The Unifying Power of STEM: How STEM Subjects Can Cross Borders and Bring Us Together
STEM subjects – that’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics – are often promoted because they offer routes into well-paid and impactful careers. But here at Oxford Royale Academy, we believe that STEM subjects have more to offer than simply career benefits, important though this is.
We believe that STEM subjects have a particular power to bring people together: across countries, across cultures, across religious and across borders. In a world where travelling becomes easier all the time, it is often the intangible barriers of culture and politics that stop us from relating to one another.
We’re determined to do something about it. That’s why we’re launching our new International STEM Innovation Showcase. This will take place at Yarnton Manor – our International Study Centre – on Friday the 16th August 2019, and there’ll be more details about that later on in the article.
A Divided World
First of all, you might be wondering why this is even needed. It wouldn’t be fair to say that the world is more divided than ever before. After all, for most of the 20th century, the superpowers of the USA and USSR were locked in a Cold War, fighting proxy wars across what was then termed the Third World, and threatening mutually assured destruction through growing arsenals of nuclear weapons.
While the Cold War came to an end with the dismantling of the USSR in the 1990s, some of the same dynamics are now at play between the established superpower of the USA, and the rising superpower of China. Just as in the Cold War, there is a difference of ideology: the USA is a capitalist democracy, and China operates its own distinctive version of communism. Culturally, East and West are different, too: the West values individualism, while the East values collectivism. Tensions are apparent in the form of trade wars, and the current ongoing dispute around Chinese telecoms giant Huawei. Westerners look with concern at the Chinese social capital system; Chinese people note the relative ignorance of Westerners of their country’s 5,000-year culture and history.
What STEM Can Achieve
The ways in which we study STEM and the uses we put these subjects to are undoubtedly influenced by culture and politics. But the subjects in their own right can sit outside these considerations. Mathematics works the same in any language; the technology and engineering that keeps a bridge staying up work just the same whether the bridge crosses the Thames or the Yongding. Biology, of course, reminds us that we are all human. A breakthrough in clean energy, or medicine, or disaster resistance, saves lives across the world regardless of which scientists from which country originally made it, provided the findings are shared as they should be.
This isn’t just theoretical. Science is built on a foundation of collaboration; working together, scientists make far more progress than they might achieve independently. That means that working across continents – and across cultures – is actively incentivised. And this in turn helps to strengthen international and cross-cultural ties, as the process of working together also encourages people to understand one another better, in practical and in intangible ways.
Our Summer School
At Oxford Royale Academy, we’re proud that our summer school and year-round courses represent an opportunity for students from around the world to live and learn with people from countries, backgrounds and cultures that they might never otherwise have met. Our summer school is extraordinarily diverse, with students of 162 different nationalities joining us from around the world. We welcome students from megacities, students from isolated islands, students from indigenous groups – we welcome students, in fact, of all different kinds.
A focus of our teaching philosophy is that students learn not only from their expert teachers, but also from one another, by sharing their opinions and their experiences. Students are actively encouraged to contribute to class debates and discussions, drawing on their own unique perspectives that they have gained from their particular background. This doesn’t just benefit students for the duration of the summer school, in that they learn about issues from points of view they might never otherwise encounter, but enduringly, in that they will develop a greater appreciation for and understanding of the cultures and experiences of others.
We also encourage and enable our students to stay in touch with one another once the summer school has come to an end, through our online alumni community and our regular alumni magazine. We hope that this way, lasting international connections will be forged for the coming generation.
Our International STEM Innovation Showcase
We wanted to take this principle a step further and see what we could do specifically to harness the unifying power of STEM. Our goal was to encourage international cooperation and innovation by building relations between Chinese and UK students, who may well be the leaders of tomorrow. The end result is our forthcoming International STEM Innovation Showcase, an all-day event taking place on the 16th of August, which will bring UK and Chinese students together at Yarnton Manor, the beautiful Jacobean manor house that is home to Oxford Royale Academy’s International Study Centre.
As part of a wider project that has been ongoing since early 2019, a group of Chinese students have been selected by the Chinese government, and will be coming to Yarnton Manor for the final showcase. Separately, British students have been working on a STEM challenge. Their task: to design and/or manufacture a product to solve an everyday problem. The product has to include the use of coding/programming techniques, as well as physical design, such as 3D printing – in other words, it can’t just be an app, and it can’t just be a physical product. It has to combine both hardware and software. Students can work individually, or in teams of up to five, and there is no limit to the type of software or materials that they can use; the limit is only their imagination and their STEM abilities.
