Education is one of the key ways to help today's children develop into tomorrow's success stories. But for millions of Thai youth, access to the best tools to take on the future falls out of reach.
With so many classroom hours, Thai students should be among the best performing students of Southeast Asia. However, they have been repeatedly found to lag behind their Asian peers in education rankings.
Is the national education system passing the test? One can still see examples of Thai kids snagging top prizes and scholarships in international academic competitions. However, these students often have the advantage of having parents wealthy enough to send them to reputable schools.
Not everyone can afford access to quality education.
Fixing this problem is the focus of one Thai non-profit organisation, which offers alternative courses to supplement the standard curriculum. Its goal is to bring education up to date, and prepare kids for work in the 21st century.
The way the organisation seeks to achieve this is through STEAM, an applied and interdisciplinary curriculum, integrating science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.
The Starfish Country Home School Foundation was founded on March 9, 2005, with the mission to bring high-quality education to underprivileged and marginalised youth. It was formed by American scholar Dr Richard P Haugland, and certified as a non-profit organisation on Dec 17, 2007, in the Mae Tang district of Chiang Mai.
The Starfish Country Home School Foundation is fully funded by an American endowment with the Starfish Education Foundation USA.
The foundation aims to support poor, abandoned, disabled and other disadvantaged youth to be raised, sheltered and educated.
To do so, it has set up a school, learning centres and various education projects, alongside a nursery, foster home, welfare protection centre, and development and rehabilitation centres.
A decade after the foundation was formed, the head of the organisation, Dr Nanthaporn Seributra, decided to take her work to the next level. As an active researcher and educator, Dr Nanthaporn has long sought to bring Thai education up to global standards.
Dr Nanthaporn is a constructivism advocate. She believes that knowledge and skills can only be self-constructed as children are encouraged to inquire, explore, question, debate, collaborate, create and reflect. She has been practising STEAM-integrated project-based learning in her school and early childhood centres for more than 10 years.
When she came across the STEAM curriculum, focusing on project-based learning, she thought it was just the prescription that the Thai system was in need of.
"Thai students are taught to memorise everything, and the children end up learning nothing from these lessons," Dr Nanthaporn said. "Thai children usually walk out with unemployable knowledge. They do well at school, but they can't use that knowledge in real life.
"[Since implementing STEAM] we have seen significant development in the children. They are eager to learn and explore new things. They collaborate with their peers and teachers. Their communication skills have increased as they work together as a group."
Besides the programme itself, accessibility is key to Dr Nanthaporn's mission.
"STEAM is not something new to Thailand," she said. "There are schools that offer the programme but they are mostly only available in expensive private schools. The majority of students in Thailand are not rich and, as an educator, I feel like it's only fair that we offer everybody equal access to education.
"That's why we launched STEAM to grassroots students in rural area with no costs. I just want to offer this opportunity to everyone, especially those who can't afford to."
LEARNING BY DOING
STEAM is a multi-disciplinary pedagogy approach focused on applying knowledge to solve real-life problems. After running a school in Chiang Mai, the Starfish Country Home School, for over 10 years, alongside two other schools in the North and a few others in Central Thailand, Dr Nanthaporn has seen the vision of the organisation's founder, Dr Haugland, morph into something much bigger than the original.
Dr Nanthaporn Seributra
She decided to create a programme called the Starfish Maker Project to implement at her schools. The programme offers STEAM-based activities to develop students' skills and knowledge without limiting them to studying only one discipline at a time.
Students let their interests shape their learning experience, and the curriculum is based on connections to daily life. In the process of creating their curriculum, students have to connect and integrate several disciplines to solve any given problems. This approach is seen a "learning-by-doing" approach.
"We have run the schools under the foundation for more than 10 years and we can teach up to 500 students," Dr Nanthaporn explained. "But since launching the Starfish Maker Project one year ago, we have passed on the knowledge to more than 2,000 educators who can now pass on that knowledge to a lot more students. I feel like this is a step in the right direction."
