Good intentions don’t guarantee good value

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Good intentions don’t guarantee good value
Out-of-school programmes designed to develop children’s science and technology skills are booming. Some may be helpful, but others are even harmful, argues Elsbeth Stern.

A major challenge facing oathur modern society is the shortage of skilled personnel in technical professions. Too few school leavers choose to train and study in this field, and of those who do, many fail to meet expectations. Apprentices who struggle with percentages or first-year engineering students who, despite excellent grades, can’t distinguish between equilibrium of forces and reaction forces attest to problems with learning at school.

In many countries, including Switzerland, improving science and mathematics education has become a task shouldered by society at large. It’s one that many people, not just state institutions, feel committed to tackling. Companies particularly, who are dependent on qualified specialists in the long term, generously support extracurricular activities designed to awaken or deepen interest in technology. As a result, countless programmes and centres - often flouting fanciful names - have sprung up, where kindergarten and school children can experiment, build robots or engage in similar activities.

Flamboyance is counterproductive

These may sound like excellent opportunities - and granted, there are many less meaningful ways in which young people can spend their leisure time. But we need to ask whether and to what extent such extracurricular activities are effective, and whether they conflict with regular school learning objectives. This can certainly be the case if they present inaccurate content or convey an image of STEM learning that is out of line with reality (STEM: science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

Unfortunately, this is not uncommon. Many STEM centres are run by teams that lack professional expertise, as we can tell from the faulty resources provided on the websites. When it comes to explaining scientific phenomena, children quickly develop misconceptions. Well-trained teachers pick up on these and correct them in discussion with their learners. For example, they’ll use the widespread misconception that a ship floats because the air inside pulls it upwards to focus attention on the upward push of the water. However, if pedagogical and subject know-how is lacking, this may lead to misconceptions that children wouldn’t have come up with themselves, and these can hinder further learning.

Complexity cannot be grasped at a glance

Another concern is the fun and excitement that extracurricular learning venues advertise. Of course, STEM venues should not be off-putting, which sadly is sometimes true of school. But nor should there be any notion that an understanding of the complex interrelationships of our world can be gained at the drop of a hat. In fact, several studies show that after attending an out-of-school programme, the child’s interest in the subject and willingness to learn waned; school couldn’t offer the same level of entertainment.

Where their staff bring pedagogical and subject expertise to the table, out-of-school STEM centres can contribute significantly to improving science and maths education. And when these offerings bring teachers on board, they may well enhance the effectiveness of school instruction - whether by providing opportunities for experimentation that aren’t feasible in the classroom; or by giving high-achievers the chance to explore topics covered at school in greater depth. With particularly motivated children, proactive teachers can try out various forms of instruction and later use these in regular classes. In this way, extracurricular venues can also serve as a further training forum for teachers.

Quality must be monitored

If funders of out-of-school STEM programmes are genuinely keen to improve science and maths education and attract well-equipped young people to technical education and study courses, they must insist on target agreements with the managers of these STEM projects. These agreements must ensure three things: First, that those implementing the projects have technical and pedagogical expertise; second, that the programmes are carried out in cooperation with schools; and third, that measurable criteria are determined for evaluating the success of a project. Such criteria could be tests of performance after completing a course, or the frequency with which participants choose a technical training.

Evaluation of this type is urgently needed; up to now, enthusiastic testimonies and attractive photos of bright-eyed children have often been presented as proof of successful practice. For anyone who’s serious about promoting STEM, this should not be enough.

Latsis Symposium 2021

The Latsis Symposium "Boosting hidden potential - Scientific insights into STEM learning" will take place at ETH Zurich from 6 - 8 September 2021. It is initiated by Elsbeth Stern and members of her group. The conference is designed for a professional audience.
Prof. Elsbeth Stern