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STEM Education - should it focus on technology itself, or on using technology to solve problems?
Andy Millar
1799 Posts
Just been listening to Eben Upton discussing how he came up with Raspberry Pi (good programme, worth a listen):

Took me back to my university years ('79-'82) when many of my cohort were playing with Sinclair micros etc, and I was thinking about why it never appealed to me. I think it's because while I do, obviously, find the development of new technology fascinating, what interests me is its ability to solve problems - whereas many of my colleagues were interested in the pure challenge of getting these piles of vaguely connected circuit boards to just work!

Now, I believe it's a Good Thing that there are young people who are fascinated with technology for its own sake, this is how the Microsofts and Apples of this world developed. But I do wonder if we focus enough in STEM education on the ability of technology to solve problems, and develop an interest in its possibilities from that direction? Two reasons:
  1. I suggest it will attract more people into the fold, and increase the general understanding of the value (actual and potential) of technology,
  2. A good development and implementation team needs a wide range of skills (c.f. Belbin team roles), I suggest this approach would help us flesh out these teams with people who are able to form the link between the potential of technology and the needs of society (or the customer depending on your focus smiley).
(Also, it is often suggested that there is a sex bias here: boys tending to be more interested in just building things (and blowing them up!), girls tending to be more interested in why they're doing it. Personally I think this is, if anything, a gender issue rather than a sex issue and hence is terribly complicated - possibly best just to accept that different approaches appeal to different people?)

What are people's experience here? Do you think we explain enough what technology is for, and inspire young people to use it solve problems? Or - if we do we get too carried away with bells and whistles - is that maybe the right approach at a young age? Any good stories?

I'm very happy to admit that my big inspiration (in hindsight) was watching Thunderbirds as a very young child! I still have a little Thunderbird 2 on my desk to inspire me. Oh, and don't worry, I will still (much to the amusement of my family) sit with a huge smile on my face looking at a very elegent piece of engineering for its own sake. But it's got to be really elegent!



14 Replies
Thank you Andy.

Talking personally, I have never been able to get enthusiastic about technolgy unless I know what it's trying to achieve.  Not particularly technology, but I was very pleased with myself recently when I took apart a pull cord fan switch (the old type).  I put in a new pull cord - it was very tricky, but now everytime I turn it on or off, I get a great sense of satisfaction.  I am aware this is very small in the bigger picture but I would always have been motivated along the solving of problems angle.

I totally agree that different approaches are required for different learning type personalities and this is why the teacher in a classroom will use many different teaching methods to teach the same topic.

P.S - I loved Thunderbirds too! :)
Andy Millar
1799 Posts
SImilarly the other day when I mended the amplifier I use in the kitchen to drive some speakers on the TV there - it only worked if you hit it, so I took it apart, found the cracked PCB track (having downloaded a circuit diagram and traced the signal), and soldered a link across it. I was thinking at the time that my degree in electronics, 18 month traineeship with the BBC, and subsequent 9 years developing very high end recording studio equipment all paid off in stopping my wife getting frustrated at keeping having to hit this thing!

One of the favourite school projects I've ever developed was one where we got a roomful of school teams, gave them a circuit I'd developed and a pile of "stuff", and asked them to - in a day- develop a system that would allow disabled children to play music. The circuit board converted switch or voltage intputs into MIDI (electronic keyboard control) data, and the pile of stuff included different types of switches, pressure sensors, slide and rotary pots, proximity detectors etc. The teachers were hugely impressed about how all the kids there (year 10/11 from memory) absolutely threw themselves into it and came up with some fantastic ideas. What helped hugely was that I got some speakers from a local charity to talk to the students beforehand about what sort of disabilites they had to cope with, and how it freed the people they worked with to be able to play music with others. If only we'd had time to take it to the next stage and find a way that the students could somehow have seen their ideas put into practice...


Andy and Hedy,
I have given this some thought and come to the conclusion that there needs to be a balance. There needs to be an emphasis on using the technology to solve problems, but if you don't understand the technology, how can you make best use of it in your solution. I take great delight in solving problems and puzzles (anything from crosswords up), and the greatest satisfaction is in developing an elegant solution to efficiently solve a problem. To achieve this there is a need to both understand the problem and the technology of your solution.
Alasdair (another Thunderbirds fan)
Andy Millar
1799 Posts
Oh I absolutely 100% agree, I had that thought mulling over in my head as I wrote my original post. In the past I've helped GCSE & BTEC D&T students with their projects, where they've chosen their own projects, and I've seen them get very frustrated when they have a brilliant idea of a problem to solve, but don't have the "know-how" to do it. I'm really thinking that it's a case sometimes of shifting the emphasis of why we're introducing STEM, without necessarily changing too much about how we introduce it. And somehow getting over the idea - and confidence - that you can learn how to solve a problem once you've decided to solve it.

