Wed | Jun 16, 2021

Rebuilding STEM post-COVID-19

Published:Sunday | February 14, 2021 | 12:18 AMErrol Morrison and Andrew Wheatley - Contributors

STEM is an emerging approach to learning and development that integrates the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. The approach is designed to position our youth to access the unfolding opportunities presented by the exponential and continuous advances in science and technology that characterise modern life.

Changes to the way students learn, connect and interact are required in order to access the benefits of the continuous advances in science and technology. The STEM approach to learning couples academic concepts with real-world applications: basic principles are used to explain to students what is happening in the world around them.

Naturally, from an early age humans begin to develop an interest in nature as its behaviour excites the learner. What changes day to night? How can water be a gas, a liquid or a solid? Why does a rock in the garden get hot in the day when there was no fire near it? Why cook food but not fruits or vegetables? How that injection in the arm protects against illness?

As scientists explain what these things are (science); how they work (technology) and eventually place them within the context of our daily lives more people will become attracted to STEM and more students fascinated and attracted. The potential drawback to the popularisation of STEM approach is that while there are many that can teach the 3Rs – reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic ... not many can apply that basic information into explaining how things happen around us while maintaining the curiosity of children.

Our trainers must be trained.

In modern times, STEM plays a significant role in a number of key areas critical to human development:

STEM in Health

In the current pandemic, much talk now focuses on vaccines. Over the centuries, science has proven that the human body naturally develops resistance to foreign invaders such as bacteria and viruses, and in the event of reinfection the human body can swiftly repel the intruder. The exposure to a weakened intruder protects us humans from getting ill while simultaneously stimulating the development of resistance – this is the standard principle of modern vaccination.

• Advances in science have deepened our understanding of the cell’s ability to transfer substances from the invading organism into human bodies and so stimulate resistance.

• Advances in science have improved our understanding of what causes infections – as a result drugs are now being designed to attack and kill the invading organisms.

Cancer is among the leading causes of death worldwide. Modern science has developed mechanisms to fight cancer cells using drugs, radiation and surgery. Today, these methods are very specific and drugs can be designed to treat cancer in a specific individual; surgery can be performed by robots which are accurately controlled remotely, while radiation which kills cells can be delivered to an atom – the smallest of particles in a cell – and destroy aspects of the cell without causing death of the cell.

Improvement in our understanding of how the human body works allows us to prevent diseases by healthy eating, frequent physical activity, mental relaxation and good hygienic habit.

A holistic approach is best!

STEM in agriculture

It was only some three centuries ago that scientists rolled up their sleeves and worked alongside farmers in the field to improve our understanding of how best to enhance growth in plants, how to protect against diseases, how to cross-fertilise, and more. They learnt the role of birds, insects and wind in the process of pollination and how this impacted the bearing of fruits. They learnt how animals lived, courted, reproduced and hunted.

Today, scientists have returned to the laboratories where they further study how best to improve crops; eliminate or enhance traits in plants; modify their appearance and taste and adjust their nutritive values. Today, the modern scientist cross-breeds domestic animals to provide pets; produce better attributes such as size, colour, muscular strength, power and personality traits.

Scientists now understand the template on which life is built and the transmitting of genes from generation to generation can now be adapted in a variety of ways.

Modern technology allows the corralling and protection of herds, protects against cross-breeding or inbreeding, and allows a greater response to world market trends which can be varied and infinite; but so is the scientific and technological responses in meeting those demands.

Agriculture has got smarter, not harder!

STEM in education

Engineering is a form of technology that applies knowledge gained in different ways and settings. Whatever is done has to be measured or quantified logically incorporating mathematics to ensure accurate assessments of products.

Currently, the world is using the application of electromagnetism and transistors to communicate in real time across the globe. Printed documents as you know are being employed less as quick and immediate communication is now available by voice (telephony) or in digital format (Wi-Fi/Internet).

No longer is there a need for ‘chalk and talk and the blackboard’. Audiovisuals have superseded all that and now the audiovisuals are transmitted wirelessly.

Teaching and learning have been revolutionised. Information need not be handwritten as it can now be input via the computer which can be controlled even by voice. The role of the teacher has transformed from instructor to being more of a facilitator.

All this is encompassed in the term information and communications technology (ICT) and our existence is fast evolving into a world of robotics, artificial intelligence and repositories of information which can be retrieved by the click of a button. Hence the use of our memory can be directed at other pursuits, especially in the creative expressions, innovations and inventions, and herein lies the power of STEM.

With the STEM approach, our youth will be empowered to participate in the digital age. They’ll be adept at the interface of digitisation in communication, transportation, architecture, finance, health and aspects not yet conceptualised. Without this enablement, a society will fail to advance and remain stultified in obsolescence and antiquities.

Education is the anchor for such progress!

STEM and culture

We speak of popularisation of science and technology among the population to improve the general understanding of the role of these forces in our daily lives and support their embrace in order to drive our evolution to a modern society. Understanding our culture is an imperative and must be confronted head-on ‘by winning friends and influencing behaviour’.

In Jamaica folklore is deep and embedded, and introducing concepts of science and technology may well be viewed with suspicion and reticence, reducing buy-in and cooperation.

The onus is therefore on the leaders of our society to induce the wider population to share their beliefs, knowledge and practices; to indulge in meaningful discussions in order to determine what aspects are easily assimilated and acceptable as reliable evidence-based practice. And by evidence-based, we are not restricting the methods to scientific laboratories; but also to the credible historical accounts from generation to generation which have been responsible for the accumulation of a body of cultural knowledge which socioeconometrists quite rightly describe as cultural science.

The cultural experiences must not be restricted to the more visible and vocal groups but also must incorporate due diligence into the varied groups within our society that may well be included in the silent majority who…

“... far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife, their sober wishes never learned to stray; but along the cool sequestered vale of life they kept the noiseless tenor of their way”…

- Prof Errol Morrison is a consultant physician and honorary Life President of the Diabetes Association of Jamaica; Andrew Wheatley, PhD is a biochemist/biotechnologist and member of parliament for St Catherine South Central.