Popularising STEM

September 29, 2016


“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.” — Stephen Hawking

RECENTLY, I accompanied my colleagues in touring one of the most spectacular interactive science galleries of the world, Wonderlab, launching soon at the Science Museum London. The new gallery aims to reveal the beauty of science and mathematics that shape our everyday lives. It promises to ignite visitors’ curiosity and imagination, inspiring them to see their world differently. One of the many people the museum has inspired includes the world’s best-known scientist, Prof Stephen Hawking. On his 70th birthday, the eminent cosmologist remarked, “The Science Museum helped fuel my fascination with physics.’’

Unlike Stephen Hawking and the museum’s 3.3 million annual visitors, if you grew up in Pakistan then it is quite unlikely that you frequented your local science museum — and, perhaps, even more unlikely that you heard of someone around you working as or aspiring to be a scientist or a science communicator.

It has been pointed out that “popular culture probably does more than formal science education to shape most people’s understanding of science and scientists. It is more pervasive, more eye-catching, and (with rare exceptions) more memorable.” No genetics textbook can hope to compete with Jurassic Park, and no classroom lecture on biophysics can match the sight of Dr Frankenstein using lightning to animate his creature. Unfortunately, in Pakistan, science occupies little space in people’s imaginations or in popular culture.

Instead, in our society, science is merely considered a subject you study in school, a collection of boring facts one is made to memorise and recollect during exams. Most of us grow up thinking that science is some complex and abstract nonsense that doesn’t have much relevance to anything manifestly concrete. We grow up having little curiosity, wonder and amazement about our world. This attitude has been cultivated by years of conventional pedagogy in schools and a ‘cram to pass’ culture. The dismal quality of science education in our country is also one of the main reasons why Pakistan ranks 131st out of 141 countries on the 2015 Global Innovation Index.

Informal science learning gives deprived students a fighting chance.

As educators working in Pakistan, we have our jobs cut out for us. We must make our children realise that science is their ticket to understanding the world. It is a way of studying how the world works — and that what it reveals is fascinating. In addition, engaging young learners in informal and interactive science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) learning is important because STEM pervades every aspect of our lives. It will also help them develop critical thinking skills, increase science literacy, and enable the next generation of innovators.

As children spend almost 70pc of their time outside classrooms, this is the time to engage them in immersive learning opportunities. STEM-related learning opportunities have been compared to charging stations where children can power-up their STEM skills by engaging in learning programmes that extend beyond the standard school day — such as at a science festival, at an after-school STEM programme where they learn by ‘doing’, or at their local science museum.

My own uninspiring experience of studying science in a Pakistani school led me to work to change the way that STEM is perceived and communicated to children and adults in Pakistan. The goal is to make science an equally viable choice for children from all backgrounds to pursue during leisure time as they might, for example, pursue sports, music and arts.

To me, the story of the Soviet space programme is perhaps the most inspiring example of how the popularisation of science led to a remarkable achievement, not just for a single country but for the whole of mankind. In an oft-quoted remark, novelist Svetlana Boym asserts that “Soviet children of the 1960s did not dream of becoming doctors and lawyers, but cosmonauts.” Even before Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin journeyed into outer space, the children of USSR were on their way to seeing their dreams in the stars.

Who knows where we’ll find the next Valentina Tereshkova (the first woman in space), Dr Abdus Salam or Michael Faraday (a supreme communicator who popularised science for the general public at a time when it was mainly reserved for the privileged)? We might find them in a public school in Lyari or Korangi.

If children, especially those who come from deprived backgrounds, experience informal STEM education, our world could be in much better shape. If these children develop a passion for learning something they care about, they might be less likely to drop out of school — and staying in school gives them a chance to better the world.

The writer is the founder of a social enterprise working to promote science education.

Twitter: @LRukh

Published in Dawn September 29th, 2016