How to Address Issues in STEM Education in Primary Schools

There’s a huge gap that’s growing larger between what is promised in schools in terms of STEM education and what schools can actually access. Science, technology, engineering, and math. STEM education is certainly important, but we need to address issues of resources, equity, teacher professional learning, aging school facilities, and the needs of students who speak English as a second language. In reality, it might have low literacy and numeracy skills if schools are going to be able to access the STEM education that is promised in reality.

Building teacher confidence and capacity

According to recent studies, teachers given a new teaching model helps to build teacher confidence and capacity in STEM. Teachers across schools, including primary schools in Singapore, are prepared to step up and tackle harder concepts like laws of motion, light conduction, and computational thinking, regardless of how much experience they have with science or mathematics. 

The studies also found that having students conduct experiments, find problems, use authentic equipment like a digital heat thermometer and hands-on learning are priorities in most classrooms. And project-based learning and experiences where students design and test prototypes are common, and teachers report significant growth in their capacity and confidence with the new teaching model. The course material is usually age-appropriate, introducing concepts without overwhelming young students. 

Five big issues in STEM education

There are a number of concerns about STEM education that current programs and education policies simply do not address:

    • Resources. Hands-on materials for STEM education tend to cost a lot of money, money that schools often don’t have. Most classes share these materials, which means one class builds a structure then pulls it apart for the next class to reuse the same equipment. Many students say that there is a lot of building, unbuilding and rebuilding happening because the school simply does not have enough resources to go around. This constant taking apart and rebuilding of materials can be frustrating since students essentially need to start the project all over again each lesson.
  • Equity. There is also a huge and increasing STEM education equity gap. Most schools have very old hardware, so the technology in STEM is basically missing. Technology is often not well connected and software needs urgent upgrades. The gaps between who has resources and who does not have resources in STEM education is stark, and it’s definitely something that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.
  • Teacher professional development. Teacher learning in STEM education needs to continue to be supported with targeted funds in order for teachers to plan units of work together for their continued professional development. Often, schools resort or default to hiring outside organizations to come into the schools and teach coding and conduct experiments. This means that teachers stand back while others are working with their students, which is a waste of time and resources and does little to nothing to build teachers’ personal professional capacity and confidence.
  • Literacy and numeracy levels. Students need proficiency in literacy and numeracy for STEM education and learning to be effective in primary school education. Unfortunately, there are a number of students out there who have low literacy and numeracy levels, especially students who speak English as a second language. Low literacy and numeracy levels can make STEM education even more difficult. According to some teachers, students who don’t have the proper literacy and numeracy levels cannot make meaning out of the instructions and video footage they are given during STEM education. They are unable to access the language they need for STEM to work for them.
  • Aging classrooms. There is also the issue of aging physical spaces with small classrooms in a number of primary schools. These schools have aging classrooms with large numbers of students, cramped physical spaces, and no storage space available for large STEM constructions.

Luckily, there are a number of options out there for schools, classes, teachers, and students that are struggling with STEM education. There are early childhood discovery programs, coding clubs, online courses designed to support the application of the digital technologies curriculum, classroom redesign, and museums that provide interactive STEM education and experiences for both teachers and students. As long as primary schools and teachers begin paying more attention to the big problems in STEM education, we will eventually see more resources, equity, and access to the STEM education that students need and deserve, especially in disadvantaged communities. We recommend paying more attention to the professional development of teachers, as well as the literacy and numeracy levels of students, before attempting to dedicate time, attention, and resources to STEM education. Eventually, more primary schools will have the access and resources they need for STEM education.

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