Visiting Bhutan is a pain in the face! Everyone smiles at you, it isn’t just a fake eye only smile there is a real depth to it. Are they the happiest people in the world? Using Gross Domestic Happiness as a marker rather than GDP provides a governmental platform for contentment. With a strong living Buddhist faith and a collectivist attitude, I’ve never met a nation that appears to be so happy and warm. As a guest, you are made to feel so welcome. The scenery is beautiful, but my memories are of the warmth and loveliness of the people. A national 30mph limit leads to chilled-out cows and dogs wandering across the roads and adds to the feeling of unhurriedness.
I was here for Paro University STEM conference delivering a keynote and training sessions on how to try and embed STEM in the classroom. We were greeted warmly by everyone with an evening of food, Bhutanese butter wine, singing and communal dancing. Fortunately, I think no videos of my clumsy attempts to stay in step exist.
The Bhutanese I spoke to were well aware of Bhutan’s strengths. The stunning Himalayan scenery, the incredible cultural history that still exists today, and the reputation of the warmth of its people. There is a reason visitors pay the government $200 a day to visit. This helps fund the free education and health provisions of the country. The Bhutanese however do not want to become some kind of cultural curiosity, an anachronism in a modern world for people to come and peer at. They know they need a scientifically and technically literate, advanced workforce to create wealth. Currently, much of this comes from selling electricity generated by their Hydro Electric power stations to India The challenge is how can they achieve this without losing what is their greatest strength, their culture.
There is also the danger of creating a pipeline that produces talent and knowledge, but without any appropriate jobs for them to do. If this happens there will be a brain drain of their most talented young minds to other countries. 400 000 Vietnamese are living overseas many of them highly trained.
The 200 or so delegates were very easy to engage. They took on board that STEM was a way of seeing the world rather than a set of activities. The importance of developing scientists, rather than simply teaching scientific knowledge. That STEM activities should provoke curiosity, develop resilience and design thinking strategies to solve real problems. These were all covered in my workshop.
Curiosity is creating a challenge that triggers a knowledge gap that your students have the desire to fill. If however, your students are fearful of failure then instead of inducing curiosity, you may create anxiety. There was some evidence that some of the highest achievers like many of their counterparts globally would prefer not to even attempt a challenge if they feel they may fail it. This
The importance of knowledge cannot be overstated and the most efficient way of transferring knowledge is by strategies like direct instruction, deliberate practice, and interleaving. However, if we are not careful we may create very knowledgeable students, but lacking in passion.
Similarly, unstructured practical challenges not linked to knowledge can lead to superficial engagement, but little learning may happen.
The sweet spot is a balance of these, knowledge is built and then applied to solve real problems.
Exercise bikes are very efficient at getting you fit but can be boring, mountain biking is exciting, but only if you are fit.
Any program put in place needs to be appropriate culturally and be equitable. Everyone should be able to understand what the activities are trying to achieve.
The best materials are ‘low threshold and high ceiling.’ Everyone can do them, but they are hard to do well. A funnel fly trap can be made in seconds from a plastic bottle, but a lifetime could be spent optimising the design to find the best bait, colour, design etc. Multiple variables are challenging to deal with and can be messy, but STEM in the real world can also be messy and we need to prepare them to deal with complex challenges.
Using Rubbish STEM activities is a basis for rethinking rubbish and seeing it as a resource rather than something to be discarded or recycled.
I am now putting together a complete program of STEM activities aimed at primary level for Bhutan. If you are interested in collaborating please get in touch via the contact form below. Great to see the rubbish collecting on the way to Tigers Nest !