It's interesting that I find this much easier in the 9-11 year old age group, they can be great fun to work with as they pick up the "what's the problem we're trying to solve" very quickly and tend to be very happy to simply experiment with the technology until they solve it. There's something about teenage years (or secondary education) that seems to loose that impetus of experimental and investigative problem solving.

I half remember some research a few years back about there being two types of people that went into medicine, those who were fascinated by how the human body worked, and those who wanted to make people better. It was suggested that the recruitment of doctors had very much focused on the former, whereas actually the latter made much better doctors. But actually I suspect the medical profession as a whole needs both types, it's just that the first type should be kept well away from stressed patients! (There's an interesting, and well documented, issue regarding surgeons who get addicted to surgery for its own sake - and of course we see the same thing with engineers who get addicted to adding more and more features to their designs!)

Meanwhile, why did Brains never redesign the magnetic grabs on Thunderbird Two to stop them dropping things? Even if each grab was at the limit of its power he could have added more of them. (This always bothered me as a 6 year old.) Still, he did do pretty well to single handedly design and build all those machines by the age of 25 smiley It is implied that Tintin helped.

Cheers, Andy
In that case it looks as if we are fully in agreement.
On the question of Brains, I thing the answer is he was too busy adding more and more features to his designs to have time to go back and make a change which would have just resulted in Virgil trying to lift even heavier loads.
Andy Millar
1799 Posts
Many thanks for explaining that - it's put an end to 50 years of worrying about it smiley
Gareth Wood
71 Posts
This is an incredibly interesting conversation. Thanks for creating it Andy. Like you I was also a Sinclair child ( the next generation will be the micro:bit kids I suppose  and we will probaly have our first 16 year old billionaire in the next two years! ).

​Personally I think we perhaps concentrate too much on the technology and its understanding, as its our natural disposition to do so:  While we may understand it, we still do not effectively communicate its importance to the public and so it becomes undervalued and totally misinterpreted by media. So I think the soft skills are one area STEM also needs to cover.

I think STEM is so encompassing and yet it is so very limiting in that we are not addressing or acknowledging that there are many avenues within engineering that allow very different creative thinking processes, from marketing, design, business practice etc. So while I embrace the purpose of STEM activities wholeheartedly,  we should learn the techniques of better identifying the problems to solve, communicating how we intend to solve them and then apply STEM and other practices to develop business opportunities.  

I am going to be very controversial here  and I expect some kickback and please note this in no way decries the amazing efforts of teachers, lecturers and professors. I think STEM is potentially a 1990's approach to a very different world of science and engineering. It's purpose was to enthuse the young to fill companies with valuable trained scientists and engineers and while it no doubt achieved its aims somewhat, I regularly see great dissapoinment from younger engineers who get tasked with lacklustre or mediocre projects and yet have the capability to do so much more for society; their very creative essence being snuffed out in the first beginnings. We really should be concentrating on creating a new 21st Century breed of 'Entrepreneur-Engineer' that is not reliant on big business and STEM should be the catalyst that ignites that passion, identifies those talents and brings them together to become a much more valuable asset for the country.   

BTW, loved Thunderbirds and I know that even some of my colleague engineers who had worked at British Aerospace had had heated debates of the forward swept wing concept of Thunderbird 2; thereby indicating the impact Gerry Anderson had on a whole generation!  But I was really a Joe 90 fan, BIGRAT and what was the pre-cursor to Google glass, and which eerily appeared at about the same time period the series was supposed to portray ( ok more controversy... I know). 
I also wonder how much of the STEM in early years education really covers anything of much value.  We get a sheet at the start of each session that has 'STEM - topic related activities'.  This does not tell you much, as a parent, what will be covered and in what depth.
There has to be some notion of what's both pratical and practicable when asking students to solve a problem and therefore the problem has be sufficiently challenging, but solvable with the science, technology, engineering and math concepts collectively known by the students on a team.  Is not the goal to get students to apply their knowledge of science, technology, engineering and math to come up with a solution that is both pratical (useful) and practicable (feasible).  Elements of the solution may use scientific theories, engineering principles, mathematical concepts, available technologies, and/or general knowledge available to the team.  The focus on technology is dependant on the nature of the challenge, but should be weighted to the practical and practicable application of the technology to solve the problem at hand.  To illustrate, if the challenge is to maxmise the flight tme of a paper glider, the students would need to understand how to use paper technology by folding it or cutting it to maximise lift and reduce weight, but not how paper is made or all its uses and applications.
Adha Azmir
10 Posts
Technology is becoming necessary in all aspects of our lives, it can have many positive and negative effects but it is down to us to limit the negative and finds ways to boost the positive. We are now very reliant on technology and if it was to be taken away for any given reason we would be very lost.

Technology affects the way individuals communicate, learn, and think. It helps society and determines how people interact with each other on a daily basis. ... It's made learning more interactive and collaborative, this helps people better engage with the material that they are learning and have trouble with.

