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Lessons from Latin America on STEM Education

January 07, 2015
If math wasn’t your favorite subject in school, you’re hardly alone. But sometimes it just takes one good teacher to open a child’s eyes to the opportunities that an education in math and science can open up.

That’s the philosophy behind a movement aimed at impacting a country’s educational system — and economy — from the bottom up, by teaching the teachers. Recognizing the importance of nurturing a workforce strong in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills to compete in today’s global economy, both developed and developing countries are exploring ways to teach math and science in more engaging ways.

“Whether in the developing or the developed economies, the world is changing so fast in terms of what’s possible using technology — what’s going on with medicine, what’s going on with computation, and what’s going to happen with energy and sustainability,” says Dennis DeTurck, the Stephen A. Levin Dean of the College and the Robert A. Fox Professor of Mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Understanding how all of those things fit together, that’s partly a technological issue, partly math, partly an economic issue. To understand those things, you have to have the background and acquire the training,” says DeTurck, who has done consulting on STEM education in Chile and elsewhere. “And the country has to have the infrastructure of people who can do that, or else you’re at the mercy of the people who provide it.”

In Latin America, the need to develop a STEM-skilled workforce presents a critical challenge. The region has been ranked lowest in the world for quality of education by the World Economic Forum, with more than half of 15 year olds not even minimally competent in math and science, according to WorldFund, a U.S.-based NGO that trains teachers and principals from underserved schools in Latin America.

WorldFund, which is supported by the GE Foundation, is working in Brazil to guide public school teachers in teaching methods that spark students’ interest in learning STEM-related subjects, such as applying their skills to practical projects.

Professor Pedro Fabris’s students at Chanceler Raul Fernandes secondary school in Rio Claro, São Paulo state, recently participated in a workshop to build bridges with toothpicks and glue.

“The design of the bridges was amazing,” says Fabris, a participant in WorldFund’s STEM Brasil program. “They made the project from the beginning, applying mathematics concepts learned in the classroom. But it didn’t stop there.”

Not only were all of his students able to build bridges that passed the endurance tests, but many went on to search the Internet for ways to improve their projects.

Project-based learning has helped the students think about science in a different way. “We have students who already defined their career plans in the areas of engineering or architecture,” he says. “They have everything in their hands to do well in these areas.”

Since 2009, STEM Brasil has trained more than 1,700 teachers, who reach more than 100,000 students a year. That’s key to “improving the employability of young Brazilians and developing the talents necessary to the country’s competitiveness,” says Jasmin Eymery, sustainability manager for GE in Latin America.

While Brazil has enjoyed strong economic growth, the workforce lacks the necessary skills to participate in the increasingly competitive global economy. Only about 40 percent of Brazilians graduate from secondary school, according to the OECD, while around a third of the country’s teachers barely passed themselves.

Chile has one of the better track records in Latin America, with about seven out of 10 students graduating from secondary school, though that’s still well below the U.S. rate of nearly 90 percent.

DeTurck recently visited the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, one of the top universities in Latin America, to consult on improving STEM education for college students as well as lower grade levels.

“They’re worried about retention issues in science, just like here in the U.S.,” says DeTurck, “And they want to help teachers become more effective so that the students who arrive at the university are prepared to succeed in science and math.

He calls STEM education a “universal problem,” with an essential part of the solution to show teachers who may not specialize in the sciences “how to transmit enthusiasm rather than fear to their students.”

“It’s a need that countries like Brazil and Chile recognize and are beginning to address, because countries cant import that expertise,” says DeTurck. “They’re trying to go from the status of a developing nation to a developed one, and they see developing this kind of infrastructure of scientists and technologists as being essential to that.”

For countries looking to compete in an increasingly globalized economy, the future could depend on a few good teachers.

Top image: Courtesy of WorldFund