The Starfish Maker Project aims to provide children across Thailand the opportunity to develop knowledge that will help them navigate the 21st century by working with several actors.
"We support and work together with educators, institutions and communities," said Dr Nanthaporn. "We opened Starfish Maker for the public to provide professional training opportunities, to create online community learning, and to provide a professional development programme to make for an engaging, inclusive and interactive learning experience."
FACING THE FUTURE
The Starfish Maker Project, or "Starfish Labz", seeks to develop capacity for both educators and students through project-based learning, alongside the Starfish Innovation and Makerspace.
These involve academic services, an online learning community, professional development for educators and consultation services for children, schools, communities and families, and comes free of charge.
Estimates say that 65% of primary school students will work in professions that do not exist today.
By 2020, the top 10 must-have skills for the labour force are expected to be complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, people management, coordinating with others, emotional intelligence, judgment and decision making, service orientation, negotiation, and cognitive flexibility.
These skills are noticeably absent in the standard Thai curriculum.
The focus on skills over abstract knowledge draws attention to the importance of actions, personalisation and solution acquisition in preparing for the job market.
The activities in the Starfish Maker project encourage students to solve problems using the STEAM Design Process, which also draws upon the arts in its approach.
The 21st century has brought rapid changes to people's lifestyles and technology, demanding educators adapt their approach to pedagogy accordingly.
The skills widely recognised as the most important for the upcoming workforce include creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration teamwork and leadership, and communications information and media literacy skills.
These skills can be developed through the Starfish Maker activities.
BEYOND THE CLASSROOM
The Starfish Maker Project is designed to help educators learn about the STEAM approach, which they can then apply to their schools. The programme created the Makerspace, which is a place where creators, innovators and makers can meet.
Makerspace provides opportunities for children to discover their interests and potential. It sparks curiosity and encourages children to take ownership of their learning.
Throughout the learning process, the children develop today's crucial skills such as problem-solving, design thinking, communication, collaboration, innovation and social-emotional skills.
With these resources, students are given the opportunity to plan, design and share ideas, with the the goal of turning these ideas into innovative works.
Makerspace helps promote innovation by offering a learning environment in which materials and equipment are readily on hand, while professionals and experts are put in contact with creators to solve their problems and help them achieve their goals.
This includes studying a problem, then creatively brainstorming one's way to the best solution.
This accompanies the organisation's overall goal to make children into thinkers, problem-solvers and rational actors.
"We have transformed our organisation over the past couple of years," said Dr Nanthaporn. "We Maker Coaches helped the existing teachers at our schools in Chiang Mai learn about STEAM and turned them into trainers. We sent them around to many different schools in remote areas of Chiang Mai by the recommendation of Educational Service Area offices.
"We don't just offer know-how to educators -- we give them an online-based community to develop themselves constantly, even after the Starfish Labz training we provide for them is complete. I want the Starfish Maker to be the first online community that has a focus on developing education to educators."
Since the Starfish Maker is run under the non-profit foundation, the professional development provided to educators is free of charge. They are working hard to try to pass this approach on to as many schools as possible.
Since the Starfish Maker project was launched, more than 6,300 students and 400 teachers have learned and worked with the organisation.
"The schools we work with don't even have to be tech savvy," Dr Nanthaporn explained. "There's no requirement for any fancy gadgets. A simple tool like scissors can be used to develop motor skills as well as many other simple tools. With the right approach, any school can adopt our approach and implement these lessons that they are already teaching.
"We are collaborating with the Ministry of Education to get our programme into practice in several schools across Thailand. I want children to be able to learn important skills that will be useful for them in the future.
"I also want Thai educators to have a safe community to discuss and learn new things from what the approach they use. It's not only the students who can benefit from this -- the educators can also learn in every step of child development after using our STEAM approach," she added.
eye on the prize: Young students engaged in various in-class STEAM activities. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED
Dr Nanthaporn Janchalia Seributra.