STEM education aims to integrate science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines.

One misconception that many have is that STEM is about emphasising certain subjects to the exclusion of others. The main objective of STEM is to optimise the effectiveness that these critical subjects can have when integrated with real-world applications by modelling how they are used in industry.

Forty academics from the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics have written to a number of government ministries to air their concerns about the education system’s failure in producing “critical minds”.

These academics argue that: “Our current culture rewards rote learning and leads to a workforce that is ill-equipped to deal with problems that require critical and innovate thinking.”

This comment is further proof of the poor leadership in education that perpetuates the status quo in the way the country is preparing the younger generations for the challenges that they will inevitably face in the workplace.

Student boredom is a major challenge that tends to be faced by STEM teachers. Academic research suggests that most students lose interest in science between 12 and 13 years.

The academics promoting reforms in STEM teaching in an integrated way are correct in insisting that the honing of universal problem-solving skills should be the cornerstone of learning at both the primary and secondary levels.

Science learning can be boring if it does not exemplify the effect of classroom theory in the real world. Moreover, many professional teachers do not know how engineering skills are used in the industry, so they cannot relate them to their students.

Another challenge faced by STEM educators is that this field of study attracts more men than women. This is a result of cultural prejudice and misconceptions.

Our education policymakers need to encourage more female students to participate, introduce them to more female role models and dispel the misconception that STEM careers are too difficult to pursue.

For decades, our educational system has tried to provide for lower-achieving students by finding teaching methods that are especially effective for these students. While policymakers justify this approach on the grounds of social equity, it often short-changes the highly talented students who “are unable to find the covered content in schools stimulating enough”. 

Raising academic achievement levels for all students must be a top priority for education reform at all levels. Interdisciplinary education with more emphasis on an integrated approach to teaching STEM subjects would increase learning gains among low-achievement students and increase engagement and problem-solving skills for all levels of students.

An issue that should have been given more importance in the academics’ letter is the critical need to have more direct ties between academia and industry. Our tertiary educational institutions must produce more and better STEM graduates, especially graduates with the kinds of skills needed by industry.

If we are to face the challenge of the digitalisation of the economy, we must improve our teaching standards, the curricula underpinning an integrated STEM strategy as well as the financial incentives we give students to encourage them to follow the hard options that lead to a career in science and technology.  

The academics rightly sound a warning bell to the education policymakers that: “The international realities of technological and educational advancements mean that if we fail to innovate and take calculated risks, our standing will continue to comparatively deteriorate.”

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