technology-based entrepreneurship to the formation of new technology companies. These new companies will in turn increase the value of exports and the tourism product to the economy and ultimately lead to expanded economic growth and diversification.

While the importance and potential of STEM education is widely recognized and understood, successfully integrating STEM into existing curriculum can be challenging.

According to Dixon and Hutton in “STEM and TVET in the Caribbean: A Framework for Integration at the Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Levels,” STEM education and the development of STEM-trained human capital resources is widely regarded as the solution to economic distress in the Caribbean.

However, universities are consistently turning out more graduates in non-STEM fields. According to the Economic and Social Survey of Jamaica by the Planning Institute of Jamaica, only 14% of the 34,256 students trained at the Mona Campus of The University of the West Indies and the University of Technology, Jamaica between the years 2007 and 2011 were trained in STEM fields. Dixon and Hutton credits this low percentage to the lack of consistent and effective integrated STEM education in schools.

“While there has been an increased focus on the importance of STEM in curricula and for a globally competitive workforce, the idea of teaching integrated STEM occurs in a limited manner, particularly in the Caribbean.”

STEM education reform initiatives aim to solve the challenge of low student interest in two ways; first, by increasing student engagement through innovative pedagogic approaches, and second, by targeting specific cultural and gender-based groups that have historically low participation in STEM studies and occupations.

At the Kuala Lumpur International STEM High-Level Policy Forum on “Evidence-Based Science Education in Developing Countries” UNESCO’s International Bureau of Education Senior Program Specialist Massimo Amadio’s presentation, “STEM education and the curriculum: Issues, tensions and challenges”, outlines how innovation is occurring in curricular and pedagogy.

Traditional STEM education is predominantly discipline and content-based. Students learn through didactic transmission (passive learning) and reproduce similar applications through individual work. This compliance-focused approach is widely criticized as elitist and is geared principally towards producing future scientists. Prominent gender imbalances and limited participation in STEM disciplines from specific groups, such as indigenous people exists.

In contrast, Innovative curricular and pedagogic approaches are more integrated and interdisciplinary and have a wider application. Students focus on solving real-world problems through practice-based and process-led interactive learnings. These experiential methods keep students engaged in collaborative teamwork, in which adaption and transformation techniques are applied to complete critical interpretations and actions. This innovative approach is non-exclusive and prioritizes “science for all.”

The U.S Department of Education, in collaboration with American Institutes for Research, similarly addresses the importance of STEM teaching innovation in “STEM 2026: A Vision for Innovation in STEM Education,” explaining that despite previous efforts, the nation still has,

“…persistent inequities in access, participation, and success in STEM subjects that exist along racial, socioeconomic, gender, and geographic lines, as well as among students with disabilities. STEM education disparities threaten the nation’s ability to close education and poverty gaps, meet the demands of a technology-driven economy, ensure national security, and maintain preeminence in scientific research and technological innovation.”

These disparities in teaching approaches are globally mirrored.

The U.S Department of Education outlines six main components to culturally relevant and lifelong STEM learning pathways:

  • Engage and network communities of practice (museums, libraries, community organizations, mentors, etc.).
  • Make accessible learning activities that invite intentional play and risk.
  • Ensure educational experiences that include interdisciplinary approaches to solving relevant challenges.
  • Create flexible and inclusive learning spaces supported by innovative technologies.
  • Develop innovative and accessible measures of learning (academic improvements that promote critical thinking skills, collaboration and social skills, facility with core knowledge, stresses hard work and tenacity, models authentic problems, introduces learning by trial and error, and encourages individual exploration).
  • Incorporates societal and cultural images and environments that promote diversity and opportunity in STEM.

“STEM 2026” further notes that in order to promote diversity in STEM opportunities and careers there must be a refinement of popular media and retail messaging, especially those that are typically used in classroom settings. Media should be used as a vehicle for encouraging and ensuring inclusion. Cultural signals and images should, include all members of society, including students of color, students with disabilities, girls and boys, and individuals from rural, suburban, and urban neighborhoods. These images encourage all neighborhoods, students, and educators to develop STEM identities and affinities throughout academic and professional communities.

Successfully implementing STEM education requires community wide involvement including policymakers, funders, educators, nonprofits, the business community and community leaders.

According to Amadio, reforms such as these will ensure long-term, sustainable economic growth and competitive advantage, not only in terms of economic wealth but also in overall population well being. This will ensure that all have the opportunity to become competent and capable citizens in a technology dependent society and globalized world.

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