Blog

Teaching STEM with Real-World Relevance in Singapore

Lim_221By TM Lim
From Dimensions
November/December 2014

In September 2013, Singapore’s Minister for Education Swee Keat Heng shared his vision of making “Every School a Good School.” His idea of a good school is one that provides a solid education to all students and encourages them to become confident, self-motivated, lifelong learners.

Minister Heng’s vision is a sharp departure from the current state of education in Singapore. In our schools today, teachers typically focus on preparing students to do well on national examinations. Parents and students are very anxious about these exams, particularly the Primary School Leaving Exam (PSLE) that students take at age 12. High PSLE scores will get students into one of Singapore’s elite secondary schools, which are considered the key to a bright future. Another national exam at age 18 determines whether students will get into a university. Hence the focus in schools is on studying to score well on exams, rather than on lifelong learning or mastering knowledge and 21st-century skills relevant to a career in an ever-changing market.

Soon after Minister Heng declared his vision, the Ministry of Education (MOE) asked Science Centre Singapore, as one of its 10 statutory boards, to create a program to support the minister’s goals. We were given less than one month to come up with the concept and figure out staffing. When I agreed to help, our Science Centre Board told me I was crazy to accept such a big task. My reply was, “If we don’t do it, who will?”

Developing STEM INC

By February 2014, Science Centre Singapore had set up its new STEM INC unit, which developed and implemented the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Applied Learning Program (STEM ALP). The program enables secondary school students, ages 13 to 15, to apply what they have learned in STEM subjects to innovate solutions to real-world problems. STEM INC aims to give our students a strong sense of ownership in their own learning while helping them see the relevance of STEM to their future career options. We hope the emphasis on real-world applications will stimulate their curiosity and interest in science. The MOE provided funding to establish the program.

The name “STEM INC” represents (1) students incorporating STEM knowledge into real-world problem solving and (2) students beginning to see STEM as an enterprise through which they can create wealth or a future for themselves.

STEM INC provides interactive and hands-on experiences within eight domains: engineering and robotics, information and communications technology and programming, food science and technology, environmental science and sustainable living, materials science, health science and technology, transportation and communication, and simulation and modeling. The Curriculum Planning and Development Division of the MOE works closely with STEM INC to advise schools on which domains to focus on to fit the needs and aspirations of their students and teachers.

The STEM ALP curriculum is designed by specialists that Science Centre Singapore recruited from outside the formal school education system through a full-page advertisement in the local newspaper. Some of these specialists are retired professors or engineers, while some younger specialists come with years of research and development experience. To further enhance student learning with real-world relevance, STEM INC also enlists business and industrial partners (such as Micron and Broadcom) to work with the schools. These companies provide STEM role models and internships to students and professional development to teachers.

Putting the program into practice

STEM INC operates from our science center and deploys curriculum specialists and STEM educators to train teachers and work with them to co-develop and co-teach STEM lessons. The actual lessons and activities are conducted in the classroom as part of the regular school day. This allows the STEM lessons to be integrated into the formal curriculum, so that they are not seen as an extra requirement or a burden.

Lessons and hands-on activities bridge conceptual understanding of the curriculum to applications in real-world scenarios. For example, students might apply what they have learned about biology, electronics, computer programming, and microcontroller technology to build an electronic heartbeat sensor.

There is no examination in the STEM ALP. This is a very big change in mindset for teaching and learning in Singapore and frees schools from perpetually using an exam-driven teaching approach. We believe that when students find learning fun and relevant, they will be motivated to learn and will improve their exam results.

Feedback and impact

In the first phase of the implementation in 2014, 19 schools embarked on the program. During phase two, in the second half of the year, 23 more schools decided to join. We aim to bring the program to 60 to 80 of Singapore’s secondary schools by 2017.

Feedback from school principals and teachers has been encouraging. For example, the principal of Greendale Secondary School said he witnessed genuine engagement and collaborative learning when he visited the classrooms. He also noted that the level of enthusiasm for learning was equally high in classes of all achievement levels.

STEM INC offers all students a chance to blossom, especially those who might otherwise be left out because their performance on the PSLE did not qualify them for the most prestigious secondary schools. Some parents have expressed their happiness in seeing their children having access to tools like microprocessors, 3D printers, and robotics, which otherwise are available only in elite schools.

STEM INC hopes to help schools develop a new learning philosophy that allows students to enjoy learning because they are motivated by the intrinsic meaning and relevance of STEM in their lives.

To quote Minister Heng, “Our aim is simple. It is to equip our students with the critical competencies and dispositions to succeed in a knowledge economy.”

TM Lim is CEO of Science Centre Singapore.

About the image: Students at the Geylang Methodist School work together to construct a cardboard house model under the supervision of a curriculum specialist recruited by Science Centre Singapore. Photo courtesy Science Centre Singapore