Crit­i­cal minds in maths and science

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Bright Kids - By NISSHANTHAN DHANAPALAN

SCIENCE, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and math­e­mat­ics (STEM) ed­u­ca­tion plays a ma­jor part of dis­cus­sions when talking about ed­u­ca­tion op­por­tu­ni­ties in Malaysia.

“Science is an es­sen­tial com­po­nent to un­der­stand­ing the world we live in, which is con­stantly chang­ing as in­cre­men­tal in­no­va­tion trans­forms tech­nolo­gies at a fast pace.

“Un­less we de­velop a next gen­er­a­tion that can un­der­stand these changes and make ef­fec­tive de­ci­sions in reg­u­la­tions and poli­cies, the coun­try will be sub­jected to lob­by­ing by se­lected groups tar­get­ing fi­nan­cial gains with a short-term agenda,” says Dr Sya­mala Ariyanchira, co-founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of AcuBiz Con­sult­ing Sdn Bhd, a science-based con­sult­ing firm.

This goes hand in hand with the ne­ces­sity of de­vel­op­ing a crit­i­cal mass of tal­ent in sci­en­tific re­search ar­eas, as this would lead to more Malaysians in cut­ting-edge re­search in ar­eas such as health­care, en­ergy, en­gi­neer­ing and in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy.

“With­out the crit­i­cal mass, in­dus­try development in Malaysia will not hap­pen as lack of skilled man­power will im­pact in­dus­try in­vest­ments. Lack of ca­reer growth will fur­ther lead to brain drain, which is a se­ri­ous mat­ter for a coun­try such as Malaysia with a pop­u­la­tion of around 30 mil­lion,” she adds.

How­ever, many stu­dents find it dif­fi­cult to ex­cel in the sciences at the ter­tiary level even though they achieved stel­lar re­sults in their sec­ondary school as­sess­ments. This has raised con­cerns on the method and ap­proach of STEM ed­u­ca­tion in schools.

Re­cently, it has be­come a con­cern that Malaysia may face a short­age of hu­man cap­i­tal in science fields as the target for stu­dents en­rolling in the stream is not be­ing met an­nu­ally at the sec­ondary and ter­tiary lev­els.

Ac­cord­ing to the Science and Tech­nol­ogy Hu­man Cap­i­tal Re­port and Science Out­look 2015 by Akademi Sains Malaysia, the coun­try needs at least 270,000 science stu­dents to sit for the Si­jil Pe­la­jaran Malaysia (SPM) ex­am­i­na­tion an­nu­ally, but there are only about 90,000 science stu­dents as of now. To put things in per­spec­tive, about 500,000 stu­dents en­ter Form Four ev­ery year.

To com­pound mat­ters, 12% of science stream stu­dents mi­grate to non-STEM pro­grammes at the ter­tiary level.

STEM ed­u­ca­tion teaches stu­dents to draw knowl­edge from science and math­e­mat­ics and ap­ply it in var­i­ous tech­nol­ogy and en­gi­neer­ing as­pects.

“STEM learn­ing ac­tiv­i­ties give stu­dents the knowl­edge and skills to not only con­sume tech­nol­ogy but par­tic­i­pate in its de­sign and cre­ation. STEM gives our stu­dents a higher level of sci­en­tific, math­e­mat­i­cal and tech­no­log­i­cal lit­er­acy,” says Bill Iron­side, prin­ci­pal of Sun­way In­ter­na­tional School (SIS).

Ac­cord­ing to James Wellings, di­rec­tor of in­no­va­tive learn­ing at Gar­den In­ter­na­tional School, STEM com­bines things that al­ready ex­ist in school – science, math­e­mat­ics, tech­nol­ogy and en­gi­neer­ing – into one form where stu­dents can look at these things to­gether to solve real-world prob­lems.

He adds, “When stu­dents do some­thing within the real world such as man­u­fac­tur­ing, build­ing and pro­to­typ­ing, they are much more likely to be highly en­gaged.

