From STEM to STREAM – Content, delivery, the critical factors



THERE is a revived interest in STEM after our Minister of Education recently mooted the idea of STREAM as a modification to customise to Malaysia’s current need. Before we get lost ‘di hujung jalan’ on the the STEM and STREAM issues, let us return to the ‘pangkal jalan’ of STEM Education. This started in 2001 as a new movement in education in America to address a specific weakness in the American education system, specifically to counter “the decline in the number of college students choosing majors in science or technology or related fields…, because “The United States needs to be more competitive and build new standards for our students.”

It is to be noted that “STEM education is …….to help teachers and their students understand how the academic disciplines of Science, Technology, Engineering practices and Mathematics impact their world and prepare them for the workforce of tomorrow. STEM is multidiscipline based, incorporating the integration of other disciplinary knowledge into a new whole. Technology helps us communicate; Math is the language; Science and Engineering are the processes for thinking; all this leads to Innovation.”

Furthermore “ STEM Education is more than just presentation and dissemination of information and cultivation of techniques. It is a process for teaching and learning that offers students opportunities to make sense of the world and take charge of their learning, rather than learning isolated bits and pieces of content. In the STEM environment, there is less emphasis on activities that demonstrate science content and a greater focus on those activities that allow students to engage in real world problems and experiences through project-based, experiential learning activities that lead to higher level thinking. Learning in a STEM environment compels students to understand issues, distill problems, and comprehend processes that lead to innovative solutions.”

And “STEM Education attempts to transform the typical teacher-centered classroom by encouraging a curriculum that is driven by problem-solving, discovery, exploratory learning, and require students to actively engage in a situation in order to find its solution.”
The above quotations are from materials in the public domain; they are critical and must not be lost sight of.

In the earlier interest on the subject, I am not aware of any attempt to adopt and adapt this borrowed concept into the specific requirement for Malaysia. It is interesting to note that the Engineering content is about the processes of thinking, rather than engineering as such. For me science and the scientific method can take care of that, meaning the strategic, systematic and logical approach to understanding a problem and figuring out the solution to that problem. So for Malaysia, the E should be English.

The emphasis on this language is because of the acknowledged decline in proficiency in English among young Malaysians and the fact that English is the universal language for science and an international lingual franca; a key instrument for global communication, cooperation and collaboration in any area of human endeavour – an enabler for being future aware and future ready. If some quarters insist on E being engineering, then why not E squared ( Engineering & English) ?

The above is an early suggestion at incorporating Malaysian concern into STEM Education. Another suggestion at customisation was STEAM, incorporating Arts, mooted by an eminent Malaysian educationist which, as far as I am aware, did not go anywhere. And now STREAM, to address real issues faced by our nation, and weakness in our education system. There is reason to believe that this time round concrete action with follow.

But one major concern remains. Call it STEM, STEEM, STEAM or STREAM, it will not give us the desired result if it is not accompanied by a complete overhaul of the teaching methods in our schools, retraining of our teachers and reorganising our school administration, to embrace the real requirements as articulated on STEM Education in the quotations above.

The outlook is bright however because our Prime Minister, at an event in Kuala Trengganu on March 7, stated that “We need to master English and I hope educators would give priority to master it as it is the language of science and technology.”

The Prime Minister added “ We will be changing the curriculum in schools to focus on mastering the real Islamic teachings, English as well as science and technology so that we could stand tall among other people in the world”.

Let us hope that in dealing with this issue now, we will catch the bull by the horn, and that those given the task will take the holistic approach; the content and the capacity to deliver, meaning the method of delivery and the teachers trained to deliver.

NOTE: Tan Sri Omar Abdul Rahman is Senior Fellow, Academy of Sciences Malaysia.