The wheels of change have begun to roll and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education is in the nascent stage as schools are grappling with issues including a change in mindset, setting up labs and spaces for creative thinking using state-of-the-art equipment, procuring tools and taking the big leap
Next decade is bringing forth a unique set of jobs. 80% of which will be aced by Science and Math wizards. Such is the prophecy. India realises the fact, the Government of India and the school leaders have started to replace rote learning and giving importance to spirit of research. Tinkering labs, for instance, are leading the way and have made their presence felt in 1.4 million schools.
Even when majority of these schools are consistently buried in the challenges of insufficient funds, time, expertise or interest, Niti Aayog’s Atal Innovation Mission envisions to foster one million child innovators by 2020. Today, 5441 Atal Tinkering Labs are bridging the gap of classroom concepts with real world problems.
The results are beginning to show. Speaking to a handful of mentors, Brainfeed could record about 15 innovations in tinkering labs, six of which were accomplished in a single school DLF Public School, Ghaziabad.
The wheels of change have just about started to roll as schools across the nation have begun to assimilate (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) STEM. Schools have a choice either to go with government options to inculcate hands-on learning and adopt innovation in curriculum or use the help from private sector. Hope rises as the Gen Z strives toward an uncertain future. Intellectuals rejoice, digital platforms fill up with blogs of successful STEM programmes and a set of upgraded schools are idealized.
India is still way behind as far as breakthroughs in the realm of science is concerned. Sample this: In 2015, India registered 45,658 patents as compared to China (1,101,864), United States (5,89,410), Japan (3,18,721), Republic of Korea (2,13,694) and Germany (91,726). The buzz of STEM education is becoming louder with each passing day. Many STEM education companies have emerged.
The sudden attention to STEM education has resulted in sprouting of companies supplying equipment to schools which has also resulted, allegedly at high cost. Ajay Sagar, General Manager, Bibox Labs by Evobi Automations Pvt Ltd says, “Schools are less equipped when it comes to 3D printing, etc. Companies take advantage of this by manipulating the schools and acquiring unreasonably high funding up to ` 10 – ` 20 lakh.”
` 10 – ` 20 lakh
“The root problem lies in the system,” states Krupalini N Swamy, Vice President, Services and Solutions at Evobi. “Why have schools been cornered to pay more money for STEM education? It is simple. BEd education is outdated. The training teachers receive is designed for students who were in schools 20 years ago. Hence, when STEM education comes to school, it is something new, unknown. The demand is created and supply is not there because nobody knows how to crack it. That’s the reason people are creating much demand out of it.”
Difficulties don’t end here. While finance crosses a reasonable budget, teachers remain untrained and reluctant. The race to complete the curriculum overshadows the possibilities of practical learning. “I have been to many schools for inspection,” shares Seema Jerath, Principal, DLF Public School, Ghaziabad. “We all are caught up with only one agenda and that is, preparing students for exams and getting good scores. But I am not sure how much will that help them in future.”
Apparently, students long for an expert mentor, while figuring out the fascinating tinkering materials they are exposed to. There occurs a waste of time, resources and potential. Schools are not abreast with the actual requirements of implementing STEM education. The possibility of India, becoming a trailblazer in global research in the near future looks bleak.
Taking STEM ahead
While foreign countries are mapping their route from STEM to STREAM education, we are struggling to imbibe the basics. Lagging behind is always an issue. Although it is not a race, we must take a road where just copying others is not the only option.
Elaborating on the emergence of STEM in India, Tushar A Amin, Co-founder, Smartivity explains, “This was a push by developed countries. While in India, China and most of South East Asia, education is getting critical for the child in terms of parents’ priorities, the developed nations didn’t have the skill pool of engineers, scientists, doctors, lab technicians. These countries started accepting migrants.
Now these countries are encouraging kids to take up science, technology or engineering careers. STEM has become a buzz word. There is competition from the US where the practical education is the primary way to foster students.”
Not just for a competition to fill vacancies in STEM stream, the buzz of tinkering centres in schools has a deeper objective. As Krupalini Swamy avers, “These labs are not just about innovation and tinkering. If the mentor does his job right, I am sure it has much more psychological impact.”
