The educational approach known as STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Mathematics) is, unsurprisingly, proving to be a hit in Hong Kong, where good results in these subject areas carry enviable social cache. At school assemblies and parent nights, headmasters roll out the truism that today’s students are inheriting a very different world. That our rapidly changing job market values young people with the problem-solving skills to deal with the myriad of social, environmental and infrastructural challenges of a not-so-distant future.
This is where STEAM comes in. Politicians espouse its ancient applications. Parents vouch for its rigour and discipline. Academics praise the abundance it offers young minds. But haven’t schools been offering these courses long before the emergence of a catchy acronym? Is it really any better than the sum of its parts?
“STEAM is actually not just about science, technology and math,” says Winnie Young, Head of School at STEAM International Kindergarten. “It encourages children – even kindergarteners – to hypothesise, ask questions, make suggestions, implement their own suggestions, and ultimately, solve problems. We teach intellectual learning rather than just academics; where students can make real-world connections to what they learn at school and apply their new knowledge to their daily experiences outside of the classroom.”
She adds that for today’s kindergarteners, 60 per cent of their careers will require some form of STEAM background. Coined in 2006 by the US National Science Foundation as STEM (before the Rhode Island School of Design added the seemingly overlooked Arts component), STEAM has the endorsement of everyone from the Hong Kong government to Elmo from Sesame Street. And Young wants her students to be at the forefront of the movement.
“It’s true that the EDB has just started promoting STEAM in local primary and secondary schools, but why wait until then? Younger children are just as willing and able to participate and innovate, as long as we, as educators, inspire and encourage them to do so. I hope schools and parents realise that STEAM is more than just giving a child a robot kit with instructions. STEAM education is about creating, innovating and encouraging children to think outside the box.”
The most pertinent criticism of the STEAM trend is that it’s nothing more than savvy marketing designed to respond to reactive government policies and anxious parent groups, and that innovative maths and science programmes are already flourishing in traditional curricula.
“It depends greatly on what you consider a ‘traditional’ curriculum,” says Brian Cooklin, Principal of Nord Anglia International School (NAISHK). “In primary education at NAISHK, we have always combined the learning outcomes of different subject areas; for example, the graphing of information on an experiment on water quality and the subsequent analysis of the data in order to draw conclusions involving both maths and science. If you then take that information and design a solution to improve the quality of the water, testing and refining your ideas, then add in an element of programming to digitise the solution, and then package and market your solution, you have covered all elements of STEAM.
Traditionally in secondary schools, subjects were only taught distinctly so this sort of project wouldn’t work. Now, we allow for that to happen in secondary as well as primary.”
Furthermore, in Hong Kong’s hyper-competitive marketplace, schools are desperate to establish a point of difference, however small. STEAM International School, for example, promotes its partnership with NASA in the development of its course materials.
Malcolm Kay, superintendent of Stamford American School’s is proud of his own school’s creatively titled ‘STEMinn’ program. “Stamford offers a problem-based Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Innovation programme to challenge students in these disciplines through critical thinking and real-world application.
We are delighted to have five highly qualified STEMinn leaders among our teaching staff. Dedicated STEMinn facilities allow our students to practice their skills, create and test prototypes, and think like scientists. They will also have access to a levelled STEMinn library in every classroom, helping to build scientific literacy.”
Kay cites the most recent Global Competitiveness Report (2016–2017) by the World Economic Forum as validation for Stamford’s curriculum. “Innovation is cited as being the weakest aspect of Hong Kong’s performance. Stamford’s STEMinn program has an additional focus beyond the traditional STEM subjects to include innovation as a core part of everything we do at the school. It is the responsibility of schools to teach students to practice and teach innovative thinking, and to provide pedagogies that develop young and older minds to think in ways that involve analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and most of all, creativity.”
The irony of STEAM mania may be that the acronym covers too much. Ask any head of a science or mathematics department in the past three decades what they look for in their students, and the answers would barely change. For instance, the values of STEAM resonate with those of the IB learner profile, or the GCSE curriculum. There’s nothing wrong with the STEAM trend per se, just a sense that it can be presented as a panacea for poor curriculum delivery.
STEAM advocates, such as Crispian Farrow, ESF New Learning Technology Advisor, agree that there is nothing revolutionary about the content, but rather the way it is delivered.
“Most of our schools never stopped teaching STEM when many schools were moving away from timetabling such lessons in favour of a more integrated approach,” says Mr Farrow. “We feel that our current provision is less of a response to parent demand, government policies or marketing, than simply the continuation of our intention to offer a rich and broad set of meaningful learning opportunities for our students.”
Yet perhaps the STEAM emphasis on collaboration and creativity does challenge the status quo in the largely teacher-driven classrooms of Hong Kong. If so, this could be where its true power lies.
“Forward-thinking schools have begun to shift their thinking to better prepare students to adapt to the rapidly changing world we live in and to the professional world they will eventually work in,” says John Jalsevac, Director of American School Hong Kong. “The goal of STEAM is to foster true innovation that comes with combining the mind of a scientist or technologist with that of an artist or designer. It requires constant teamwork and collaboration.”
Originally published in Education Post, 23 June 2017