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Wednesday, October 21, 2020

What is STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics)?

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STEM is the shortened acronym which bears on the academic fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. It originated from the USA and has strong education policy and curriculum development undertones. Along the same lines, the STEM concept was designed in an attempt to address the shortage of qualified people in the high-tech job market. What is the purpose, aim, and finality of STEM? What are its advantages? How can it be adapted in The Gambia and Africa and tailored to the educational needs? What are the economic goals to be achieved?

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Before answering the above questions and as a background story, the STEM concept was born around 2006 when President George W, Bush created the American Competitiveness Initiative whose purpose was to shore up the law budget and federal financial allocations in support of educational development in general and STEM in particular. All in all, the main focus of the STEM initiative is to increase the quality of education, in addition to encouraging women to become interested in the STEM fields, thus the important gender component. Just like any innovation of this magnitude, there was bound to have a healthy debate, which  was welcome so that those who were skeptical about the STEM curriculum could voice their arguments; likewise, the advocates and proponents of the STEM initiative could also put forth and defend their arguments. As an example, there are variations for some people suggested that confining the STEM initiative solely to these four areas would be narrow and that we must add STEAM (art) or STEAM (applied mathematics) or eSTEM (environmental STEM), just to name a few. In the end, at least for now, a consensus seems to have been reached to stick solely to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics; the STEM proponents still maintain that the programme certainly fosters inquiring minds, logical reasoning, and excellent social skills.

The STEM approach actually reflects the tremendous developments witnessed in the overall field of technology over the last 20 years or so One can cite: the mobile telephone industry, satellite and aerospace innovation; flat screen TV its chemical applications, innovations in biochemistry, the huge growth of the IT sector as a whole, etc.  Thus, the STEM innovation consists in building bridges between the various scientific disciplines instead of considering them as irreconcilable entities being kept apart as has been traditionally and for a long time the case. However, it is important to emphasise the fact that STEM does not make individual disciplines vanish; on the contrary, the traditional scientific disciplines will always be taught for many reasons; if I have to cite one reason it is that in order to carry out postgraduate doctoral scientific studies, the latter must be grounded in a single field in order to achieve the needed depth, scope, and broad scientific inquiry which are part and parcel of any viable academic doctoral programme. One must add that the postgraduate programmes contain a good deal of theoretical seminars and courses.

Now, in order to answer the questions posed above, the purpose, aim, and finality of STEM are to train a lot of candidates within the frame of an integrative, integrated, and holistic model of scientific learning. As well, the field is truly designed to address the specific and urgent needs of the job market and of the economy as a whole. In that sense, STEM is not primarily designed for the university setting even though it has its place in a higher studies setting; rather, it would be more appropriate for high school students, including more advanced programmes related to the College AA (Associate Degree) programme whereby students do not have to do lengthy studies before they can bag their degree; thus, the STEM field is composed of short training programmes but that still leaves room for continuing education and professional growth while being on the job for instance; and, contrary to the postgraduate programme, STEM at the high school, AA and BA (Bachelor) levels focuses more on the practical and pragmatic sides of things and much less on theoretical issues (again these being more prominent at the postgraduate level). 

For The Gambia and Africa, the advantages tied to STEM are numerous; first of all, it is now established that, thanks to the availability of modern technology, Africa can easily fast track its economic development, thus achieving in a few short decades what took the northern developed world dozens and hundreds of years to achieve; secondly, for STEM to be successful in Africa, one must have in mind the upcoming generations of African scientists; thus, in order to prepare for the next crops of home-grown scientists, the work must begin at the grass-roots level, namely in primary school and, then, high school. It is vital and extremely important to get the children interested in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics at a young age; this can be achieved through after-class, week-end, and holiday sessions during which the students are taken to scientific laboratories, libraries, and bookshops and shown first-hand how the whole thing works. Gradually, they will take interest in these fields; one must add that the Internet and the availability of educational tablets provide a tremendous complementary boost to the STEM sessions and workshops.

The economic advantages are numerous for it is often remarked that lots of kids navigate through the school system without having an idea about the career they want to embark on. Thus, by being exposed to the STEM initiative and by making them take interest in the scientific field, this can help shape their future career. A note of caution: by advocating the implementation of the STEM, this does not mean by any stretch of the imagination that all school children are bound to become scientists, engineers, or mathematicians; for sure, many will have vocations in careers and fields as diverse as law, literature, culture, the arts, etc. However, the children who have a scientific vocation or penchant will benefit the most but in the final analysis, any participant in the STEM programme is bound to benefit from it, irrespective of career choice; add to that the main aim of liberal arts education is to

produce well-rounded students who have a basic foundation in the main academic fields as well as a specialization in their major or main field. Thus, the economic advantages are numerous for a good chunk of the workforce will be composed of people who have been trained in specific fields since the time they were very young.

In conclusion, the African continent lags behind in scientific, technical and mathematical achievements, discoveries, patenting, applications, etc. The best way to remedy this situation is to train and expose young children to the STEM programme; in this way and in a short period of time, it is possible to produce a critical mass of scientists, mathematicians, technicians, and engineers who have grown up with these fields throughout the length of primary and secondary education. By the time they reach adulthood, they have become good scientists; the same approach exists in sports where kids start practising a sport (football, basket-ball, swimming, etc.) at a young age so that by the time they become teenager, they have acquired all the needed skills in their chosen sporting field; the same can be applied to STEM.     

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