Like many other countries, Belgium has been experiencing a skills gap in the STEM labour market, but it aims to overcome this with a renewed focus and improved approach at an educational level.
With technology advancing at a pace and impacting every area of our lives, ensuring that the next generation gets a good STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education has never been more important. The Antwerp International School (AIS), which will begin work on a purpose-built STEM-zone for pupils next year, explains what’s happening with STEM education in Belgium.
The Antwerp International School (AIS), a leading international school in Belgium, offers a renowned International Baccalaureate programme with a focus on STEM education. With its tailored learning approach, the school allows students to not only experience world-class education but develop skills through myriad extracurricular activities.
The importance of STEM education in Belgium
Having students highly educated in STEM subjects is crucial today, not just in Belgium but across Europe. More jobs are being created that demand STEM literacy, but across the continent there has been a skills gap and companies have been struggling to fill positions. The number of STEM graduates in Europe dropped by 20% between 2016 and 2014, while recent research by the European Commission showed that around 44% of Europeans lack basic digital skills.
Belgium, like several other EU countries, has been experiencing labour market shortages in key STEM areas, particularly in engineering and the petrochemical industry. This is problematic for a country that has the second largest chemical cluster in the world.
But the importance of STEM education in Belgium goes beyond that. As Andreas Koini, Head of AIS, explains: “STEM literacy is an excellent tool for a wide range of career options and having a good knowledge in STEM subjects will greatly enhance your understanding in other key learning areas such as humanities and social sciences.”
How STEM subjects are taught in Belgium
Children begin their STEM education in Belgium at primary school age where they are introduced to basic maths and science concepts. When they reach secondary school, learning becomes more in-depth. Maths becomes more advanced, science is split into its constituents of physics, chemistry and biology, and ICT learning is introduced. Pupils start off at secondary school with general studies, learning from a foundation syllabus, before specialising in either general, technical, vocational or artistic education where they can choose from different subjects, including STEM specialist subjects.
“At AIS, we offer the basic subjects to all students and then have a varied selection of specialist STEM modules on offer” says Andreas. “We also try to introduce a technological aspect to all subjects that we teach.”
How STEM education in Belgium is changing
Like much else in the modern world, STEM education is undergoing a transformation to ensure that it remains relevant and prepares students for the challenges of the future.
“There has been a change of paradigm” explains Andreas. “30-35 years ago, school education was focused primarily on giving people technical skills to match the job market. Nowadays, children need a more conceptual understanding of what they are learning, why they are learning it and how these subjects are interdisciplinary. Technology is changing at such a pace that we don’t know exactly what jobs kids will do in the future. This makes STEM education all the more important.”
This thinking underpins the STEM Vision at AIS and the new STEM-zone will focus heavily on interdisciplinary learning opportunities that will integrate STEM with other areas of learning.
“All schools in Belgium are adapting to the changes, but international schools have the advantage in being more flexible and able to make quicker decisions. In this respect, they have taken a lead in making education more interdisciplinary” says Andreas.
What subjects can students learn?
“There have been big changes to what constitutes STEM learning” says Andreas. “Whereas it used to be core maths and science subjects, today students learn about concepts such as 3D printing and machine learning.”
Today, pupils taking STEM education in Belgium can investigate areas such as robotics, computer programming and sustainable energy solutions as well as advancing their general maths and science skills. The STEM-zone at AIS consists of ten ‘zones’ where students can learn about technology such as wind turbines and solar panels as well as using equipment such as 3D printers and laser cutters.
Outside of school, there are many extracurricular activities to encourage children’s interest in science and technology with visits to Technopolis (which has a Children’s Science Centre), the Euro Space Center and the Museum of Natural Sciences.
Preparing students for life beyond school
There have been government-led initiatives in both Dutch and French-speaking regions to improve STEM education in Belgium, address labour market shortages and tackle other issues such as gender imbalances in accessing STEM education and careers. This has involved working with external organisations and building closer links with universities and colleges. In Flanders, there is a STEM Framework for schools to encourage take up of subjects and promote STEM careers. In Wallonia, schools work closely with Jeunesses Scientifiques (Youth Scientific) which is a non-profit that organises trainings and events to promote interest in science and scientific careers to young people.
“AIS is firmly aligned with the STEM framework for Flemish schools and our approach is geared towards fully preparing students for life beyond our teaching” says Andreas. “We work with partners to bring outside expertise to the school in all STEM areas. This includes scientists and professionals giving talks, workshops and providing guidance and more hands-on support to students. Our new STEM facilities will help us develop even more links with key figures in the local scientific community.”