University students can help inspire interest in STEM among school children.

MUCH has been said about how STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is critical for the nation in terms of wealth creation and global competitiveness.

Defined as disciplines of knowledge consisting of science (physics, chemistry and biology) and mathematics with the integration of various technologies and engineering, STEM incorporates all the technologies collectively considered core underpinnings of an advanced society.

The strength of the STEM workforce is often viewed as an indicator of a nation’s ability to sustain itself and Malaysia, in its Education Blueprint 2013-2025 (Preschool to Post-Secondary Education), has set the roadmap for strengthening delivery of STEM across the education system.

This is being done via three measures: raising student interest through new learning approaches and an enhanced curriculum; sharpening skills and abilities of teachers; and building public and student awareness.

Despite the plan and efforts put into various STEM programmes since 1967, the 60:40 ratio for Science/Technical and Arts Policy has never been achieved — neither at school nor, subsequently, tertiary level.

There is also the STEM paradox where many believe despite having a STEM-based qualification, there is no guarantee there will be suitable jobs requiring their skills in the employment market upon graduation.

The National STEM Movement, headed by representatives of several universities in Malaysia as well as those from the Education, Higher Education and Science, Technology and Innovation Ministries, aims to drive the passion in fundamental subjects in STEM, nurture excellent scientists for the country and develop a career path for scientists.

Its chairman, Professor Datuk Dr Noraini Idris, who is the deputy vice-chancellor (research and innovation) of Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris, said currently — like the rest of the world — Malaysia is faced with various challenges in the STEM issue.

“Young children are no longer keen on science. This leads to a decreased number of students taking up science at secondary school level. With a poor population at secondary school, by the time they get to university there isn’t enough supply of good and talented science students to be trained in STEM fields,” she said.

Today only 27 per cent of students in the entire education system in Malaysia are in the science stream, said Noraini. “We are lagging far behind in science and mathematics at secondary school level as observed in international assessment studies. Math and science encourages logical thinking — what concerns us is the poor critical thinking skills among students. While UPSR is trying to encourage it through a different exam format, the results are still wanting. How are we then to have the talents with exploratory minds that could harness knowledge in STEM to transform the country into a high income nation,” she shared.

And why the ardent concern on producing a STEM workforce?

Data from Academy of Sciences Malaysia show that a total of 1 million people are required by 2020 to be in the science and technology fields: 500,000 in support and services comprising technicians, those in the vocational field, science officers, nurses and ICT personnel; 470,000 implementors like engineers, doctors and architects as well as well as scientists, technologists and applied scientists; and 30,000 in research.

“The type of nurses that we want, for example, is not those who obtained a diploma or degree — they must be thinker nurses also. Doctors will not be able to observe patients every second as they’ll focus on the critical cases first. So, nurses need to have a strong science base to think critically and be good at problem solving. With a workforce of a high knowledge base like these, they will be able to help the department, the organisation or the country move to greater heights,” she illustrated.

The pipeline for STEM starts from the cradle right up to career, Noraini highlighted.

“So that means as academics at tertiary level, we lecturers have to go down and carry out campaigns on STEM to educate our people. When we talk about science, we must learn about physics, chemistry and biology even at kindergarten and the primary school level. We must be strong in math. Of course, the focus will be different at those levels. STEM provides the basis for inquiry, exploration, innovation... When we do sciences, we don’t necessarily become doctors or engineers — we can become entrepreneurs, successful corporate heads, innovators, policy makers and more with the knowledge of sciences. This is the thing we want to impart — through knowledge of STEM, we can do a lot of things,” she said.

The National STEM Movement has introduced numerous initiatives.

“We are now in the midst of designing a STEM Career Portal. The general public — parents and students — need to know there are a variety of careers in STEM other than the traditional ones. For example, Malaysia is surrounded by the ocean — we can learn a lot of things from our environment and turn this learning into a future career based on marine sciences,” she said.

The National STEM Movement have already begun to organise the Malaysian Young Scientist Competition fashioned after the US Science Competition. “This is carried out at every state. Other than teachers, university students play a role as advisors or coaches. We want more collaborators to help to encourage and inspire people to take up science,” Noraini said.

The movement has also organised the Malaysian STEM Colloquium in a number of states with the next one to be held in Johor in September. “Although there is a university coordinator for the event in every state, we welcome others to join. These colloquium do not only highlight pure sciences, we also link STEM to the arts and social science. In Kelantan, STEM dikir barat was performed and in Melaka, STEM was featured in a Hang Tuah setting,” said Noraini.

She is particularly excited about the National STEM Mentor-Mentee Programme that involves facilitators from the National STEM movement, mentors comprising science students from universities, and mentees who are students from Form 1 to 3 — with one mentor assigned to five mentees.

The programme involves both rural and secondary secondary schools as well as public universities in all states.

“We expose the students to the wonders of science and also university environment. Our key performance indicator is that after undergoing the programme, each school involved will set up more pure science classes for those interested. Because this has just started, we need more manpower from public and private universities and also industry partners to help us out,” she said.

On the perceived inability of some STEM graduates to gain employment, Noraini said universities now have to relook at the courses being offered in STEM areas.

“What we see is that many universities are offering the same courses. What if the programmes that we are designing do not match with the real world situation? We have to study properly what is the area of concern and whether this suggests that multidisciplinary STEM courses should be introduced. That is why when we design a curriculum, we need to discuss thoroughly with the industry partners,” she said.

Dr Logendra Ponniah, Taylor’s University head of School of Education, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, said when discussing STEM, many educators do not focus on its intrinsic values of problem solving ability, critical thinking ability, inquiry and so forth.

“It is the competency of the person that is acquired through a STEM-based education; an engineer, for example, will make a systematic thinker and planner who can conceive engineering design principles that are widely used in many industries.

If you look at the CEOs of today, many of them have STEM education and they subsequently moved on to management. And they attribute their thinking style to their STEM education. So parents and educators must align: constantly emphasise that STEM is not a body of knowledge, it is a kind of thinking, and it is not a professional engagement. And if teachers can emphasise competency more than knowledge, I think we stand a second chance in the future,” he said.

Professor Emerita Datuk Dr Mazlan Othman, Malaysia’s first astrophysicist and the founding director of the Malaysian National Space Agency observed that unemployment among science and engineering degree holders does exist.

“This contradicts the fact that we need more STEM graduates. It is not enough for us to produce STEM graduates, we must create the ecosystem that absorb these STEM graduates. We are not developing the capacity in the institutions that will keep them as scientists. So, the government must be consistent about this,” she said.

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