E for Empathy and F for Failure
Evidently, the essence of a successful STEM education is empathy. Students are expected to identify a problem in their environment and research to derive an innovative solution. While countries outside are thinking on ways of infusing such characteristics in their students, India has the upper hand, an advantage here. Children are traditionally fostered with empathy, the feelings of consideration and compassion. Why are we still not ahead of time? Why are we waiting for the US to lead the way? The lack of confidence is being rooted within us since generations. An attitude of embracing the failure is what we are lacking. Hence, we wait for others to fail and win, try all the methods and pick up the successful ones. By the time we imbibe those winning methods, it is too late. Education and needs have already evolved and we remain lagged behind.
To change this route, we must induce our future generation with the confidence, the courage to accept the failure. They will lead the way to change our route, India’s route. “The students should say ‘wow, I am okay to embrace the failure. It’s okay, I failed like this but there could be another possibility I can try.’ If that change itself happens, this is the success of Niti Aayog. This will also create a resolving effect in reducing the suicide rates in India,” states Krupalini.
Real challenges of implementing STEM
“Children need to be able to think, question and innovate,” asserts Seema Jerath who shares the challenges her school faced in building a culture of research and innovation. “We consciously began STEM education some five years ago. First challenge began with teachers. They were overloaded with course material. Their main focus was on syllabus completion. So, before infrastructure, first challenge to initiate innovative teaching was to create an all inclusive time table.”
Sudhanshu Sharma, Founder, India STEM Foundation shares in agreement, “School time table is already packed. CBSE and State Board have issued guidelines that each subject should be taught for some fixed hours in school. There is little room for them to introduce new subject. When we visit a school to introduce our programmes they have to get convinced 200% or else they are busy with the mandates of their respective boards. We have to adjust in available time slot. Mostly the schools consider introducing them during zero periods or as club activity. So the first challenge is availability of time though they are interested, they do have some constraints. The second challenge is investment as they have to fund for the hardware to purchase.” Seema states, “The challenge of space and infrastructure exists. To create ATL lab, we have to get the double room. Next challenge is getting requisite people.” “Schools don’t have skilled people to implement this curriculum. Faculty is not trained, teacher skill up-gradation is required and the reluctance comes from the extra hard work as teachers are not paid enough too,” adds Sharma.
Krupalini, who is the Mentor for Change for Niti Aayog’s initiative, personally trains, students, mentors and school teachers to handle innovation. Sharing from her experience, she says, “The main drawback of STEM education is that the teacher experts are experts in a certain domain- just science or technology or engineering or math. Now, when you try delivering STEM education, it is matching all the subjects together and then being able to create something new- being innovative or being able to conceptualize new domain out of it. The challenge of doing this is, possibly, there’s no one who is an expert of ‘STEM’ as a whole. Still, instead of just training the school teachers, we need mentors who are solely responsible for tinkering in Tinkering Labs. It is because the way how schools operate. Teachers are completely caught up with evaluation, administrative work, number of sessions they have been given and the number of students they have been tagged with. I think their focus is just to churn these things out and not look at anything new. So, the reason to hire somebody new is not fully because we are looking for STEM expert but probably for somebody who can handle this as a new role.”
The concept of a mentor
Having said that, Krupalini also shares her concern, “I haven’t seen many schools really understanding the ethos of what STEM education should be doing. People just bring in somebody to just take up the sessions in the tinkering lab. But the concept of a mentor in the tinkering lab has to be fixed and conveyed to the school leaders.”
They are not necessarily from the engineering background, states the Mentor for Change. “To be a mentor, you don’t have to be a teacher. You don’t have to teach the students to solve the problem but you have to mentor them to solve the problem.” Quoting Niti Aayog’s agenda, she defines the role of a mentor. “You will not be a subject matter expert; we want the mentor also to grow with students year after year.”
Being the mentor, one should have passion towards teaching, passion towards wanting to make a change, the passion of not wanting to be a teacher. Today, we are all trained as teachers who will always give a solution. You have to give students the opportunity to try figure it out yourself. We don’t give students the opportunity to fail. Being the mentor, you have to change this thought and help students embrace failures well, she describes.
Government Funds vs Autonomy
The prospective requirement for implementing STEM education covers a spectrum of factors. Needless to say, schools have to take help from STEM education companies. “We cannot operate in silos,” affirms Dr R Varadarajan. He is the Founder-Principal of NES International School, Mumbai which has established India’s first STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics) Research Lab for kids from Jr KG to Class XII. “The pace of change in the world today, particularly in science and technology is shrinking. What took a decade to percolate through society earlier, takes just days today. Therefore, for any research lab it is essential to keep abreast with these changes and innovations by taking help from various sources, including the STEM or STEAM education companies.”
