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STEM (ming) socio-economic stagnation

For a country like Pakistan which suffers from chronic shortages of capital, energy and technology, the three most important ingredients needed to achieve sustainable growth, its salvation lies in making the most out of what little is available of each; that is, by increasing productivity through achieving a reasonable level of incremental capital (+energy) output ratio.

The East Asian countries suffering from similar vulnerabilities have proven that this could be done by acquiring appropriate technologies which helped them not only in making the most of available capital and energy resources but also by minimizing waste and conserving all the necessary inputs including water for developing adequate manufacturing and agricultural facilities.

But to acquire the requred technologies, an aspiring country would first need to develop a critical mass of educated population.

And according to Marga Gual Soler, founder of SciDipGLOBAL, molecular biologist, advisor to the EU Science Diplomacy Cluster, and Komal Dadlani, Biochemist and ed-tech entrepreneur, CEO/Co-founder at Lab4U (Resetting the way we teach science is vital for all our futures-published in World Economic Forum’s The Weekly Agenda on 13 Aug 2020) the fourth industrial revolution opens up a world of opportunities to reimagine what education looks like in the 21st century. It is acually blurring the boundaries between the physical, digital and biological worlds and making science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) crucial to mankind’s future.

In many industries and countries, the most in-demand occupations or specialties currently did not exist 10 or even five years ago, and the pace of change is set to accelerate. It is estimated that up to 65% of children entering school today will have a job that does not yet exist! So, education can no longer be about transferring explicit knowledge across generations.

According to the OECD 2030 Future of Education and Skills Project: “We need to replace old education standards with an educational framework that combines knowledge with the 21st century skills of creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration.”

The authors of the article maintain that this won’t be achieved by simply moving classes from the chalkboard to a Zoom call, but radically transforming the way we teach and learn science and technology skills, from one-way content dissemination and memorization to personalized, self-directed learning.

“In a rapidly changing world, where we cannot predict what technologies will be ascendant in the future, we have to teach children to teach themselves. Students need not just knowledge, but also skills, attitudes and values to thrive in and shape their own future for a more empowered global citizenship.

“This is why STEM skills must be included in the basic definition of literacy if we want to empower the next generation to address global challenges.”

Therefore, those who are engaged in the challenging task of developing a Single National Curriculum (SNC) for our country need to keep in mind that literacy must include 21st-century skills as described by the OECD: mathematical literacy, scientific literacy, digital literacy, financial literacy, etc., along with competencies and attitudes, such as critical thinking, curiosity, creativity, teamwork, or cross-cultural awareness, that young people must develop for the future professions that don’t yet exist.

According to UNESCO, “for a country to meet the basic needs of its people, the teaching of science is a strategic imperative”.

It is also a strategic imperative that we teach our children at least three languages from day one-their mother tongue, the national language (Urdu) and the language of STEM (English) which isalsoour official language.

There exist numerous inequalities when it comes to STEM education. More so in our country as our education sector is still rather hidebound. As technology connects students with teachers in their homes, its limitations for learning have manifested themselves. The coronavirus crisis has revealed deep inequalities not just in the digital divide (kids without devices or reliable internet connections are cut off from learning completely), but also who has the skills to self-direct their learning, and whose parents have the time to help.

Furthermore, as the authors of the article said, STEM education requires expensive lab equipment for teaching through inquiry and experimentation. In remote learning environments, there is no access to that.

“It is imperative to find creative ways for young people of all socio-economic levels to have access to inquiry-based learning at home. There are some successful software solutions for virtual labs that provide an immersive experience. Although these approaches might be a good starting point, for the student it can feel like learning how to ride a bicycle through a virtual reality experience.

“Learning science requires immersion in the hands-on process of scientific experimentation and inquiry-based and problem-based learning. To address this barrier to experiential science education, some companies use smartphone sensors to design and run science experiments, so any student with a smartphone can experiment with a portable lab in his/her pocket.

“Unlike access to computers, smartphone penetration is increasing, and in mobile-first economies families decide to buy a smartphone before purchasing a computer. This affords an opportunity to ignite and inspire students to learn science in a more engaging way than just a theoretical class, allowing them to take ownership over their learning and understanding better how they learn. In some countries students from low-income communities who used mobile phone-enabled STEM education tools increased their motivations to pursue STEM careers.”

As a measure of mitigating the impact of school closures on learning, and to support their student populations, over 160 countries are said to have moved to some type of remote learning by end of March 2020. In the coming weeks, as systems resume or begin a new school year, many of them are planning to continue with this mode, either exclusively or as a complementary measure that supports smaller class sizes and less physical presence in classrooms. However, as the recent global human experience has already shown, remote learning poses many challenges in implementation, measurement of its effectiveness, and in reaching disadvantaged children. So not surprisingly, disparities abound in access and quality. The UN Institute for Statistics and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) estimates that 40% of students whose schools are closed today do not have access to the internet.

According to Tigran Shmis, Maria Barron and Kaliope Azzi-Huk ( Launching a new academic year under the cloud of COVID-19, World Bank Blog dated Aug.18, 2020) most countries are likely to opt for multi-modal approaches to education that include high tech, low-tech and/or traditional paper-based dissemination. To increase accessibility, some governments are said to be distributing digital devices and improving connectivity options and introducing unlimited access to domestic educational platforms and resources through a tariff plan provided by all mobile operators for students and teachers.

Meanwhile, according to Salman Khan, the man who started the virtual school, admits that (I Started Khan Academy. We Can Still Avoid an Education Catastrophe-published in New York Times on Aug 13, 2020) virtual school will never be a perfect replacement for in-person learning.

“For most students, distance learning can’t replace in-person experience. The lessons are falling short in terms of the social-emotional experience that school should provide. Remember that school is where most of us developed our deepest friendships, were inspired or motivated by amazing teachers and learned to collaborate with others.

“To ensure that kids keep progressing on both the academic and social-emotional fronts, it’s critical that educators provide live teacher-led video conference sessions. These need to optimize both academic coverage and social interaction. A baseline would be two or three 30-to-45 minute sessions in each of the core academic subjects each week. These sessions need to drive conversations between students and teachers and among the students themselves. Teachers should do cold calling to ensure students are on their toes and to pull them out of their screens. Teachers need to constantly ask students to work on questions together and share their thinking. Ideally, virtual breakout sessions will allow students to debate and help each other.

“Let me give a concrete example of what I’ve seen many teachers do effectively along these lines during this past spring. Imagine a sixth-grade math Zoom session in which the teacher provides a challenging problem that can be solved in more than one way. The teacher spends two to three minutes presenting the problem and then asks students to spend the next 10 minutes trying to solve it. After 10 minutes, the teacher asks students to submit their answers over the videoconference chat or polling function. Based on the responses, the teacher then sorts the 30 students into five student virtual breakout groups of six each for 10 minutes. Each group will be asked to reconcile answers and methods of solving the problem. This will allow the students to socially interact with one another and allows for strong peer learning. Finally, the 30 students will be brought back together to report what each breakout group learned”.

M Ziauddin, "STEM (ming) socio-economic stagnation," Business Recorder. 2020-08-26.
Keywords: Economics , Economic conditions , Economic growth , Economic forum , Mathematical literacy , Scientific literacy , Digital literacy , Financial literacy , Pakistan , STEM , ITU

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