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STEM may stem from stemming

Writer: Winton Dong  | Editor: Jane Chen  | From:  | Updated: 2018-10-08

The U.S. State Department is prepared to shorten the length of visas issued to Chinese nationals, particularly those involved in STEM, the Associated Press reported recently.

STEM is the acronym used to group academic disciplines related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Such subjects are regarded as the cornerstones that back our economic and social development in modern society.

For several decades, the United States has been the favorite destination for Chinese STEM majors to further their studies. In my opinion, there are three major factors which contribute to the preference: advanced research standards, promising employment prospects, and more importantly, as long as 36 months of field practice in the United States after graduation. However, the United States is changing its visa policy to stem China’s advancement in STEM, with Chinese students limited to a one-year visa if they want to study in some high-tech fields.

For the time being, such a policy change will surely bring some frustration to Chinese students who want to study in the States. But in the long run, it will urge China to develop its own research. In other words, our own STEM education may stem from the stemming of the United States.

In order to build a comprehensive system, China’s STEM education needs to be systematically designed with joint efforts, including curriculum reform, teaching innovation and even policymaking from the top level regarding STEM education as a national strategy. China’s schools have long held an international reputation for didactic teaching, rote learning and excessively basing student evaluations on academic performance. Chinese pupils are among the top 10 rankings in the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment in 2016. But decades of economic and social growth have changed our priority from didactic learning to STEM education. With financial and other policy support from the Central Government and local governments, more Chinese professionals will be encouraged to do more research in the STEM fields.

China should also pay more attention to cultivating children’s sense and love of STEM as early as possible. Many developed countries attach great importance to basic STEM knowledge and skills in kindergartens (between 3 and 6 years old), but such an education is almost ignored in China’s early childhood education. Research has also shown that many traits such as problem solving, team spirit and critical thinking, which are important in STEM learning, are nurtured in preschool education.

Meanwhile, since only a small percentage of Chinese people can be enrolled by universities, STEM education seems very important in primary and secondary schools. In order to adapt to the further demands, China’s primary and middle schools should integrate more projects and interdisciplinary knowledge into textbooks, which means that schools should inject more STEM content into daily courses instead of extracurricular activities. To achieve such a target, various schools should be encouraged to align classroom with workplace and adopt learning programs in subjects like computing, robotics and electronics.

Teaching innovation is a hard nut for China to crack in improving its STEM education. The country is now challenged with a great shortage of qualified science teachers. According to the latest statistics, more than 80 percent of China’s STEM teachers in primary and middle schools have received no serious science education at all. Besides the personnel shortage, traditional teaching habits with teachers as the center are even harder to change.

As we know, a country’s advantage has historically been its people’s creativity, flexibility and entrepreneurship. Thus, our biggest challenge is not to simply increase the number of students graduating with college degrees in STEM fields, but to enhance the overall understanding of science, technology, engineering and mathematics among the whole population as well.

(The author is the editor-in-chief of the Shenzhen Daily with a Ph.D. from the Journalism and Communication School of Wuhan University.)