Repelling Mosquitoes (and Ignorance) with Science and Technology Education

In Asia, many impoverished children have few opportunities to learn critical thinking and science. They are struggling to learn basic writing and math skills. Photo: ADB
In Asia, many impoverished children have few opportunities to learn critical thinking and science. They are struggling to learn basic writing and math skills. Photo: ADB

By Kirsty Newman

Teaching science, technology, engineering and math benefits students and society in a variety of ways.

I have recently moved to the Philippines and one of the many adjustments I have had to make is remembering to put insect repellant on my kids to protect them from dengue. I have been eagerly investigating dengue prevention strategies – but what is worrying is how much misinformation is out there about what works.

A survey in the United States found that 22% of people couldn’t identify a single effective anti-mosquito ingredient while 82% mistakenly believed that products such as citronella are effective. Citronella has in fact only transient repellant effect and is not recommended for use in disease-endemic areas. I would be really interested to know what a similar survey would find here in the Philippines. I have certainly seen plenty of anti-mosquito products for sale which don’t contain any effective ingredients.

This mismatch between truth and perception is not because people are stupid. Many people have simply never been taught how scientific methods can be used to test what works.

This type of critical thinking is linked to how science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) is taught in schools. Though these subjects can sometimes seem daunting and even frightening to students (and parents!), at their heart they are all about questioning and testing out hypotheses. And these are vital skills for everyday life.

Throughout Asia, governments are leading the way in science, technology, engineering and math education.

The Republic of Korea undertook a 2011-2015 education reform plan which included STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) education, to “cultivate creative talents in science and technology with integrated minds”.

Singapore’s national curriculum highlights the use of “21st Century Competencies”, such as critical and inventive thinking, communication, collaboration and information skills. These are particularly emphasized through STEM education.

Thailand has also specially designed a STEM education program and is the first country in Asia-Pacific to address gender-specific imbalances in science, technology, engineering and math subjects.

  How to harness the power of science and math education in Asia

The benefits of thinking like a scientist are broad. Individuals who want to be well-informed need to be able to engage critically with information so they can sort fact from fiction. And benefits do not accrue only to individuals. The presence of scientifically trained individuals within a population can have vital impacts on the economy; there is strong evidence that the ability to take up and use knowledge and technology is a key predictor of growth.

Furthermore, the critical thinking skills which can be fostered through STEM education are good for society in general. Children who have a scientific mindset will also grow into adults who engage more critically with other information they encounter – on environmental issues, on the education system, on politics and so on.

Unfortunately, while there are amazing success stories about education in Asia there are also millions of children across the region who are learning almost nothing in schools. According to the 2017 World Development Report, almost 40% of second graders in Nepal are unable to read a single word; in rural India the figure is greater than 80%; while in rural Pakistan 60% of third graders could not correctly perform a subtraction such as 54 – 25. This ‘learning crisis’ will have dramatic impacts on countries’ ability to pull themselves out of poverty.

Therefore, the key question is not only how we teach science, technology, engineering and math subjects in more developed countries but also how we can harness these effective pedagogical techniques for countries which are lagging so far behind.

To start with, we can motivate teachers to be lifelong learners – recognizing that only by inspiring a love of learning in teachers will they be able to pass on that passion to students. We can look to this project in Uganda, which aims to improve teachers’ skills by instilling a love of learning and a spirit of scientific enquiry. And we can build such approaches into teacher recruitment and training at scale.

We can also make classrooms much more interactive – with teachers checking students’ understanding and students asking more questions. The outstanding results on problem solving from some Asian countries demonstrates that there is nothing ‘un-Asian’ about asking questions and solving problems. But research on teaching practices in poorer Asian countries suggests that teaching is still dominated by lectures and recitation. Only by shifting this will we be able to develop the 21st century skills that students will need.

The evidence tells us that school systems do not need to choose between a focus on basic skills (such as literacy and numeracy) or 21st century skills (such as problem solving and critical thinking).

The two types of skills are mutually reinforcing. Basic skills help you to learn 21st century skills and 21st century skills help improve your basic skills. Thus, as we learn how to inspire the next generation of scientific thinkers who will be able to drive socioeconomic development (and choose effective mosquito repellant!) we will also be thinking about the lessons for countries which desperately need to kickstart their education systems to get children learning.

These are among the topics explored at the Regional STEM Symposium 2019, organized by The HEAD Foundation in partnership with the Asian Development Bank and hosted by King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi. The event will bring together educators and education officials from Cambodia, India, the Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Uzbekistan and Viet Nam.