Demonstration of STEM Education for Underprivileged Students: Impacts from Environments and Motivation
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Apichart Intha1 and Kongkiti Phusavat
Naresuan University, Phitsanulok, Thailand
Kasetsart University, Bangkok, Thailand
Corresponding author fengkkp@ku.ac.th  

Abstract

This study demonstrates the positive impacts of STEM education on the learning and development of the underprivileged students at Kaenthong Upathum School, Bangkok Metropolitan Administration under the Ministry of the Interior. The aim was to strengthen science skills while integrating an environmental problem and students’ motivation into the development of an experiment. Poor air quality, which has negatively affected the school and its surrounding communities, is mainly caused by burning dry leaves from a nearby public park. The solution was to experiment the use of “pot rests” (a woven basket of bamboo) to store dry leaves for a production of fertilizer. Assessment and evaluation are based on this product (instead of preparing a report on an experiment). This shift is needed since most of the underprivileged students need extra income (from a sale of fertilizer) and plan to work after their graduation. Thus, examination and grade have not motivated the students. Finally, team teaching, outdoor experiment, engaging with foreign business associations (namely Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce in Thailand) have played an important role in this study. A brief example on mathematics is also shown. Key learning points, based on the students’ comments, are discussed.
Key words: STEM, environment, motivation, feedback, underprivileged students

          Integrating the subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) into a development of lessons and experiments for underprivileged students has been a challenge. In Thailand, this challenge stems from many reasons, including qualification of science teachers, suitability and school context, and budget to sustain and support science experiments (Fry and Bi, 2013). Unfortunately, the design of science education is based on the presumption that the students continue to further their education after high school (Faikhamta and Clarke, 2015, and O’Riordan, 2018). Thus, all students are required to learn similar subjects for the university admission’s test. As a result, vigorous science experiments and examinations play a key role in motivating the students to learn and understand science (Hallingerand & Bryant, 2013).

          Interestingly, Thailand has two public agencies primarily responsible for education, i.e., the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of the Interior. For the Ministry of Education, there is the Office of the Basic Education Commission (OBEC), which oversees the 12-year compulsory education and is responsible for administering more than 30,000 schools throughout the country. On the other hand, local municipalities under the Ministry of the Interior are responsible for health and human services to local populations, which includes education (Sanpnapaboworn, 2005).

          How is the Ministry of the Interior involved in Thailand’s education? In the past, a daycare was part of social services and as a result, it was handled by the Ministry of the Interior. Due to the isolated location and low population density of these daycare centers (where it was not feasible to build a school to be administered by the Ministry of Education) and the poverty of the local population, a daycare center was extended to provide primary education from Grades 1 to 3. This extension was granted until some of these schools were able to provide teaching at the upper secondary level (from Grade 10 to 12). The Ministry of the Interior oversees both autonomous areas, which are Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) and Pattaya City Administration (PCA) as well. Approximately, 12% of the entire student population (about 800,000 students) are currently attending the schools supervised by the Ministry of the Interior. BMA alone is presently handling 437 schools and 350,000 students. Despite the numerous efforts to improve the quality of teaching and learning at these schools under the Ministry of the Interior, the achievement based on the national assessment shows that a gap exists when comparing scores with those from the Ministry of Education as well as from the higher educational institutes with Faculties of Education (OECD/UNESCO, 2016). There are several reasons that have contributed to this gap (Fry, 2002; Faikhamta, 2011; and Faikhamta and Clarke, 2015). Student motivation and frequent school transfers for a
student (due to the migration of the parents who need to seek work constantly), poverty, a school’s readiness (due to various functions of the Ministry of the Interior, which is also responsible for security, drug suppression, and law and order), and quality of teacher (due to frequent requests to transfer to the Ministry of Education), and lack of a systematic teacher training mechanism) have been cited as the key contributors to this gap. See Table 1.

Table 1

The 2011 Scores from Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS)

Problem Statement

          As previously mentioned, STEM education for underprivileged students can be difficult primarily due to a school’s readiness and a lack of affordability of students to attend a university. Regarding readiness, the gap comes from a science experiment, which is designed for students who plan to take a national admission test. Thus, a school where most students cannot afford to continue their education after their high school completion is placed at a disadvantage.