Today, Government’s Atal Innovation Mission is providing grant-in-aid that includes a one-time establishment cost of ` 10 lakh and operational expenses of ` 10 lakh for a maximum period of five years to each ATL. Many schools are preferring this because one of the major challenges- the stress of funding for the Tinkering Lab- gets dissolved. However, for few schools, the narrative is different. “I know some private schools which in spite of being selected, have rejected the fund,” reveals Krupalini Swamy.
While private companies are blamed to manipulate schools in order to acquire high charges, the government’s ATLs have a different set of challenges. “It is not just because of the money that the school will actually enroll in the programme. The whole process and the politics of it comes into play. Some schools might find the whole enrollment and availing of Atal Tinkering Lab scheme, a little cumbersome,” explains Tushar. “For schools to get selected for ATL by Niti Aayog, they have to first enroll. It takes around a year’s time to get registered in the Atal Tinkering Lab school list. Secondly, quite a few schools might not want to opt for something like this because then they are answerable to government. You have to be transparent in all aspects with the government such as where the money is being spent, there’s a list of vendors from whom you can buy the stuff; if someone is not in the list then there’s a whole new process to include someone.”
As a result, many schools feel comfortable in operating tinkering labs and STEM centres autonomously. “They want to operate it differently with them having the complete control of whatever education changeover they want in their school. That time they go to private vendors directly,” clarifies Krupalini.
However, the possibility of making an autonomous choice puts the burden on school’s budget. Consequently, Ajay Sagar, the expert of STEM education, puts forward three check pointers to bring schools on a safe convenient track. “Basically, STEM education can successfully and wisely be incorporated in a school by focusing on three aspects- Infrastructure, Material & Curriculum and Mentor Training.”
STEM- Check Points for implementation
Infrastructure: Not a normal classroom, it should be a thinking space. Children should not feel that they are coming here to learn. Infrastructure should be such that the children feel they have entered into a different environment where they are motivated to think and excited to innovate.
Material & Curriculum: A 3D printer in college needs a different amount of material. For a class III student, the quantity of material can be less as he just plays and enjoys the fascination of 3D printer. Similarly, the class X student will have different needs for using the 3D printer and a different objective, maybe to print a miniature tool to attach in his project model. Hence, it is important that the school provides materials wisely as per the student’s need. Also, curriculum for different age-groups or classes should be tailor-made. Therefore, material and curriculum should be precisely student-centric.
Mentor Training: When a class XI child is having questions and his physics teacher is unable to answer, the student’s enthusiasm and thinking spirit is affected. The purpose is not achieved. Here, we need the engineers as mentors from different domains who can support the thinking power of all kinds of students. Then, trainings for the mentor to upgrade his mentoring skills are essential. For this, partnership with organisations that offer mentor trainings by different domain experts is required.
We need to acquaint our students with a new approach to everything. Ask them to look around, recognize the problem, explore the problem, think of solution and then create the solution. Our worry about giving solution is worthless. Truth is, students don’t need us to give the solution. They want to create one and we need to equip them with required tools of empathy, patience, perseverance and the will to think. The idea is to bring India on the top scale of global innovation where young researchers, Gen Z Indians are solving global issues using their minds. Unfortunately, as pointed out by Seema Jerath, “Today, most of the research scientists, are not researching in India. They are all researching in abroad. Only a handful of Indian scientists are researching within the country. Even the Co-founder of Infosys, N R Narayana Murthy pointed out this and he set up an innovation award series for Indian scientists. The scientists who will research in India, their foundation will award them.”
Well, the schools with tinkering concept in curriculum are setting an example for rest of the schools. They are creating those researchers who will research in India. The Principal of DLF School proudly shares, “When I tell people, they are surprised with the degree of innovation that’s happening in this small school of 2500 children. So, they can take the cue.”
Schools are still out of sorts and are finding it difficult to incorporate Maker Spaces, Do it Yourself Tools (DIY) and setting up best computers. A number of teachers still believe that students could get diverted from studies. An overall change in mindset of teachers is the need of the hour say experts.