Dr. Gregory J. Moncada and Sam Abrams from QAST talk about how their students are applying critical thinking skills in addressing COVID-19 challenges
Every day, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been witnessing people oppose the idea of social distancing, protest to wearing masks and gloves, and even call the pandemic a hoax or conspiracy theory. World leaders, with no scientific training or understanding, have spent significant amounts of time down playing the virus and associated risks.
The science is simple – COVID-19 is an infectious disease and it depends on human hosts to spread it. But it seems that some people find it hard to be rational about COIVD-19. Why? A part of the answer lies in encouraging a critical thinking and problem-solving mindset, which comes with studying science.
In encouraging others to study science, I think it's not necessarily science specific but as an educator, and as research shows, we need students to become critical thinkers and problem solvers
“In encouraging others to study science, I think it's not necessarily science specific but as an educator, and as research shows, we need students to become critical thinkers and problem solvers,” says Sam Abrams, Principal of Qatar Foundation’s Qatar Academy of Science and Technology, also known as QAST.
And while the pandemic has intensified the focus on science – with medical and scientific communities all over the world working round-the-clock, making critical contributions to the COVID-19 response – we need to ask whether our future rests only in the hands of scientists and specialized professionals, or can the wider public make informed choices based on scientific understanding.
A study put together by leading educators says that “science is designed only to educate a minority of future scientists, rather than equipping the majority with the scientific understanding.” This means science needs to be taught in a way that is more holistic, because when science is linked to people’s real lives, it becomes relatable and consumable.
In the future, companies or colleges will not seek people who only have a certificate in engineering or biology, but instead people who can work in a team or those who can use math skills in problem solving
“In the future, companies or colleges will not seek people who only have a certificate in engineering or biology, but instead people who can work in a team or those who can use math skills in problem solving,” Abrams says.
Abrams explains that employers will want to hire people who are equipped with the skills of the 21st century – those with a holistic purview. “A student might want to be an interior designer, but this student might also want to study science to get a better understanding of interior designing,” Abrams says.
The pandemic has meant that schools have had to quickly adjust to virtual learning, and experiential learning typically done in classroom laboratories, especially in STEM subjects, are now being delivered online.
At QAST, these day-to-day studies were not necessarily replicated but they were adjusted and adapted, according to Abrams. He says: “We're still in the early stages but we’ve been pretty creative in engaging students to get the best we can to replicate a lab or hands-on learning at home.”
Applying this hands-on learning approach, QAST students engaged in a project to cater to the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). Dr. Gregory J. Moncada, Director, QAST, says that students were asked to look for solutions in this area, and that they were given a few links to individuals who were working on creating PPE with various elements in their labs.
We want our students to ask questions and be skeptical in a scientific way – to have the independence of mind
“We took a few online files on 3D printing components of PPE, such as face shields and face masks, and indeed our students could 3D render these parts. They rendered and modified their own parts. We've got a bank of 12 3D printers in our school, and so we were able to produce these components, and the students were able to run through a quick series of iterations on improving their particular component,” Dr. Moncada says.
The COVID-19 situation has given students world over to live and learn through science in real life. And QAST, in particular, is seeing 100 percent participation from its students. The school’s approach is that they let their students learn and then provide and utilize evidence to understand the COVID-19 situation – such as to make decisions about why they're quarantined and the importance of lockdown.
“Some of our students had just done some bacteriology in biology so they understood vectors and viruses and bacteria, and how they move through society. So, it was straightforward for the biology teacher to apply some of these practices as it relates to the spread and mitigation of COVID-19,” Dr. Moncada says.
As these young minds grow into adult members of society, they will walk into the future with the skills required to create solutions for challenges that face Qatar and the world – an overarching mission of the school – with a mindset that is outward-looking, and with a sense of both community and also of themselves and the role they play in community in the future.
And if governments implement policies of social distancing or of wearing masks, “we want our students to ask questions and be skeptical in a scientific way – to have the independence of mind,” Dr. Moncada says.
“But then we also teach them the resources on how to respond by saying ‘well, there must be some theory to practice that these governments are applying, and since I understand only a little bit about virology and transmission, I need to learn more, and see if the policies make sense.’”