          This contributes to the perception that science education is only for those who plan to study medical, basic, and engineering science at a university. Science for few, instead of science for all, has been in the mindsets of students and teachers alike at the schools under the Ministry of the Interior. When the term “STEM” becomes part of pedagogical practices of science and related experiments, more confusion emerges. This confusion is based on the
perceived inability to explicitly include and blend all four terms into a development of a lesson and an experiment. Some interpret that STEM topics, especially for a science experiment, must encompass Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

          Such a complex experiment cannot be expected comprehensively at a school under the Ministry of the Interior. In addition, a difficult experiment may not be helpful due to a lack of opportunity to further extend the subjects and content at home. It should be noted that, also, the students cannot afford to attend special tutoring sessions and lessons to discuss these advanced areas. The motivation to learn for the underprivileged students became the major concern, given the gap in their fundamental knowledge, which is likely to lag behind their more
well-off peers. A lack of compatibility of science experiments in the local context has further deepened this problem.

          Motivation to learn science education by underprivileged students has been an important issue. Because these students cannot afford to continue their education in a university, a lack of interest to learn and understand the intensive science contents and subjects is obvious. Despite this, the need for them to have science skills could not be ignored and was viewed as a priority. It is generally recognized that science skills are the foundation for soft skills, life skills, and employability (Deep et al., 2019). Hence, most underprivileged students seek employment after their graduation from high school. Specifically, for BMA schools, the schools are in the densely populated urban areas with limited space on campus and budget to have a comprehensive STEM laboratory. See Figure 1.

Objective

          The study attempted to apply a local-context circumstance to improve science skills. The primary objective of the study was to gain more insights into how STEM education can be effectively applied for the underprivileged students. The study took place at one BMA school (Kaenthong Upathum School). A science experiment (which combines science, mathematics, and environment as well as the empathy of students’ need) was planned and implemented. Note that integrating environmental issues into a lesson-plan development for science education was encouraged (see Appendix A). In this study’s circumstances, the environmental problem directly impacts the quality of life of students and residents in the surrounding communities alike.  

Figure 1

Example of a BMA School and Classrooms

Method

          In this ongoing study, which began in 2016, several steps have been taken for the development of a science experiment. These steps have incorporated the ideas from students and have adapted many conceptual frameworks and practices (e.g., team teaching and feedback and motivation). An engagement with an external entity (especially with Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce in Thailand or JFCCT) was made in 2016. This engagement was needed to help blend external feedback to motivate students’ learning and development. Note that the tasks and similar experiments have been carried out and repeated at the beginning of a semester for the past four years (from 2016-2020). In reference to the beginning of the study, four specific steps can be described as follows.

          The first step was to explore surrounding environments and problems nearby the school. Again, the study took place at Kaenthong Upatham School, Prawet District. The school is on the outskirts of Bangkok.

          The next step was to examine the circumstance that could lead to a lesson plan development. Due to the lack of a proper laboratory to conduct an advanced science experiment, performing an outdoor experiment was viewed as a viable alternative for the students.

          Third, a team teaching session was organized for planning, which aimed to include crucial science knowledge, including mathematics. Afterwards, engaging with the students in mapping and surveying a focused area was conducted. In this step, skill development was emphasized since science skills were to be an integral part of a science experiment (instead of merely focusing on completing an experiment and writing a report relating to science subjects and contents). The focus on science skills included teambuilding, observation, note-taking and
record keeping, discussion, etc. These skills were also viewed as critical for the future employability of the underprivileged students.

          The next step was to consider the student’s motivation in the design of an experiment. Therefore, reaching out to the private sector was necessary. JFCCT, through its Education and Skills (E&S) Committee, was reached and they later agreed to work with Kaenthong Upatham School. Note that the E&S Committee had been working with BMA since 2015 when its chairman was appointed to be an advisor to the BMA Governor. Later, the feedback from the students from three different years was gathered to learn about the impacts from the revised pedagogical practices.

Findings

          Team teaching was one of the major changes in the preparation of a lesson plan for a science experiment. In the past, all four major science subjects (i.e., Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and Mathematics) were prepared and taught separately. Due to the serious problems with water and air pollution, the teachers decided to focus on environmental and ecological issues by using the International Environmental Education Programme initiated by UNESCO and UNEP (Hungerford & Peyton, 1994) as a guideline. This framework stresses the need to collaborate
and integrate various science contents and subjects since many complex problems could not be tackled independently.

          The group of science teachers used the above framework to organize the subsequent tasks and activities for the students such as survey and problem understanding, impacts, learning and analysis, implementation, and knowledge exchange and sharing. It was important that the teachers initially investigated and evaluated the suitability of an area to be used for an experiment before allowing the students to survey and learn about the location. For the survey task, the use of mobile phones was encouraged among the students due to available open
software (which is free of charge).

           For Kaenthong Upatham School, the teachers agreed to tackle the problem of air pollution caused by burning dry leaves near the Nong Bon Lake (part of Bangkok’s “monkey cheeks” [a Thai term for constructing small terraces and ponds] for flood control). This area is designated as a public park with lots of trees and picnic areas. To handle large piles of dry leaves and trashes from the visitors, the district administration sorted this problem through daily burnings. As a result, air pollution became a serious problem for the school and its surrounding community. See Figure 2 for team teaching and student tasks on a survey and documentation of the findings. See Appendix B for more details.

