In the UK STEM has been on the national curriculum for many years, generating a significant amount of expertise and experience. To meet the huge workforce demand needed for the forthcoming Industrial Revolution 4.0, the British Council and Vietnam Ministry of Education and Training, sponsored by the Newton Fund, worked to implement a pilot project that aimed at building STEM capacity for schools in Vietnam.
Known as “Applying UK STEM Approach in Vietnam context”, the project started in January 2016. In February 2017, British Council worked with the Ministry of Education and Training to implement the forth component of the project, which involved a Monitoring and Evaluation visit to the 15 pilot schools, consisting of both lower and upper secondary, in the provinces of Hanoi, Hai Duong, Hai Phong, Nam Dinh and Quang Ninh.
“What impressed me most in this trip was not any particular project but the huge efforts made by teachers who went the extra mile in finding out the best way to apply STEM Approach in Vietnam and creating STEM opportunities for their students.” said Alan West MBE, CEO of the UK-based company Exscitec, who led the review and evaluation visit.
More than 50 STEM projects, devised with a lot of enthusiasm and professionalism, offered essential solutions to local issues. Implemented in the form of extracurricular activities such as through STEM clubs, these projects brought about changes in the way science is taught and learnt.
Ideas that arise from the local context
Whereas in the traditional pedagogy students only learn general knowledge through textbooks, STEM projects are a lot more contextualised and specific. For example, the rooftop intensive vegetable planting project was initiated by students from Le Hong Phong Gifted Highschool in Nam Dinh, a province known for its long-established agricultural traditions. Students had to conduct in-depth research about the type of soil and water in their home province to find out the most suitable intensive farming method. In addition, the teachers in charge of the project also arranged for their students to spend some time on Vu Ban Farm, an organic vegetable farm that uses Japanese technology, so that they can learn from the experience while working like a real farmer.
Students of Chuc Dong High School, for their part, had a chance to visit factories where bricks and tiles are manually produced, one of the most well-known aspects of local production. Meanwhile, in the coastal province of Quang Ninh, students from Hon Gai High School carried out practical projects like “Waste-collecting machines in Ha Long Bay” or “Anti-drowning devices”, all of which were linked to the local context. Nguyen Anh Tu, a 12th grader of Hon Gai High School, is also thinking about developing software that can help sea navigators or tourists and fishermen to easily send mayday or distress signals as soon as they are in trouble at sea.
Extracurricular STEM clubs
As mentioned, one of the main ways in which STEM-based learning was implemented in the pilot was through extra-curricular clubs. This was because the current curriculum is already too tight, leaving little time for teachers to incorporate formal STEM lessons. Many schools therefore resorted to extracurricular clubs as an alternative, encouraging students to participate, do research and experience more in STEM.
Ms Phung Thu Nga, a teacher of Physics from Nguyen Trai Secondary School in Ha Dong District said: “At Nguyen Trai, we school leaders consider STEM clubs one of the official clubs and pay a lot of attention to developing STEM. We have seven subject teachers and two school leaders in our STEM team to help our students carry out the chosen projects.”
“Whereas previously I felt my classrooms too quiet to be good, with students sitting in strictly straight rows and spending most of the time listening to their teachers, now it’s got the buzz of engaged students, and less stressful while the pupils are more proactive.” said Le Van Anh, a teacher from Ta Quang Buu Secondary and Highschool in Hanoi.
STEM clubs in many schools usually involve activities that last between two to four hours a week and each project can go on for as long as several weeks depending on its scope. Apart from research and experimentation, these clubs also provide field trips, such as a visit to the Nuclear Training Centre and the Hanoi Irradiation Centre of the Vietnam Atomic Energy Institute for students at Le Loi Secondary School in Ha Dong. Although these activities are not part of the curriculum, they have the support and confidence of parents.
Developing skills needed for 21st century citizens
The STEM Education approach not only encourages students to apply combined knowledge of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics but also provides them with essential skills for the 21st century. Ninth grader Le Hai Yen from The Olympia Schools said, “I’m now more fascinated with science because we can not only explore things around us but also develop other skills such as working in groups, making presentations and researching information.”
Positive changes towards science subjects can be observed from various sides: school leadership, teachers, and especially the students themselves. Whereas in the past, science used to be perceived as both dry and difficult, now it’s enjoyable and accessible for many students. Thanks to STEM, many students now say they want to pursue a science career in the future for themselves.
Particularly for Tran Phu Secondary School in Hai Phong City, the management board plans to continue implementing STEM projects in the second semester, having seen their huge potential. Three more STEM projects will be carried out, involving students from eight classes.
The number of STEM projects at the pilot schools will not stop at 50 and is expected to rise significantly in the coming time. The main goal of the pilot project is for STEM to reach out to a lot more students, helping them to apply their knowledge and creativity into solving real-life problems.