Pongsapak’s fingers tingle as he draws the rubber band back tighter and tighter. After a lung-filling breath, he releases, and the salmon-colored ping pong ball rotates briskly towards the target. Pongsapak’s eyes widen. Boink! It’s a hit! Pongsapak’s nervous energy converts to a joyful smile.
He had just completed “Hit the Target,” one of a half-dozen activities that students carry out during a Kenan Institute Asia Innovation Camp. Before going to the camp, Pongsapak questioned why he was giving up a valuable vacation day to go to school. For most kids, the classroom is the last place they want to be during summer break. Despite his reservations though, on that humid August morning, Pongsapak found himself joining 74 other middle schoolers in a packed gymnasium at Bangkok’s Intaram School. After a day filled with designing prototypes, building robots and launching projectiles, Pongsapak realized something that previously had seemed impossible: engineering can be fun.
The one-day camp led to a wholesale change in Pongsapak’s perspective of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). So why are these activities, such as the one that asks students to build a catapult that can launch a ping pong ball, such powerful learning tools? Because they challenge students to integrate their STEM knowledge and utilize 21st century skills to complete the tasks.
As simple as “Hit the Target” may seem from afar, it is actually quite complex. For instance, it involves physics (how the ball flies through the air), engineering (how to construct the catapult), geometry (the launch angle) and myriad other branches of STEM. On top of that, students must apply creativity, problem solving and teamwork skills because they have only an odd assortment of materials at their disposal. In essence, these activities closely resemble the work required in high-value, 21st century careers.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of schools in Thailand continue utilizing teaching styles that fail to prepare kids for the modern, innovation-based economy. Pongsapak’s introduction to 21st century learning arose because the event’s teaching methodologies departed immensely from the standard Thai classroom that he had experienced day-after-day for nine years running. Rather than watching and listening to a teacher for eight straight hours, Pongsapak and his peers brainstormed, developed hypotheses and tested solutions to interesting problems. In other words, they were active participants in the learning, a key factor in developing 21st century skills. As Pongsapak said of the camp, “There were many challenges for us to work on as a team, and the activities gave us the chance to practice our creativity, ingenuity and decision making.”
Kenan’s STEM camp made a real impression on participants. At the day’s conclusion, Pongsapak said that “STEM is very important for us. I wish other students had the same chance to join this kind of event.”
And so do we. Like Pongsapak before, there are tens of thousands of students scattered across Thailand who have yet to experience the wonders of an empowering 21st century education. Let’s give them that opportunity.