The Science of Learning

Monika Deupala

Now that school enrolment in Nepal is approaching 100%, attention has turned to upgrading the quality of instruction and keeping the curriculum in tune with the times with a stronger focus on science and mathematics.

This is because STEM education that integrates science, technology, engineering and mathematics in experiment-based learning is now needed in everyday life, and in every profession.

With the convergence of technology, all appliances and applications need hands-on technical experience. However, most education in Nepali schools is still light years behind with rote-based text book learning of stultifying and irrelevant content.

“A focus on STEM education can unleash students’ creativity, and it begins with small steps,” explains Irina Sthapit who was involved in STEM education in Nepal is now at Stanford University. “Hands-on STEM learning is not about fancy equipment, but how we can use the simplest of materials to encourage students to think and create. “

Sthapit used paper cups to make rudimentary robots that could make sketches, and says STEM instruction is missing an ‘A’ for art, and the acronym should actually be STEAM. She says future careers will depend on students being fluent with technology, arts and humanities, and they have to be able to adapt for jobs of the future.

Robotics Association of Nepal’s Manoj Lekhak agrees: “Even if students make simple lamps, they can learn about electricity, design-thinking, and create useful products.” Starting schooling with the basics of science, technology and mathematics can radically improve learning. And adding ‘art’ in STEAM encourages students to enhance their 4Cs: creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication.

By working on projects like designing automatic street lights using photoresistors, or wearable tech with solar-powered LEDs, school-going children come up with solutions for real-life problems such as load-shedding and energy efficiency.

In recent years, research has shown that STEM education must start early, from primary school or even younger, to lay foundations of necessary thinking skills and learning culture.

The Nepal government has been talking about creating child-friendly schools, which also entails an engaging learning process. But in most government schools, especially in remote areas, teachers are unable to align learning with experimental activities, and are often unaware of the latest technological advances. Moreover, there is pressure on them to finish a rigid course for the supposed supreme measure of success: exams.

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The process of change must start with a new government strategy to prioritise STEM learning, experts say. Teachers need to receive experiential training, and teaching-learning processes in classrooms must change. Scientists and teachers agree that instead of simply listening to lectures, children would learn more by making and inventing, using their hands to expand their minds and come up with solutions to real world problems.

Suyog Shrestha, a Nepali particle physicist at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, notes that Nepal’s schools need to attach a premium to hands-on experimenting in the classroom. “Nepali education puts a lot of emphasis on deriving and memorising formulae, applying them to get an answer, and to pass exams,” Shrestha said in an interview. “There is not enough emphasis on experiments. For example, I never had any exposure to laboratory work till Grade 11.”

Beyond this, school leadership plays a vital role to envision the philosophy of learning, provide support to teachers and ensure accountability. Most government schools that have done well have done so because of the activism of their leadership.

In Dhading’s Bhubaneswori School, principal Ram Chandra Acharya worked consistently to foster responsibility in teachers for quality education so that the school even succeeded in attracting students from private schools.

But Acharya also realises that Nepal is behind on STEM education, and is concerned that teachers themselves may not have adequate training to pass on that knowledge. He thinks there should be a provision to compulsorily post undergraduate and graduate science students to public schools as temporary support teachers to improve the quality of instruction.

STEM education is urgently needed for innovation and Nepal’s sustainable economic future as well. The country has a lot of catching up to do, and the  few Nepalis who have achieved notable scientific breakthroughs have done so after going abroad.

Moreover, with unprecedented growth in all STEM sectors, there is rising concern about how Artificial Intelligence will affect the future job market, removing options available today and creating new ones that do not even exist yet.

The fact that there are young Nepalis involved in cutting-edge scientific research across the world proves that given the opportunity, they could be  contributing to STEM-related fields back home. Many brilliant Nepali scientists have gone on to work in organisations such as NASA and CERN, or have made breakthroughs in transplant surgery or astrophysics.

If students had more opportunities starting at a young age in school in Nepal, many more could in future achieve even greater success. STEM education is not an absolute solution to the crisis in Nepal’s education, but it is a significant gap which if filled can empower students to find jobs, and be innovators.

Innovating in Nepal

Mahabir Pun does not just talk about science education, the Magsaysay Awardee has been working hard to retain Nepali technical talent in Nepal through his National Innovation Center.