Figure 2

Location Survey through Team Teaching and Student Teamwork

          For the next step, a fertilizer was chosen as a product which would reflect the understanding of science subjects and content. A production of fertilizer would be based on dry leaves, trash, and food waste (from a school as both breakfast and lunch are provided to the students). It was critical to extend an experiment into product development. The reason was that JFCCT Education and Skills Committee was exploring an opportunity for foreign business communities to be involved and to participate in skill development of the students, especially employability.

          Consequently, the teachers decided to use the traditional concept of a “pot rest” (or in Thai, called Sa-Wean [เสวียน]), which is a woven bamboo basket, for fertilizer production. A pot rest generally uses dried bamboo, which is wrapped around the base of a tree to help store various components for fertilizer. In other words, the pot rest would be used for collecting leaf and other wastes, which would reduce the need to burn the leaves and lead to the production of fertilizer. The students would then try to promote and sell their fertilizer to local communities and the general population for extra income. See Figure 3.

Figure 3

Pot Rests (Sa-Wean) Used for the Science Experiment

          From this decision, many detailed lessons and activities could be subsequently developed. To make a pot rest, the students needed to first cut the dry bamboo into approximately one meter lengths, which were used as stakes to be driven into the ground. The students then needed to hammer the stakes into the ground while leaving the remaining part about 100 cm above the soil. The distance between the stakes was suggested to be 20 cm. Approximately 13-15 stakes are needed for a large tree. Finally, the students were required to chop the bamboo into smaller long lines and to tie these pieces around the stakes. See Figure 4.

Figure 4

Pot Rest Construction and Experimentation

          To further demonstrate the results from this step, a mathematics lesson is shown below. The lesson and exercise were part of the preparation of the students to produce fertilizer. During a lesson, the students were asked to estimate the volume of the combination of dry leaves, trash, and food wastes to be collected. This lesson was taught while the students began to experiment with a pot rest. For a determination of a pot rest’s height, the students were challenged with the following question. If there was a need to have 3.5 cubic meters of dry leaves, trash, and food wastes in each pot rest, how high would a pot rest need to be for a radius of one meter? The formula is as follows:

          It is important to point out that different scenarios and soil sensitivity studies were conducted to analyze the impacts from the amount of water used and the temperature. Ensuring the students’ awareness of various parameters for fertilizer was critical. See Figure 5 for the experiment that led to the production of fertilizer and its extension in later years. An extension from fertilizer production was made to grow contamination-free vegetables for
nearby shops and hotels, which generated a considerable income to the students. Through JFCCT’s partnership with “Spouses of Head of Mission,” the Embassy of Luxembourg donated a facility to the school for this purpose.

Figure 5

Science Experiment and Product Development for Underprivileged Students

          A series of workshops (sponsored and organized by JFCCT) on improving the students’ products (including fertilizer) was conducted in an active participatory manner with students and teachers. The focus of these workshops was on basic business and entrepreneurship skills, which included packaging, labelling, and storytelling. Involving foreign business communities was constructive and creative due to the sense of belonging and the high level of excitement for the students. Commercialization of students’ products from the science experiment was
necessary since the students need extra income to support their daily living. See Figure 6.

Figure 6

Demonstration of Product Improvement from JFCCT’s Workshops

          In general, the responses and comments from the students have been largely positive. They felt that they could relate the experiment with their context and situation. They could connect to this experiment because it would help lessen the impacts from air pollution on their school and surrounding communities (i.e., their parents and family members). A sense of problem ownership was significant to them. An opportunity to conduct an experiment was also
crucial. The students appreciated an opportunity to take part in a hands-on experiment. Use of their mobile phones was not an issue for the underprivileged students. The follow-up meeting also revealed that they clearly welcomed an opportunity to learn and engage with foreign businesspeople. The responses highlight the significant impacts of a combination of hands-on experimentation and commercial development of a product (from an experiment). See
Appendix C for the summary of the students’ comments.

Discussion and Implications

          The study illustrates the positive impacts of STEM education on learning and skill development of the underprivileged students. Despite the lack of readiness for conducting more advanced science experiments, this difficulty should not hinder an opportunity to gain science knowledge and more importantly science skills for these students. Although not all underprivileged students are able to pursue a university-level education, science education should train and prepare them for their future careers and employment. Essentially, STEM education should not only provide the students the needed knowledge (i.e., science subjects and content for higher education), but also prepare them (for those who cannot afford to continue their education) the skills for employability.