Among these students will be students aged 13 to 18 who have gained scholarship places on our bespoke STEM summer school. Participation in STEM can be expensive, so by offering scholarships, we help to defray the costs for students from lower-income backgrounds. Scholarship students simply had to provide a compelling answer to the question: “How do you think an ORA STEM scholarship will be of benefit to you in your future studies?”, which could be answered in a short essay, or as a video clip. For students joining our STEM summer school, the International STEM Innovation Showcase will be the culmination of two exciting, action-packed weeks of study and fun. Other students from local schools have registered independently to compete in the showcase.
At the Showcase, students will present their designs to be judged against the criteria of innovation; scientific and technical ability; overall function; and aesthetics and usability. The judges will be sourced from a variety of different backgrounds, but will be united by their expertise in their field and their enthusiasm for STEM. Judges include robotics teachers, industry professionals, representatives from the Oxford Scientist magazine and more besides.
The day isn’t solely about competition. It’s also about giving students from diverse backgrounds the chance to get to know one another and share ideas. As a result, alongside students presenting and demonstrating their designs for each others’ benefit and the benefit of the judges will be lots of opportunities for students to spend time together, from the lunch provided to the glittering awards ceremony where the winners will be announced.
What our students might do next
The purpose of our International STEM Innovation Showcase isn’t a one-off event with no further impact. Our hope is that it will inspire the group of students who attend in two ways: one, to consider future studies and/or a future career in STEM, and two, to be open-minded about people from other countries and other cultures from around the world. It may be that some of our students are inspired to believe in themselves and pursue a course of university study in STEM that they might otherwise not have attempted. Others might consider studying or working overseas. It may even be that some of the products produced for the showcase result in a viable prototype that an entrepreneurial student might wish to pursue.
Graduates with these skills and experiences are increasingly in demand. Gone are the days when you could be a coder in a basement and not interact with other humans; start-ups and established businesses alike are increasingly looking for employees with a broader skillset. We hope that our students will find their experience of thinking imaginatively and innovatively to solve problems to be valuable in their future career, and perhaps even explore their own potential to start a business that capitalises on their ideas.
The other part of the Showcase is just as important: that of being open-minded to other cultures. As the world grows ever-more interconnected, scientists and developers are expected to collaborate with and learn from their peers around the globe. Employees who are not narrow-minded, and who are open to seeing what they can learn no matter where the idea was developed, are going to be particularly valuable. Perhaps some of our Chinese students will be inspired to apply to university in the UK, just as British students might be moved to consider undergraduate or graduate study at a leading Chinese university such as Tsinghua, Peking or Fudan University. For those concerned about the language barrier at Chinese universities, it’s worth noting that there are now several courses taught in English, a trend which seems likely to continue as more international students seek out experience of this growing superpower. Of course, graduates who have had these kinds of international experiences as students will be particularly appealing to employers, whether that’s within STEM, or in relevant roles outside of it.
What you can do
If you’ve missed out on joining our International STEM Innovation Showcase, but you’d like to know how you can get involved, the best thing you can do is to keep an eye on our website, where you can also sign up to our mailing list, to find out more about similar exciting opportunities taking place in future.
You might also be interested in joining our 2020 summer school. STEM courses available for students aged 13-15 include (among others) Introduction to Computer Science, Introduction to Engineering, and Introduction to Robotics, while students aged 16-18 can study our Computer Science Programme, Mastering Automotive Engineering or iOS App Development. There are also STEM courses available for younger and older students. In all cases you’ll be studying alongside a diverse group of peers from all over the world. In 2019, students of 162 different nationalities have registered for our summer school, and in 2020 there may be even more.
For older students who can’t wait for next year’s summer school, we are also still accepting applications for our autumn 2019 Gap Year Programme, which starts in September. This includes the option of a dedicated STEM Themes course, which can also be studied 50/50 with another course option. This programme helps you to prepare for undergraduate or graduate study, especially if you’re transitioning into the British university system from a different school or university system, including learning how to work on an extended project independently, managing your own time and workload – a vital skill for university.
Whatever you decide to do next, whether that’s travelling the world or pursuing your interest in STEM at home, do keep an eye on our website and mailing list to see updates from the International STEM Innovation Showcase when it takes place. We’re looking forward to having lots of exciting photos and ideas to share.