When technology is integrated into lessons in ways that are aligned with good in-person teaching pedagogy, learning can be better than without technology. ... Technology for learning, when deployed to all students, ensures that no student experiences a “21st-century skills and opportunity” gap.experiences a “21st-century skills and opportunity” gap.

So I'm fully support for STEM Education and for future technology.
1 Posts

Lovely topic!  I work with loads of STEM Ambassadors and have been one myself for years.  Prior to what I do now, I was an analyst, but I don't consider myself to be a computer/tech person - that said, I love making things.

What we're seeing with technology seems to be similar for a lot of the conversation around maths - people don't like to say "I do maths" either - but for most engineers we will use various aspects of technology, computing and mathematics.

I think that we should be talking about both aspects of technology - the "this is cool and look what it does" and "this is how I can various things because I know about it enough". 
Andy Millar
1799 Posts
And this all ties in with the IET press release from last week:
  • Over two thirds (68%) of children hope to work in a ‘green job’, but 71% say a lack of knowledge about these careers could stop them from following their passion

So for example, explaining how modern engineering is providing solutions to combat climate change and pollution seems like a good thing. And, on the other hot topic, how engineering is helping to find solutions to Covid-19. 

On the latter point, I was giving a STEM presentation a few years ago, and yer typical 14/15 year old lad decided to show off to his friends by shouting out "yeah, but engineering doesn't save lives, does it?" Wrong time to say that, my wife was going through intensive cancer treatment at the time (all fine now), so I spoke at some length about radiotherapy equipment, MRI scanners, chemotherapy delivery equipment, chemical engineering of drugs (which all too often we forget about)...might not have been my most polished presentation but I think got the point across! I now usually put an abbreviated version of that in my presentations. 

It creeps into the day job as well, with a slightly different angle - I assess clients' engineering processes,  and very often after they've spent ages describing the very clever engineering they've done I find myself repeatedly saying "but what is the actual problem you are trying to solve?" Because without that it's impossible to assess whether they've solved it. So building in that thought process from day "minus one" - while the prospective engineer is still at school - must be a good thing!


Good reminder about why we do what we do. Whilst some people “do” science or engineering for its own sake, the IET Mission and Vision make it clear that we are “working (together) to engineer a better world”. I thought that that philosophical approach is what drives STEM Ambassadors to enthuse youngsters, their teachers and their parents. 
I have a slightly different view. Much of my career was spent trying to invent new items, particularly for Broadcast Television. I helped to invent the concept of electronic graphic systems, where there is only a simulation of working for the artist, on a vast array of numbers. At the time of inception, we also decided we needed a pressure-sensitive pen (brush, knife, airbrush, etc, whatever tool the artist was using) in order to simulate real artwork. A good deal of this needed to be carried out in hardware as computers at the time were pretty slow, and doing complex maths on millions of pixels per second was well beyond them. In fact, it was way beyond mainframes too, I know because I tried.

The idea that one can invent technological solutions without understanding the limits of technology, somewhere suggested above, is in my view not possible. Take another piece of equipment which gradually became essential, the digital video tape recorder. At the time mainframe disks were a few megabytes, and datarates were pretty small. Digital video required continuous 270 megabits per second for 8-bit data. One required to be able to electronically edit the tape, sound and picture separately, in real-time. The tape consumption had to be as small as possible, and the system completely error free. Anyone could desire a digital tape recorder, but implementation was down to very few people, at Sony because they had the micro-mechanical skills required. Very few companies have attempted this project since.

I will also mention the concepts required to design integrated circuits. Can the students possibly come up with something like a mobile phone, without having any idea how to make it? I think not. A mobile phone would have been useful in 1939 as a wartime communications aid. It could be envisaged, but the result was the 19 set. It was not a telephone and was portable by two big strong men. The principle was similar to a mobile phone, a multi-band transceiver, but the implementation had to use the technology available, which was valves. I was the System Architect for an IC product by a British semiconductor company. It was to make a SOC video camera, player recorder etc. The available market looked good, there was nothing like it available. The brief required a very good idea of the technology available, the operation of television systems, storage, compression, and also the consumer angle of what a consumer might want. Could your students even approach the ideas required. I think the answer is no.

Overall I think the IET and others are doing exactly the wrong thing in the way they are trying to sell Engineering to students. To be good at Engineering requires a special kind of mind, which wants to know WHY all the time. If you want an easy career, go and be a doctor, a lawyer or something similar. The "why" is largely sorted out, you just do what you know to try to fix people. The nearest equivalent to a real Engineer is a research Scientist who designs new drugs. The way to get an interest in Engineering is to start by trying to fix things, preferably at a very young age. You will fail many times, but sometimes you will succeed. When you start to succeed more than you fail it well be time to learn how to design things. Back to square one, your designs will fail, but you will learn. Then you learn how to design better, the mathematics, the underlying technology will permeate the brain. Then you can think of new ideas, and they will be possible for you to make. 99% of people think it is all too difficult, needs too much effort, and the pay is poor. That is what you need to fight to be a real Engineer (Like Brunel who suffered all those things).


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