Just like he returned to Nepal from America, he wants Nepali scientists to come back to nurture science and engineering graduates to become entrepreneurs and bring economic growth. Pun’s Centre still lacks adequate funding but is already supporting a range of projects in science, engineering and technology which include medical drones, alternative animal protein resources for poultry and an e-commerce platform.

Pun says reversing the brain drain is a tough task, but there are measures that can be taken without much money to improve the chance of retaining Nepal’s science-minded students. “There have to be laboratories, equipment and tools for professionals to work in. Mentoring is another important element to help youth to reach their potential, but the main ingredient is transferring your passion to the students,” Pun told Nepali Times.

Suyog Shrestha, a Nepali scientist at the particle research station at CERN in Geneva also notes that the least policymakers can do is to create policies at the national level to invest in science and technology and to relate those investments to development goals.

“I know several Nepalis, all world-class scientists working abroad, who want to return to Nepal but will not because there is so much uncertainty and distrust,” Shrestha says, adding that some have returned in spite of initial drawbacks.

Still, scientists like Pun have not been deterred by a cynical working environment, bureaucratic hurdles, and discouragement. But if they can overcome those givens, scientists can provide platforms for today’s students to get be a part of, and even initiate, their own state-of-the-art research in Nepal. Pun is a living example that it can be done.

Green STEM

After decades of emphasising environmental education, Nepal’s Curriculum Development Centre under the Ministry of Education is now planning to remove Health, Population and Environment (HPE) as a compulsory subject, and integrating its content into other science and social studies subjects.

This controversial move, it is feared, will detach students from environment related-exposure during their high school education, especially at a time when pollution, global warming and water scarcity are such important topics with impacts on health.

However, government curriculum developers under pressure from some donor agencies are arguing that HPE has not been very effective because, like other subjects, students had been just memorising concepts like biodiversity and conservation without understanding them -- just so they could write long answers during examinations.

Proponents of environmental education, however, say that with climate change, air and water pollution, wetland destruction and rapid urbanisation becoming serious national and global crises, far from removing the subject, Nepali students need to understand it even more in-depth.

Reshu Aryal works at Habeli Outdoor Learning Centre outside Kathmandu that gives students an immersive outdoor learning experience.

“Children today need radical awareness about building climate resilience. They need to learn about the human rights connection to the environment, and about the natural resourcefulness of Nepal to be innovative and create a sustainable economy,” she told Nepali Times.

Incorporating the need for environmental protection as a strong element of STEM would empower students to amalgamate science, technology and engineering to create sustainable solutions, Aryal added.

By combining environment and engineering, for example, Nepal’s future professionals would not treat environmental protection as just an after-thought in infrastructure and health projects.

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Activists argue that adding nature and environment studies into STEM will dilute their importance at a time when sustainable development should be Nepal’s primary focus. Instead, they advocate more intense training of teachers for hands-on field instruction of environmental subjects and nature studies.

The World of Science

Nations across the world have recognised the importance of STEM, and have taken steps to include it in their education system.

Finland has a strong emphasis on STEM-philosophy in learning. A research-based master’s degree is a prerequisite for all teachers, who in turn work to foster inquiry and problem solving skills. Since 2004, technology was included in the craft curriculum that encourages students to design and create products. Standardised tests do not dominate learning, and teachers are given time to thoroughly plan classes.

STEM education is also big in Singapore. In 2015, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, “In the next 50 years, we need strong STEM capabilities to be what we should be - a vibrant, exciting, advanced society.” Singapore honours its teachers, and only the top 5% of graduates are recruited as teachers.

South Korea has focused on STEAM (the ‘A’ is for ‘art’) to engage students and inspire creativity. Teachers receive STEAM-specific training and a study by KOFAC revealed that students in STEAM classes showed greater interest in all different elements of science, and demonstrated enhanced creative thinking skills.

When he was US president, Barack Obama launched the Educate to Innovate project that worked to train 100,000 STEM teachers and increase federal investment in STEM. Obama said in 2013: “How do we create an all-hands-on-deck approach to science, technology, engineering, and math? We need to make this a priority to train an army of new teachers in these subject areas, and to make sure that all of us as a country are lifting up these subjects for the respect that they deserve.”

In China, there is a nationwide effort for a comprehensive STEM education system from policy-making right down to curriculum reform and teaching innovation.

STEM education is encouraged in Switzerland and Germany, where students engage in hands-on experiments and activities in class. Ireland released a STEM Education Policy Statement 2017-2026 which presents objectives, actions and implementation of policies for STEM education in the country.