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Thursday, April 28, 2016

STEM needs to find its roots | learningcurve

"THE acronym STEM that stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics does not sit well with me. It is the latest evolution from merely science, to science and technology (S&T), and science, technology and innovation (STI)." according to Dzulkifli Abdul Razak, honorary professor at the University of Nottingham and Senior Fellow at the Faculty of Leadership and Management, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia.

Each time the acronym changes, it becomes more and more utilitarian in nature with STEM fashioned for greater competitiveness to enhance economic development. It is a far cry from what science once was, when it was understood as “natural philosophy” to decipher nature and natural phenomena. The basic intention was to “explore” (discover) rather than “exploit” (squander) as it turned out to be later. The latter become mainstream without any sense of guilt, devoid of the knowledge of philosophy and history which is the current persuasion at all levels. “Global warming” and “climate change” are the outcomes.

Indeed, now you would be hard-pressed to find scientists who are well versed in the philosophy of science or the history of science. Knowledge without the benefit of these two aspects is short of what it is intended to be, analogous to a journey without road maps, always groping for direction. Interestingly, prominent scientists in a recent article, Putting the Ph back into the PhD, admitted that while “science remains humanity’s best hope for solving its most vexing problems”, they opined: “Rather than thinking big, the current system encourages students to think small. It provides potent incentives for behaviours that are sometimes detrimental to not only scientists but also science and, by extension, to society as a whole.” It means that a “doctoral” degree — like the sciences — void of philosophical thinking is no longer tenable. “We need to address how students learn to be scientists to prevent their indoctrination into the very narrow culture of one particular field,” noted the article.

This resonates well with the situation in Malaysia, where science is rushed through as a tool to create material wealth. Words such as “innovation”, “entrepreneurship” and “human capital” have been bandied around and linked to STEM to give it the (false) “scientific” feel. Yet the question, “Why does calculus need ‘limits’?”, drew many blinks. Calculus, in this instance, is dogma, a tendency that was beginning to grip science as a whole, as argued by some. STEM, which is figuratively “rootless” (read: not centrally rooted in philosophy and values), differs greatly from the social sciences and humanities, extracting a grave toll. But nothing can be as a grave as latest findings by the Indonesian Institute of Sciences which challenge the prevailing mindsets of the proponents of STEM.

The institute warned that radical theology spread freely on Indonesian “secular university campuses” with “students from science and engineering majors more susceptible to infiltration”. Those who study “hard sciences” (read: STEM) are more at risk compared to those reading “soft sciences” including the social sciences, humanities and philosophy. While the latter is found to be more resistant according to Indonesian Institute of Sciences senior researcher, Anas Saidi, the former is more “easily infiltrated as they don’t think religious understanding should be discussed. It’s something to do with their scientific background that affects how their minds work”.

Source: New Straits Times Online