#WorldSTE2013 Conference – Day 1

icase2013I’m participating (and blogging) this week from the World Conference in Science and Technology Education (Worldste2013) in Sarawak, Borneo (Malaysia). Day 1 got off to quite a chaotic start with long queues at registration desks, messing up the session schedule resulting in some people presenting in front of empty chairs.  Gradually, the dust settled a bit and I hope everything goes a bit more smoothly tomorrow.

The dominating topic during the first day was the alleged low interest of pupils and students in many countries in science and, as a result, insufficient numbers pursuing higher education in science.  Recipes to deal with this focused on:

  • Increase the authentic character of science education, focusing on topics students find interesting.  Examples include climate science, renewable energy, future health, colonisation of Mars and sustainable housing.
  • The role of technology in improving the quality of science education, mentioning recent developments such as MOOCs (wrongfully crediting Stanford-startup Udacity with its origin), the flipped classroom and the SAMR model to describe the potential use of ICT from merely substituting to transforming classroom practice.
  • Underlining the importance of science education in addressing global challenges such as climate change, biodiversity and population growth. Dr. Hubert Gijzen,  UNESCO chief from the Regional Science Bureau for Asia and Pacific, called for a stronger focus on sustainability and peace and security, next to combatting poverty.

I wonder whether increasing relevance and authenticity is the (only) recipe to convince more students to study science.  Plenty of students study accounting or marketing without any engaging projects.  Second, these calls for authentic science are hardly new.  However, research shows that initiative after initiative don’t yet seem to be having much impact.  The HBO series ‘Breaking Bad’ seems to have a much stronger effect on interest in chemistry studies in Flanders than authentic science projects .  Also, calls for more science graduates seem not backed up by unemployment figures (article in New Scientist).  Rather, it can be argued that there are not enough graduates in specific fields of STEM (e.g. biotech, teaching) and that the quality of science education can be improved in order to achieve higher levels of numeracy and scientific literacy.

Dr. Young Choi provided an overview of the UNESCO-supported Asia Green School project, an extracurricular programme to help primary and secondary school teachers with translating environmental sustainability into their schools.  I found the most interesting aspect in this the involvement of the local and central government and private actors and the setting up of green schools communities of practice.

The STELR project was presented by Alan Finkel and Peter Pentland as an attempt to help teachers engaging in more authentic projects with their studentsThe focus was on alignment with the curriculum and promoting inquiry-based approaches.  An interesting element is the development of career profiles to show students what careers are possible with a STEM education and what kind of skills and knowledge are required for them.  Unfortunately, resources are not openly accessible and therefore hardly useful outside the mostly Australian schools that participate in the programme.

Outside the keynotes an interesting presentation came from Dr. Gregory Smith (Charles Darwin Un., Australia) who presented a study that examined how primary students’ perceptions of science classroom practice evolved from 2001 to 2011.  Despite a variety of research, recommendations and programmes the study found little change in students engaging in the active exploration of phenomena, ideas and relevant science questions or the use of open investigations. However, the nature of the classroom was found to be trending towards being more collaborative and there was a strong increase in the use of ICT and internet.  It’s a study based on a questionnaire and simple non-parametric chi-square analyses, which could serve as an example to investigate student teachers’ perceptions of lesson practice in Cambodia.


Pakistan, A Hard Country


Fruit seller in Multan, southern Punjab

Time in between OU modules allows catching up on some ‘non-edtech ‘ literature, such as Anatol Lieven’s book on Pakistan.   Lieven seems to have travelled all over Pakistan and talked to everyone from farmers and local Taleban leaders up to members from the Pakistani elite in Lahore and Islamabad. Despite its nearly 500 pages, the book is both extremely readable and well in-depth to nuance or dispel the –numerous – misunderstandings and negative connotations that surround the country.

Lieven describes how strong kinship alliances and systems of patronage both weaken the state (only 1% of the population pays income tax) and protect it against extremism and state collapse. Except for the army, the Pakistani state is very weak, be it its judicial system where customary law systems and the Islamist sharia system are more applied than state laws, or education and health, where charity systems from organisations such as Lashkar-e-Taiba have filled the void left by the state.

The Punjab forms the heart of Pakistan, with more than half of the population and by far the most economic activity. Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, lies in the otherwise rural Sindh province.  The ca. 20 million Pathans make up the majority in the low-density provinces of Balochistan and NWFP (North Western Frontier Province).  The FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) along the border with Afghanistan are formally administered by a Pakistani state agent, but are in practice largely independent.

Lieven usefully distinguishes clearly between the Afghan and Pakistani Taleban.  The former enjoy widespread support among all layers of Pakistani society, for fighting against a foreign invader in Afghanistan.  The latter enjoyed support as long as they focused on the struggle in Kashmir and helping the Afghani Taleban against American interests.  Their brutality and increasing threat to the stability of Pakistan have reduced their support among the population.

According to Lieven, Pakistan’s main threat are external.  First, a foreign invasion (by the US), instilled by increases in drone strikes or operations on Pakistani soil, could dramatically reduce the prestige of the Pakistani army as it would be seen as an American stooge, which would result in widespread mutiny.  Second, Pakistan is frighteningly dependent on the Indus and Himalayan melt waters for its water. Population growth and climate change threaten to reduce agricultural yields and make parts of the country uninhabitable.

Another complexity that is skillfully described by Lieven is Pakistan’s relation with India.  Mass migrations after independence have created groups such as the Mohajirs in Sindh who have (better) managed to break loose from kinship and patronage and are now some of the most dynamic population groups in the country.  The migrations have also caused a deep, irrational, but understandable distrust and fear from India. India is the ultimate benchmark for foreign policy and the army. Support for the Afghani Taleban stems from fear of a non-Pashtun government in Kabul becoming an Indian client state.

Pakistan is a fiendishly complex but therefore also fascinating country. Lieven’s scholarship and desire to understand it proves contagious. Summarizing the whole book is futile, but I share a concept map I made, based on the book  (Pakistan Lieven, links to pdf file), structured around Pakistan’s four provinces in an attempt to connect the main themes of the book. I end with a quote from a landowner-politician from Sindh explaining the book’s title.

“This is a hard country. You need family or tribal linksto protect you, so that there are peoplewho will stick with you and sacrifice for you whatever happens.  That way you will not be abandoned even when out of government. The tribal people gives even ordinary tribesmen some strengths and protection against attack, whether by dacoits, the police, the courts – your tribesmen will get you out of jail, lie for you to the court, avenge you if necessary. (p.18)

Pakistan Lieven

Concept Map on ‘A Hard Country’ (Anatol Lieven)

* the picture on top is from Steve Evans and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.