The STEM phenomenon | Daily News


The STEM phenomenon

The diminishing interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects seems to have become a major concern in the education system in Sri Lanka. At present, the Sri Lankan graduate enrolments, especially in science faculties, have declined. We are offering the same subjects throughout the years when the world is ahead of us.

Same thing happened in the United States about 20 years ago, but it has now turned around. The reason for the increase of interest in the STEM in the United States is twofold. First, in the US there was a big tech boom in the 1990s, and a lot of people, instead of going to science, went into computer science, start-up companies, finance or economics. But with the economic ups and downs, and especially the recession 10 years ago, it’s not so attractive anymore. The other thing is that everyone got very worried — just as we sense it is happening here in Southeast Asia — that people aren’t going into engineering and science anymore.

The STEM word itself came from the effort in the United States to improve science, technology, engineering and math. There was this big effort, which came from the government and the NSF (National Science Foundation) — STEM, STEM, STEM! — trying to inform students about the opportunities, the excitement, and increase outreach activities. And the amazing thing is that it has worked! It’s working, and you can see it in the numbers.

We heard this concern in Malaysia and Singapore. The same thing happened to Europe, too! They were also worried 10 years ago, and they too are making a lot of effort and these efforts actually worked. Therefore, this attention to opportunities in science, engineering and math is having an effect.

The economic conditions, especially in developing countries, often go through a period where suddenly there are opportunities. Before real development happens in a place, an ambitious kid often has ambitious parents who want the kid to become a medical doctor. Engineer? Not so much. Scientist? What is a scientist? How can you make a living? As things begin to improve, people think about making money in finance and economics. We need to teach the parents as much as the students, and the teachers, what opportunities exist in an advanced economy and a growing economy in the modern world!

“We need to change the mindset of parents, teachers and students — tell them what opportunities are available and how exciting science is.”

In the US, Singapore, Malaysia, China various groups, definitely the NSF, have been trying in many ways to promote STEM education, by outreach, and by things that we do with lectures and the science camps. There are various ways to do this, but we need to change the mindset of parents, teachers and students in Sri Lanka to make aware on opportunities available in the field of science and how exciting science is. Sri Lanka spends much on research grants and teacher development. However, the outcome of research has shown less impact to the country. Student-orientation activities in education and higher education in science has declined throughout the years.

Sri Lanka’s contribution

Sri Lanka is a small country, a country of a small population. However, the brain drain happening from students to high-end researchers have not addressed in any forum in Sri Lanka. Therefore, it’s hard to have super excellence in all fields. Our people are involved in developing other countries around the world with well-motivated researchers and ideas. Where have we gone wrong in Sri Lanka?

Sri Lanka could make significant contributions in STEM development in the years to come, and it partly depends on people — we need the right people.

Denmark, 100 years ago, was a small Northern European country, with some good science and universities. And then Niels Bohr came along — one person. He invented the Bohr atom, dominated quantum physics and constructed the first institute that brought people together, creating an enormous social impact on how science is done by creating the Niels Bohr Institute. In 1922, Niels Bohr received the Nobel Prize in Physics for “his services in the investigation of the structure of atoms and the radiation emanating from them.”

The Niels Bohr Institute is a research institute of the University of Copenhagen. The research of the institute spans astronomy, geophysics, nanotechnology, particle physics, quantum mechanics and biophysics. That is an example where it depended on one person who was really special and on a society which supported him.

The Carlsberg Foundation funded this new institute, the government was very supportive and they created this incredible intellectual centre in physics, which was so important in a little country. That can happen to Sri Lanka if academia and the laymen think positively on new opportunities prevailing in the world around to share with the next generation of children. Therefore, investment in STEM education is very important for a country like Sri Lanka.

Way forward - STEM education for Sri Lanka

We need to harness the potential and true spirit and the creativity lies in our students and academia. There is a necessity of conducting science camps, inviting experts in other countries to share their thinking with our academia and students. We need to exploit opportunities in science for our next generations to come especially in upgrading the curriculums and introducing new subjects in STEM education. Private and public sector partnerships are essential in promoting and exploiting new avenues in STEM education for Sri Lanka. Further, we need proper monitoring and evaluation of funding for development of STEM education in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has an excellent institutional arrangement in development of Science where the outcome does not have a significant impact on the development of STEM education.

Though it is a challenge, Sri Lanka needs to have a focus on excellence, and need to exploit that and create something truly world-class and exceptional. 

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