Sing Tao Daily: Nurturing innovators through STEAM education

September 8, 2016
Sing Tao Daily: Nurturing innovators through STEAM education

Science and art may sound like unrelated fields at all. In fact, the combination of the two can inspire more new ideas and create fun. The integration of art into the science and technology fields collectively known as "STEM" (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) has become "STEAM", which is a new global trend in education. As long as children are given proper guidance to explore creativity inspiration and materials in their daily lives, such as craft sticks, cardboard, parts of old toys, and even fruits can become unique mechanical artwork after being designed and assembled.

STEAM education emphasizes the enhancement of scientific and technical knowledge, as well as the cultivation of creative arts.

Children born in the digital age spend their lives with applied technology, and the functions and technologies of computers and smartphones are changing rapidly. However, children often become mere consumers of technology. The innovative ideas of the technologies are often ignored and there is a lack of opportunity and space to express their creativity.

Creation creates a better life without being just a follower

Innovation and technology are one of the key industries being promoted globally, and more and more institutions in Hong Kong are offering STEAM-related programmes to cultivate children's interest and ability in innovation and technology since early childhood. Monica Leung, the founder of a children's coding education organization Blueinno which is established in April this year, said that one should not just follow the trend in order to enhance competitiveness in this era. She pointed out that many people mistakenly think that having the latest tablets, smartphones or knowing how to use applications is to understand technology, but its practical people are just followers of technology and always lag behind others. "As we can see more and more automated processes replacing human work, those who do not know how to create will easily be eliminated in the flood. So I hope our students will become creators, applying their knowledge and creativity to improve human life, rather than just enjoying the products of others,” Monica says.

Valuing creative thinking when science and art complement each other's shortcomings

Monica suggests that the mathematics in STEAM is the foundation of science, while technology and engineering are the applications of scientific knowledge theory. Moreover, art in STEAM refers not only to "visual arts" or "performing arts" such as painting and music, but also to creative dimensions that enhance children's imagination and curiosity, which are complementary to mathematical and physical engineering that emphasizes logic and practice of creative science in all aspects. She recalled that she once taught a student the principle of closing a circuit and provided the student with a craft stick and an LED light. Monica and her team only asked the students to connect the batteries, wires, switches and lights together, so that the current would pass through all the components to form a complete cycle to make the LED lights glow. However, the creativity and practical skills of the students were far beyond expectation. "They put a lot of LED lights around a craft stick to form a “parallel circuit” and added some decorations to turn it into a lightsaber from the movie Star Wars, Monica shares. 

Monica hopes that Hong Kong children will become the technology creators of tomorrow.

Some students used "parallel circuits" to build mini lightsabers.

Understanding the logic of theory and thinking backwards to “innovation”

In the global environment of raising the awareness of creative science, programming language has been described as a "second language", and many countries have incorporated programming into the regular curriculum of primary and secondary schools, and the Hong Kong government has also actively promoted related education in recent years. However, Monica believes that education in Hong Kong is lagging far behind others. "I have many students who have never been exposed to programming, electronics and mechanics before attending the course, and it turns out that many schools have no idea what STEM or STEAM is and are not yet aware of this big trend,'' Monica says. She finds that students who have studied programming have stronger logical thinking and creative skills.“For example, if we use a button to control the power switch, when we press the button, the light bulb will light up; when we let go, it will go off.  This is a basic logic that can be understood and accomplished regardless of whether or not you have learned programming before. Yet, some children can take it a step further by thinking backwards and entering the opposite program to make the light stay on for a long time when you have to press the button to turn the light off. It takes time to learn the basic concepts and build your own way of thinking for sure”, Monica states. 

Children need to understand scientific theories before they draw inferences and even think backwards.

Practice trumps memorization while providing a fun learning environment for children

The Curriculum Development Council made a number of suggestions on STEM education at the end of last year, including enriching students' learning activities and updating the curriculum structure to include applied science and technology in general studies in primary school, such as the use of energy in life and the simple use of machinery. However, in examination-based teaching, students are still inclined to memorize a lot of book knowledge and have little opportunity to do hands-on work, solve problems, and conceive innovative ideas. Canson Wang, the founder of the Unihup Workshop, pointed out that even though science is taught in General Studies in elementary school, the experimental activities are seldom conducted. "My daughter is going to be in Primary 4. I feel bad that I haven't seen her do any of the experiments in the book in the past few years, such as making electric cars and periscopes. Probably it is because the teachers are too busy with teaching the curriculum”, Canson says. He believes that elementary school students are fast absorbers. However, in order to stimulate their curiosity, we must first attract their interest. "My intention of starting the workshop is to allow the children who are busy with school to learn about the principles of science during the summer or in their free time, and to show them that science is not just a theory, but is relevant to their lives”, he explains. 

Letting children learn scientific principles by practice is more effective than memorization.

