Recently, whist facilitating year 8 students’ understanding of speed, I asked them to design and launch a water rocket employing 2 litre soda water bottles. Despite the internet being innundated with models, several students found it difficult to construct the rockets. They struggled with making the design aero dynamic and with considering how they could propel the rocket efficiently. Most did not even consider the need for a launch pad.
The student who had the most successful launch had the simplest design. He plugged the opening of the water bottle tightly with a wine cork through which he used the needle-like valve of a bicycle pump through which he powered the rocket with air pressure and water.
He complemented his passion and excitement of designing and constructing a rocket with very adept hands. When I asked how he developed this dexterity, his reply surprised a lot of students. His father was a triathlete and he helped his father clean and service his bicycles. "Why did he need to do that?" They asked. "Was their helper on leave?"
His family did not keep a helper. So, he was his father’s designated assistant in cleaning the family vehicles, and attending to general household repairs. Hence, the bicycle pump approach to propelling his rocket. In a city where we frequently employ helpers to pander to every need of our children, from tying shoe laces to carrying their schools bags and tidying up after them, we also deny them an understanding of the workings of everyday appliances.
Aakar Patel’s question in the Times of India dated April 16, resonates with me. “Can a tesla emerge from a country whose boys have no idea and little interest in how engines work? Or how to make a better solar panel?”
After the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published results from its 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) that assesses performance of 15-year old students in mathematics, science and reading across 34 OECD countries and 31 partner countries and regions, including Hong Kong, there has been great concern regarding Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education in Hong Kong.
The region dropped from second to ninth place in its mean science score as compared to the previous PISA examination in 2012, with a 19-point drop from the mean score in 2006. This average decrease in science exceeds that score across all OECD countries from 2006 to 2015, by 12 points.
Our students also enjoy science less as compared to the other OECD countries. The study indicates there is a relationship between students' enjoyment and willingness to spend time and effort in science-related activities, the elective they choose, their self-image and, ultimately, the career they will eventually have.
So, in his 2017 policy address the Chief Executive declared that the Education Bureau would provide a subsidy of $200,000 to each public school for the implementation of school-based programmes related to STEM education with the hope that our students would begin to enjoy science more.
Interestingly, Japan, Estonia, Finland, Canada and Chinese Taipei - all places which Hong Kong trailed in the OCED study - lack the pervasive influence of domestic helpers and require children in general, to be more engaged in responsibilities at home.
The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) believes “the involvement of parents and other caregivers in their children’s learning is crucial to their interest in and ability to learn science.” They recommend “fostering children’s creative and critical thinking, problem solving, and resourcefulness through authentic tasks such as cooking, doing household chores, gardening, repairing a bike or other household object, planning a trip, and other everyday activities.”
There is something fundamentally wrong with the fact that schools are now providing students with lessons on how to iron, use the washing machine and make pasta, to students leaving for university.
As a parent I am beginning to question the extent we are now abdicating responsibilities towards our children, to schools, government agencies and helpers under the guise of having to work long hours to provide our children with opportunities.