Professor Chiu Yu-lok Photo: The Open University of Hong Kong

At the World Economic Forum in 2016, experts had already predicted that the Fourth Industrial Revolution was around the corner and would mark a new era defined by human-machine interdependence.

In the same year Hanson Robotics Limited, an American company partially supported by the Hong Kong Science Park, developed robot Sophia with artificial intelligence technology. This locally made robot was granted Saudi Arabian citizenship in 2017 and became the first robot in the world with nationality status.

To nurture the next generation’s skills to master development in technology, governments around the world have been advocated strongly STEM education, the interdisciplinary teaching in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Since 2015, the Hong Kong government has pledged in its Policy Address to renew curricula and learning activities relating to science, technology and mathematics, as well as strengthen teacher training and STEM education. However, some academics believed that STEM education placed too much emphasis on science and neglected the importance of arts and humanities.

“Science requires moral values’ checks and balances,” said Chiu Yu-lok, a professor in the School of Arts and Social Sciences at the Open University of Hong Kong and a director of Joint Publishing Cultural Fund. He pointed out that arts and humanities subjects must be integrated into STEM education, or society’s moral values could lag behind technological advancement, which could result in unintended negative consequences.

Values of arts and humanities

While the Hong Kong government has devoted a lot of resources to STEM education, the same cannot be said about the attention given to arts and humanities.

Chiu believed that maths and science on one hand, and arts and humanities on the other, should complement each other. As such, the promotion of STEM education should include arts and humanities elements and transform it into STEAM education.

In fact, there is nothing new about STEAM education. Schools in Europe and the United States have already included arts and humanities in their STEM curricula. Chiu noted that arts and humanities knowledge and its underlying moral values could guide students to think more broadly about the relationship between technology and society.

Take robotics development as an example. He said the creation of robots should not be focused only on science and technology. It should also take into consideration human and moral factors.

“Arts and humanities inject science and technology development with positive thinking and the values upheld by individuals in society,” he said.

“Essentially this gives technological creations a purpose. Science and maths are instrumental disciplines, and only through the integration with arts and humanities can both disciplines lead to creations that are relevant to society and our daily lives.”

STEAM challenges

Even though there are many crossover education programs associated with STEM and arts and humanities, STEAM education has yet to be recognized as a mainstream within the education system. Also, aside from the lack of resources, there are other difficulties in promoting STEAM education.

First, there are academic differentiations between STEM and arts and humanities. Fundamentally, whether it is STEM or STEAM, it is about interdisciplinary learning. But there are greater linkages between STEM subjects as they are all science-based. For STEAM, the situation is quite different.

“Arts is seen as an addition or extra to STEM. The four subjects in STEM are science-based and interrelated to a certain extent, but arts doesn’t enjoy such interrelationship,” Chiu explained.

Second, there isn’t a linkage between STEAM curriculum and assessment in Hong Kong. This means schools are still relying on traditional methods to teach the assessment-based curriculum but not the STEAM one.

Chiu also pointed out that education in Hong Kong still relies heavily on examination results, and traditional teaching methods are not yet replaceable. As such, the implementation of STEAM education is still restricted as an interest course or extracurricular activity.

Third, inadequate teacher training also hinders STEAM education. Chiu noted that for arts and humanities courses, most teachers still rely on traditional textbooks. As these teachers lack training in science, it is quite a challenge for them to teach STEAM with an interdisciplinary approach.

Non-mainstream STEAM education

Despite the fact that STEAM has yet to become mainstream in education, it is still meaningful to have crossover extracurricular activities in STEM and arts and humanities.

For example, the Minecraft game can used for learning Chinese history, or an AI technology coding competition can be used to design and promote future improvements on campus. These examples suggest that we can use new and innovative methods to revitalize subjects that are traditionally seen as monotonous, and to tell people that humanities and technological innovation can coexist.

Chiu further said that learning is both instrumental and purposive. The science knowledge that comes with STEM is auxiliary in achieving the instrumental goal, and the values associated with arts and humanities provide positive morality and outlook on life.

Nothing in the world is purely scientific and technological advancement is all about society’s needs and progress, he said.

“In the long run, STEM education can provide the government and society with more talent in technology and science, and this can help enhance Hong Kong’s competitiveness in the world.

“But it is simply not enough to focus on fostering the material aspect of things. We still need to cultivate the non-material aspects of things, such as culture and morality. Only through the cooperation of the two sides can we advance civilization.

“From an education perspective, we are not accomplishing the goal of promoting students’ all-round development if we don’t combine arts and humanities with technology.”

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