Programming you can see: When fruits become "keys"

How can tapping kiwis, oranges and pears create beautiful music? It may seem unbelievable, but with capacitive sensing circuitry and programming, fruits can be transformed into "keys" and produce different sounds. Monica explains that people are electrical conductors and the current will fall to the ground. "We will teach the children to write the program. The children have to connect the wires to the corresponding position of the circuit board and the fruit, when the circuit detects the palm of the hand on the fruit, the buzzer will sound”, she says. 

As a former software engineer, Monica said she had given a seminar on machinery and programming for the Institution of Engineers a few years ago and found many children in the audience to be very interested. After that, she was invited to develop curriculum and serve as a trainer for an organization offering programming courses for children. Yet, she found that the mainstream programming instruction was mainly based on e-learning with tablets, and students only learned theory and wrote applications, which were mostly abstract and vague. It is difficult for children to understand. Although there are some electronic building block teaching materials in the market, there are established programs which do not carry many variations. “I'm not only teaching the students to write programs on the computer, but also to integrate electronics and mechanics, so that they can ‘build from scratch’ and make visible technological artwork”, she explains. 

Students who are new to programming can understand the concepts through small games. 

Starting from the age of six to build a foundation

The target audience of programming education is getting younger and younger, from university students to primary and secondary schools. Yet, Monica's program is designed for children aged 6 to 12. "Although students in the U.S. are already involved in programming at the age of four, I think children who are too young will be confused about the course. Children at the age of six will gradually develop logical thinking and understand programming concepts easier”, she states. When you think of programming, many people may immediately think of a bunch of unexplained program codes. Monica says that the students will initially start with unplugged programming activities. "We will give the children slips of paper with instructions written on them, such as forward, backward, left, etc., for them to sequence, and the instructor will act as a 'robot' and walk from the starting point to the end point according to the instructions arranged by the students. This physically explains to the students the importance of 'sequencing' in the program”, she says. 

Programming with circuitry and fruits can make music to stimulate students' interest in science.

Conductive clay can be used to create different patterns to help children learn the principles of electrical circuits and to create their own. 

Foreign schools have already listed programming a compulsory course.

Inspirations from everyday life to help us solve problems 

Monica believes that inspiration for creation often comes from daily lives. In addition to daily necessities, Monica and her team will guide the students to design works that can facilitate their lives, such as smart doorbells and voice-activated lights. In the future, they will also work with the students to create a plant sensor system called “Plant Robot”, which will be buried in the soil to detect the moisture content of the soil. “The students will write an application that will send the data from the sensor to the cell phone and remind the users to water the soil when it is short of water. The addition of the living elements will trigger the children's curiosity and inspire them to ask questions and think. We hope to cultivate their sensitivity to observe life's problems and use their knowledge and ability to solve it with their own hands, instead of relying on others to help them in everything.”, Monica says. 

Programming is creation which encourages inquiry

Programming is effective in establishing a computer-like way of thinking for children. It could strengthen their logical thinking, enhance their ability to think about abstract concepts and integrate information, which also values creativity. Monica mentions that she once taught a student to make a robot with a "beeping" sound, but one of the students was not satisfied. "He asked me if I could change the sound of the heartbeat, so I guided him to change the code to change the sound and frequency of the robot, and he finally finished the work”, she says. Monica states that as long as the concept of programming is fully comprehended, the final product can have a lot of variations, and this is an opportunity for participants to develop their spirit of inquiry.

Finding the "treasure" in the error to optimize the program instructions 

Nathan, who is eight years old, was one of Monica's first batch of students. On the day of the interview, he demonstrated to the reporter how to make a cardboard robot. He first used two cardboards of different sizes for the head and body, and entered the program into the computer, connected it to the circuit board, and then the commands from the circuit board to the robot's receiver were sent to make its head and hands rotate. Initially, the head was too heavy and the rotation range was too large which caused the head to often fall down, so Monica guided Nathan to change the rotation range to a narrower one. He playfully changed the range to "99999999" and found that the robot could not follow the command, and then changed it to about 300 degrees instead.

Monica smiles and says that the programming instructions are reasonable, however, the receiving system requires only a maximum of 180 degrees of rotation, "Inputting more than 180 degrees is a futile effort, but Nathan is willing to try and find out for himself is the most valuable, in the process of programming, will certainly encounter large and small problems, children can learn from mistakes by disassembling the problem (Debug), step by step to solve the problem”, Monica says. She also praised Nathan's talent in creative science. Although this is his first time making a cardboard robot, he seems to be very familiar with the programming and he aspires to become an electronic engineer in the future. Also, he thinks the course can be more difficult. "I have seen a container truck built with electronic building blocks, which can move goods from one point to another, I want to try to do it too”, Nathan said.

Click here to see the original post on Sing Tao Daily in Chinese. 

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