Hugh Kingsley | Managing Director at The Brainary

Hugh Kingsley – Educate the Educators STEM Conference …

Museum Naturalis in Leiden
Museum Naturalis in Leiden

During May 2023, I attended a highly thought-provoking STEM conference sponsored by the International Consortium for STEM Education. The conference was held at the stunning Museum Naturalis in Leiden, The Netherlands and included poster presentations, interactive workshops, plenary presentations, and a round table discussion. With change and uncertainty a reality, I found it important to learn how the European countries have emerged from the COVID lockdowns and how they are moving forward with teaching STEM and STE(A)M.



Interestingly, a key underpinning theme during the conference was sustainability involving the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). One slogan said, “Sustainability is not just something to learn. It’s something to live”. In recognition of global warming only vegetarian meals were served throughout the conference. Likewise, several workshops focused on sustainable STE(A)M projects. Often, discarded cardboard boxes were utilized as construction material for various projects. The strong link between STE(A)M and the 17 SDGs was made, which I think represents a seedbed of learning opportunities for educators and their students. Some of the other themes that stood out to me were:


 It was felt that COVID had a detrimental effect on students, which can be evidenced by increased mental health issues such as anger, increased depression, increased anxiety, and a downturn in academic performance. It seems that the students suffered because they were isolated from each other and their school environments. Sadly, it seems the same can be said in many other countries including Australia and New Zealand.

  • Uncertainty & Unpredictability

Living with uncertainty and unpredictability was another interesting theme. Arguably, the world is rapidly changing partly due to global warming, digitization, AI, robotization, and an increased threat of war. It was felt that the education system was locked in an out-of-date model, which is no longer serving the current and future needs of students in the emerging fields of work. To quote one presenter, “There is no point rearranging the furniture on the Titanic. We need to change course”.

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  • Open Schooling for Sustainability Education

Much was said about open schooling, a term with multiple meanings and applications. In relation to STE(A)M it seemed to involve project-based learning and projects that had meaning to the students that were real life and tangible. In this model, students are encouraged to reach out to their families, friends, and the community for help with their projects. As an educationalist, it seemed to me that the student projects could be underlaid with a traditional core subject grid. Then students could learn about the key core subject elements needed for each project. In one example, students decided the school should be powered by solar. Mentored by the school, it became a STEM project led by the students and supported by the staff, student’s parents, and community. In this way parents become actively involved in the children’s learning. The model encouraged students to learn what they needed to know so they could complete their projects. The shift to open schooling can be understood by a transition from a closed schooling model to an open schooling model. At the conference it was portrayed as:

20th century

Compulsory Schooling until 15 years

National citizenship

School systems separated form communities

Classroom teaching

Discipline oriented curricula

21st century

Lifelong learning

Multiple citizenships

Interaction education – society

Diverse, plural, open schools

Curricula that fundamentally reorient the place of human in the world (UNESCO, 2021)

  • What is a STE(A)M teacher educator?

Another interesting theme discussed relates to the question, “What is a STE(A)M teacher educator”? Although the discussion did not lead to a concise definition of the term, the discussion got participants thinking.  During the discussion, it became clear that subject teachers relating to STE(A)M could be likened to working in subject silos. It seems that the silos need to come down so that subject teachers could work cooperatively with each other in relation to STE(A)M. On the basis there is a worldwide shortage of STE(A)M teachers, a term hard to define, the problem might involve a redesign of teacher subject roles utilising a core subject grid and a new curriculum.

  • STE(A)M Camps for Girls

 STE(A)M camps for girls was another interesting theme. Some participants strongly felt that girls needed more time to learn how to work with technology associated with STE(A)M than boys. These participants also felt that patriarchal stereotypes prevented the girls competing with the boys in STE(A)M. On STE(A)M camps the girls were given all the time they needed to complete their STE(A)M projects. Although it was questioned whether the girls who attended STE(A)M camps would fall back into a shadow role with boys when back at schools, no clear answers emerged. Whereas another strong view from Israeli participants was based on the idea that young children should be given the same toys as each other allowing them to freely compete in relation to technology. Following this ideology, girls would not need to learn STE(A)M on girls only camps. They cited several examples of women working in STE(A)M related careers alongside men.

  • Outdoor STE(A)M Education

Another interesting workshop addressed the theme of outdoor education. The slogan was ‘More green, less screen’. Behind this slogan was the recognition that too much screen time was not healthy for students. Another slogan said, “Kids won’t remember their best day of YouTube. We believe that nature makes kids healthier, happier, and smarter”. In Australia Dr Chris Speldewinde is leading the way with his research and teaching in this rapidly emerging field.

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  • STE(A)M Escape Rooms

I participated in a STE(A)M escape room activity, which involved about six tables of participants at each table. Our task as a group was to work collaboratively and competitively to find the numbers that would open six combination locks on the doors on a two-story house based on written clues. Interestingly, the clues required a lot of discussion to find answers that resulted in a series of numbers that would open the combination locks. I was most impressed by the learning activity because it demonstrated how everyday problems could be interpreted as a series of numbers – a code to solve a problem. The activity also required participants to draw on a wide range of knowledge and experiences.

  • Information overload

The theme of this session addressed information overload. Not a new theme but a theme, but a theme becoming more relevant as the amount of information and demands for attention continues to increase rapidly. The presenter argued students are overloaded with information but starved for wisdom. It was also argued that there was too much focus on individuals in an economic model as the only model of importance.

  • Concluding remarks

 There were participants from approximately 39 European countries who attended the conference together with participants from other countries around the world. Sadly, I was the only participant from Australia.  Nonetheless, I was impressed by the European STE(A)M fabric, which seemed strong and all inclusive. As one European participant pointed out, we know what it is like to be at war, and we don’t want to go back there so we find ways of addressing our differences. Much can be learned from this sort of collaborative approach to STE(A)M education as well as other realms of life. It left me wondering how Australia, New Zealand and their nearby neighbours could create a similar fabric and in doing so become stronger and more competitive in the world economy.

When reflecting on my time at the conference, it seems to me that STE(A)M was being connected to the 17 SDGs and actively encouraged in education so that students can find solutions to environmental issues caused by the previous generation. In doing so, students become real life inventors working on real life problems.

It also appeared to me that STE(A)M is not getting the attention in education it deserves. On the basis that coding has become the literacy of the 21 Century and everything and anything that can be coded will be code, we risk falling behind the risk of the world unless we increase the engagement of STE(A)M education in everyday lives.

About the Author

Hugh Kingsley

He is an educationalist and the founder of The Brainary®. Hugh is passionate about making a meaningful difference in the world, which he goes about achieving through education and healthcare resources, technologies and publishing.

Hugh is well published in both academic and non-academic journals and has served on both ministerially and non-ministerially appointed boards of management.

In 2016 past Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull presented Hugh’s team with a National Disability Award for its innovative work in the field of robotics and disabilities.