          During the experiments, the students experienced a lot of opportunities to interact among themselves, which improves their communication and teamwork skills. Presentations of their findings to their peers and to foreign business communities helped motivate learning and personal development. The positive impacts on the students can be attributed to many factors.

          The use of team teaching needs to be recognized. A lesson plan, which is integrative depends on the willingness among the teachers to work together (Chanmugam & Gerlach, 2013). To make fertilizer as part of a science experiment requires extensive planning and good teamwork from the teachers specialized in STEM subjects. It is important to point out that it is easier to encourage teamwork and communication to the students when they can observe it from their teachers. This is one of many unexpected comments made by the students (Hartnett
et al., 2013).

          The empathy of the teachers on assessment and evaluation is critical (Guerriero, 2017). Instead of conducting an experiment, which would result in a report on their discovery, it is also possible to assess and evaluate the understanding on the subject matters on product development. To be able to develop a product (i.e., producing fertilizer), the students need to apply and demonstrate science knowledge. This paradigm shift is important since many underprivileged students do not possess excellent writing proficiency. A lack of writing proficiency often restrains the students from expressing their understanding of the subject matter.

          It is also important to recognize the importance of integrating an environmental problem and a local context into a science lesson. For the underprivileged students, a meaningful change from a traditional lesson is that they can work on what they perceive to be tangible and helpful to their livelihood. Ensuring that the students can relate science study to their context is critical for maintaining their interests and attention (Chan and Yung, 2015). For
this study, outdoor experiments are more effective for science learning for the underprivileged students.

          JFCCT has played a complementary role to the entire study. It recognizes that the active engagement with teachers and students and the responses to their needs through consultation and participation are essential. Design of the workshops needs to be based on the students’ needs (i.e., something that they cannot learn from classrooms). Commercializing their experimental output as part of financial motivation is important for the group of the underprivileged students. This factor highlights the importance of feedback from an external source for learning and development of the students.

          Motivation affects learning and development. In this case study, financial motivation was proven to be the necessity and needs to be considered for the underprivileged students when designing a science experiment. As previously mentioned, a product development should be allowed as part of a science experiment. Instead of a report (on proving the correctness of theories and concepts), which is subject to a numerical score or a grade, judging and evaluating students’ learning can be more accommodating. This flexible mindset is crucial for the future development and implementation of STEM education, especially for the underprivileged students who mainly reside in densely populated or isolated rural areas.

          It has been a challenge to motivate students’ learning and development through an extensive report, a vigorous exam, and a numerical score when a student does not plan to continue his/her study. By blending constructive feedback from foreign business communities (e.g., feedback on product and possible improvements) and becoming more amendable to assessment and evaluation, the students have apparently reacted more positively. Less tardiness or absence reflect this positive reaction and attitude of the students.

          In fact, this study underlines the significance of the feedback concept in teaching and learning. Feedback is fundamental for science education (Soraya & Moustaghfir, 2019). In addition, the feedback represents a mechanism for ensuring that a student completes a required task correctly during an experiment. From the observation, the underprivileged students appear to seek and appreciate constructive feedback, which can benefit their future careers, especially from someone outside a school. Furthermore, the feedback helps students improve their life skills on the need to seek input, the ability to listen and analyze, and the capability for self-improvement.

          Finally, adapting science education to help the underprivileged students prepare their future careers represents an important step for future STEM development in a certain segment of the student population. Instead of focusing on the students who will continue their education at a university, science education can provide needed skills for future careers.

Conclusion

          This study demonstrates the practices of STEM education for underprivileged students. In Thailand, despite the gap in education readiness (which is reflected on achievement scores), science knowledge and skills should not be restricted primarily to the students whose schools belong in the country’s upper echelon. To make science education more attainable, a group of teachers from one BMA school, Kaenthong Upathum School, decided to apply environment as the foundation for the design and development of a science experiment. This was to ensure that an experiment is consistent with the students’ life context. Motivation was also integrated into this study through financial incentive and constructive feedback from an external entity (namely JFCCT). The positive impacts from the students are illustrated and described.

Apichart Intha is currently a science teacher at Kaenthong Upathum School in Prawet District under Bangkok Metropolitan Administration. His specialization is in Biology. He has received several awards and recognition for his outstanding work and contributions to the development of students. He is pursuing his doctoral degree in Natural Resource and Environment at Naresuan University.

Kongkiti Phusavat is a Professor in the Department of Industrial Engineering at Kasetsart University. Dr. Kongkiti earned his doctoral degree in Industrial and Systems Engineering from Virginia Tech in the U.S. His research areas include workplace and human learning, design of feedback, quality of work life, and quality and productivity management. He is the chairman of the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce in Thailand’s Education and Skills Committee.

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