STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — has been made into a buzzword in the last few years.
Malaysia, as always, is a keen follower quite unthinkingly. It replaces STI, or science, technology and innovation that was fashionable at a time when “innovation” took the world by storm with the cliché “innovate or die”, especially by industry. It is as though science and technology all along have not been powered by creativity and innovation.
Even before the days of S&T (science and technology), creativity was a recognised factor when it came to inventors-innovators like Edison or even Nobel himself, whose name is synonymous with the list of Nobel Laureate winners — a hallmark of creative and innovative people.
Indeed, even before that, it was just “S” for science as the preferred choice in education albeit a snobbish and elitist one.
Historically, it is worthwhile to recall the origin of (modern) science before the Renaissance in Italy around the 16th century when it was attributed to “natural philosophy”.
The English word “scientist” is said to have been coined three centuries later, otherwise they were known as “natural philosophers” or investigators of nature.
Science is philosophy in that it attempts to explain the natural world around us. Today science has taken a “utilitarian” role rather than a philosophical one. It has lost its “soul”. It is powered more by economics of what “innovation” is, mostly in technical terms to firstly meet artificially created market demand.
Linked closely to this is what the 34th United States president, General Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961), termed as “the military-industrial complex” spun by war technology that eventually caricatures the face of S&T into what it is today. The rest is history and we unknowingly celebrate the “fruits” of science under such constraints and hypocrisy.
The Manhattan Project that delivered the monstrous 1945 atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a classic example of top scientists, including Einstein, being implicated in the ugly side of science.
We are so accustomed to positive scientific impact and implication that it overwhelms the negative. So much so science has absorbed so many vocabularies to be perceived as another form of “weapon” to “fight” the “war” on poverty, hunger, etc. Or being turned into a “strategy” that mechanically redefines the pursuit for humanity in the most reductionist way. It fits perfectly into the paradigm of STEM, devoid of any human values but essentially technocentric or, better still, “utilitarian” in its focus.
Attempts to rationalise this bias by expanding the acronym to STEAM or even STREAM with an additional R representing religion; E for ethics (for some, English); A for arts or aesthetics; and M for management (others, medicine), each within the realm of being human have fallen on deaf ears with some arguing that STEM comes from the United States, and, therefore, must be right.
We, therefore, pay visits to places to learn how STEM is organised and taught. We continue to reaffirm the superiority of STEM in our midst. And continue to ignore STEAM and STREAM as though the context does not matter. In many ways, it reflects the state of mind, especially among our scientists and local scientific organisations. It is a sad state of affairs. Why so?
The reason is becoming more apparent by the day with the more recent development, namely the introduction of yet another acronym, HACD. It is a US-inspired abbreviation for humanities, arts, craft and design, and it follows that we are all ears to comply, never mind about STEAM or STREAM.
Although each element of HACD conveys a different emphasis, collectively it is similar to STEAM, if not STREAM.
That is the aspiration to complement STEM, which has been categorically criticised to be inadequate to solve today’s issues, in particular human-related problems in a humane way. In short, hi-tech without hi-touch will create its “scientific” problems as demonstrated by threats of climate change and global warming, let alone the atomic bombs of the 1940s.
Unfortunately, many seem to miss this subtle implication. Even anthropocentrism has been singled out to be the major source of the problem.
Succinctly, STEM in its understanding as being the “old” thinking needs to be urgently revised — although this should have been done at least a decade ago.
For the sceptics, the Board on Higher Education and Workforce of the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, in a recent report, recommends that HACD practices be integrated with science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine in college and post-graduate curricula.
The motivation for the study, it reasoned, is the growing divide in American (Malaysian?) educational system between traditional liberal arts curricula and job-related specialisation.
“Ironically, as this movement towards narrower, disciplinary education has progressed inexorably, many employers — even, and, in fact, especially in ‘high tech’ areas — have emphasised that learning outcomes associated with integrated education, such as critical thinking, communication, teamwork, and abilities for lifelong learning, are more, not less, desirable,” the report highlighted.
Since, Uncle Sam has spoken, we need to comply as we did with STEM. Hopefully, this time around, we will take into consideration our context too. STEAM or STREAM, anyone?
The writer is a fellow of CenPRIS
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