On STEM Education Strategy in the United Arab Emirates

I recall back in 2014, during the ASPIRE mathematics conference that was held in Florida Gulf Coast University, Manoug Manougian, the father of the Lebanese aerospace program, gave a lecture on S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education. However, during the lecture, he described it differently to us. Coming from an old school of educational system, his method was the most up to date if it was applied widely, surprisingly. He said:

“I never liked how it was ordered… STEM… If it was up to me, I would have changed it to M.E.T.S. I would prefer if we prioritize mathematics before Engineering, then Technology, then science.”

Speaking from decades of educational experience, Manoug Msnougian encouraged the S.T.E.M. (Or M.E.T.S. as he calls it) education that coexisted with arts. It wasn’t until later in the lecture were he showed a picture of a mock-up of his rocket (Arz 3) represented in a museum of arts and sciences in Dubai. Moreover, if we are asking ourselves why the educational system strategies we put, year by year, are not as evolving as we optimized it would be, then maybe we should consider that one or more parts of the strategy is not being done correctly. Of course, this only an opinion with facts and not criticizing any previous educational strategy.

As a Mathematician, I always encourage the evolution of teaching mathematics. However, the strategy that was set in the past seems to have a negative impact on mathematics education. As shown in figure 1, the 2010 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results[1], the United Arab Emirates scored a 453.

Figure 1: Shows 2010 PISA results for reading, mathematics, and science, respectively.

On the other hand, as shown in figure 2, the 2012 PISA results[2] of the United Arab Emirates decreased to 434.

Figure 2: Shows UAE results of mathematics, reading, and science, respectively.

To keep in mind, both scores are still below the average per year. Furthermore, as a counter discussion, some may say that the mean average of all countries’ results are different from 2010 to 2012, and they are absolutely right! However, they are different by two points as shown in figures 3 and 4 (496 to 494).

Figure 3: Shows average results of 2010 PISA.
Figure 4: Shows average results of 2012 PISA.

Therefore, it is by assuming linearity in the results, which is being conservative, we will find that we declined by a slope of -2/19. By continuing the same strategy for two decades, it is reasonable to assume that local universities might seek to develop a lower scientific program to compensate for the drop of mathematics education given to the enrolled students. However, for the time being, it is reasonable to see that some universities constructed a foundation year program to level up the mathematics education, which compensate for the results dropping.

Moreover, if STEM education is applied in public schools, by applying real time mathematical problems, then a different result may be obtained. In the course of introducing the students to their mathematical capabilities, for examples, the mathematical problems should target real life problems to make the numbers feel more vivid to the student. Also, less students are introduced to statistical calculations, however, by the time they reach their engineering courses, they will figure out that all the results and answers need optimization, data analysis, and pattern recognition. Therefore, all these skills should be targeted at a younger age in the student’s studies.

In addition, the engineering skills should be gained pre-university studies. Of course, there are educational institutions that have moved towards that option, however, not all of them. Many students graduate high school and find themselves facing engineering problems that should not seem new to them. It may seem reasonable that a few topics from “introduction to engineering” courses should be lowered to elementary and high school levels. For example, from an aerodynamic background, students should be introduced to the four forces applied on a flying body. Also, from a structural background, a student should be able to identify forces on a solid member that is connected to other members. However, it is by using the STEM educational methods that a student can be familiarized with these topics if they are related to real life engineering problems.

Furthermore, In the UK, for example, the national curriculum of Information and Communication Technology changed to Coding by September 2014. On the other hand, in the UAE, a few number of students in selected schools who are familiars with coding. If the plan was to shift more students to the scientific curriculum in high school, then a student should be familiarized with C, C++, or MATLAB. Furthermore, by the time they reach university, most of their engineering courses will revolve around them knowing how to code an engineering problem. It does not make any sense to teach the students that a scientific problem should be solved in one or two steps. Moreover, by the time they are introduced to differential equations, partial differential equations, and boundary value problems, then learning the basics of how to code on Mathematica can be helpful in attacking these problems. Therefore, the new coding curriculum is essential in the new education strategy.

Moreover, if we go back to the 2010 and 2012 PISA, it will show that the UAE has also dropped in the science category. Therefore, it should be realized by now that new scientific theories should be introduced in the scientific curriculum. Also, a new “public understanding” strategy for the newly introduced scientific theories should be created. It should be noted that this category should keep up with the paste of newly found discoveries and theories. For example, an introduction to the collision of the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies. Also, this category should be used to put down all the scientific challenges that faces the UAE environmental challenges.

On the other hand, it should be noted that the only category that has risen from 2010 to 2012 PISA is the reading category. This should not come as a surprised since it has been a case that was attacked personally by H.H. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoom, Rular of Dubai and UAE’s prime minister. By his wise decision, the year 2016 became the reading year of UAE. Therefore, by my prediction, the UAE should have a positive slop in the new results of PISA.

In conclusion, a strategy is a set of processes organized within a timeframe to perform certain goals. However, even the strategy that is published by the educational system representative may seem correct to the public, it might not seem as correct as we wanted it to be for the next generation. Therefore, the lost in translation from one step transition to another has been ignored in every previous strategy given from the educational system. Lastly, this opinion article was not written to criticize a previous strategy, it is only a suggestion on how the new educational strategy should be shaped.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2010/dec/07/world-education-rankings-maths-science-reading#data

[2] https://www.oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/pisa-2012-results-overview.pdf

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