UWC is Killing STEM


by Marisa Ortiz, UWCM
April 22nd, 2018


 

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Ever since I began class at UWCM, I’ve been convinced of the notion that perhaps I do not fit into the UWC education narrative, and more so, that I am somehow barred from fulfilling Kurt Hahn’s vision of education by nature of my subject package. After two years, I have witnessed a pattern on campus that leads me to believe that a “UWC education/experience” is catered more so towards those who operate within the lines of humanities-based thinking.
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In a lot of ways, STEM (which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) can be seen as a cold discipline, often detached from humanity. It revolves around finite solutions and little room for emotion. In many ways, this is far removed from the brand of education Kurt Hahn strived for, where we should be encouraged to incorporate humanity and endless solutions to the problems we face everyday. The humanities and social sciences encourage us to be empathetic, use critical thinking, have appreciation for art and literature, be understanding of cultural origins, and continually ask the question, “so what?”
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There are two problems that have become evident to me after two years: 1) there is a significant lack of support for STEM students at UWCM, and 2) the UWC model, itself, does not cater towards STEM-based education/experience.
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While our particular UWC is fortunate enough to have new and accessible labs/equipment for our STEM studies, many other campuses lack these facilities. For my co-years in Costa Rica, for example, they often recommend to their incoming firsties to stray away from multiple Group 4 HL courses because the facilities available to carry out practicals and IAs are relatively limited. While this may seem like an isolated example, the lack of support offered at UWC for STEM students is still overwhelming in other areas.  
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In Maastricht, we are lucky to have several annual conferences (6 and counting), none of which, however, are STEM-based conferences (besides perhaps YES Conference’s biological link to environmental sustainability). This year, we were fortunate enough to have Dr. Mark Post (created world’s first burger made from cultured beef) and Jack Mellor (neurophysicist from University of Bristol) speak on campus, but these were some of the first STEM-related speakers I can recall visiting our school in the past 2 years. Everyday we are surrounded by people who pursued careers in the social sciences and eventually became speakers, teachers, artists. But we are exposed much less to those who have pursued fields of study in medicine or technology. And while this may come down to a simple lack of logistics, it is also worth noting that the number of field trips afforded to humanities students compared to STEM students is especially disparate. Trips to professional laboratories or universities would not be difficult to coordinate – much simpler, at least, than taking coach buses all the way to The Hague. The point I’m intending to make here is that: it is very discouraging to maintain your passion for a field of study when it feels as if your environment is not supportive of that passion.

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[aesop_content color=”#000000″ background=”#ffffff” component_width=”600px” columns=”1″ position=”none” imgrepeat=”no-repeat” disable_bgshading=”off” floaterposition=”left” floaterdirection=”up” revealfx=”off” overlay_revealfx=”off”]While trying to avoid the age-old argument that STEM-related subjects are more intensive than humanities-related ones, it may be worth noting that the IB is often more harsh in the grading and regulating of Science HL (Group 4) subjects than others. For this reason, a subject package containing 2 or more HL Science courses is extremely demanding in an academic sense; often requiring more hours of teaching and more hours of independent study. In my first year, I witnessed first-hand how my floormates (who were humanities students) could study their exam material for a week and obtain a 7, while myself and others (who were STEM students) needed at least 2 weeks or more to cover all the exam material to achieve the same merit. In a community that repeatedly values community over academics, having Higher Level Science classes can prove to be a significant burden. Especially when we are not offered a chance to see how our labors in the study room will come to fruition in the form of a career, it is not surprising to see that STEM students leave UWC feeling discouraged from pursuing STEM studies further. In a survey completed by 83 students (who take 1 or more science HL subject), a significant majority (77%) reported that they entered UWC with the intent of pursuing a STEM major in university, i.e. mathematics, medicine, engineering, physics. Since entering UWC, this number has seen a significant decrease. And while this may be simply explained with the idea that students come here and change their mind about what they want to do with their future, it may also be explained by the lack of support offered to STEM-related studies. At least in my personal experience, this has been the case with myself and many others around me. In the same survey, only 4% of all participants reported UWC’s ability to serve him/her as a STEM student at a 5 (very good) on a scale from 1 to 5. The majority (64%) rated the school’s support at a 3, 2, or 1. Additionally, 81% answered yes or maybe to the question, “Do you think you would be more successful at UWC as a humanities-based student?” And 63% of students agreed that UWC as a model of education is catered more so to humanities-based thinking.
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But I am not completely discouraged from thinking that the sciences have a place in the UWC model. In fact, one of our largest principles as UWC students is a commitment to sustainability. This is an area that has an enormous amount of potential in Group 4 syllabi. Although, sustainability does make an occasional appearance in the Biology and Chemistry HL courses, there is a lot more that could be emphasized. Because UWC has pledged to stay within the confines of the IB curriculum, maybe this possibility will never be realized, but the fact that the possibility exists is still reassuring. In addition, STEM courses emphasize innovation and fostering a better understanding of the world’s functioning. This is a major bridge to the UWC model that could be better championed on campus; for example, creating engineering competitions, including science-based conferences, inviting speakers that are experts in STEM fields, providing field trips for science students, etc.
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“Because,” as one student commented, “for an already difficult subject package, the fact that it feels like there is next to no support from the school, it is so discouraging to continue in this field of study.” I, myself, feel I may be one of the casualties of this situation, having lost my desire to study biochemistry, and there may be many more.
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Moreover, UWC and our campus in particular, needs to reevaluate its commitment to the support and education of students on all areas of the discipline spectrum.

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