“We know that en­gage­ment im­proves learn­ing and will lead to a deeper learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for stu­dents than a book or pass­ing a test would – with these, they will of­ten for­get the skills and knowl­edge learnt.”

In essence

In terms of cur­ricu­lum, STEM ed­u­ca­tion is in­cor­po­rated in ba­sic science sub­jects in Malaysian pri­mary and lower sec­ondary schools but di­ver­sify into spe­cific science fields in up­per sec­ondary.

How­ever, the development of stu­dents’ skills through STEM ed­u­ca­tion is most preva­lent in elec­tive sub­jects or co-cur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties such as ro­bot­ics com­pe­ti­tions as well as Science and Math­e­mat­ics Olympiads.

There have been mul­ti­ple shifts in the STEM cur­ricu­lum struc­ture in pub­lic schools.

In the past, most STEM sub­jects con­sisted of equal parts the­ory and prac­ti­cal ap­proaches, es­pe­cially in schools that could af­ford to cre­ate suit­able in­fra­struc­ture. These en­com­passed pri­vate and in­ter­na­tional schools as well as well-de­vel­oped ur­ban pub­lic schools.

In ru­ral schools, how­ever, many stu­dents were not ex­posed to prac­ti­cal forms of STEM ed­u­ca­tion. Most of the time, teach­ers fo­cused on the­o­ries and text­book con­tent.

As the years went by, STEM ed­u­ca­tion in schools has un­der­gone con­tin­u­ous development as the Ed­u­ca­tion Min­istry poured in funds to de­velop school in­fra­struc­ture.

The in­crease in the num­ber of pri­vate and in­ter­na­tional schools also driv­ing pub­lic schools to keep their STEM in­fra­struc­ture and syl­labus up to date.

The development of STEM ed­u­ca­tion in schools has been a in­te­gral part of the Malaysia Ed­u­ca­tion Blue­print 2013-2025 – three-wave plan to fur­ther de­vel ed­u­ca­tion in lo­cal schools, es­pe­cially pub­lic ones.

This is to ad­dress the fac­tors con­tribut­ing to the de­clin­ing en­rol­ment and qual­ity of stu­dent out­comes in STEM, in­clud­ing lim­ited aware­ness, per­ceived dif­fi­culty, con­tent-heavy cur­ricu­lum, in­con­sis­tent teach­ing and learn­ing as well as lim­ited and out­dated in­fra­struc­ture.

“Govern­ment ini­tia­tives and ef­forts of Na­tional STEM Move­ment to in­te­grate STEM into the na­tional cur­ricu­lum from pri­mary level are com­mend­able.

“How­ever, it is worth ex­am­in­ing how STEM ed­u­ca­tion is im­ple­mented across schools and higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tutes to en­sure its ef­fi­cacy,” says Dr Sya­mala.

She stresses that an im­por­tant pa­ram­e­ter will be to as­sess the num­ber of SPM grad­u­ates pur­su­ing science fields in their un­der­grad­u­ate stud­ies and be­yond.

Pri­vate and in­ter­na­tional schools have al­ter­na­tive poli­cies gov­ern­ing STEM ed­u­ca­tion, mostly fol­low­ing the STEM ed­u­ca­tion struc­ture within the cur­ricu­lum adopted by the re­spec­tive schools.

The stan­dards of STEM ed­u­ca­tion vary de­pend­ing on the coun­try of ori­gin of the cur­ric­ula, but most of the time, they are in­ter­na­tion­ally recog­nised. One ex­am­ple would be that of SIS.

“SIS fol­lows the On­tario (Cana­dian cur­ricu­lum) and STEM is em­bed­ded in our cur­ricu­lum as teach­ers can de­sign stu­dent-cen­tred lessons where stu­dents learn by do­ing and learn­ing in an in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary and ap­plied ap­proach.

“In plan­ning lessons, our teach­ers plan with the end in mind, ask­ing ‘What is it that we want our stu­dents to know and be able to do at the end of the les­son?’,” says Iron­side.

“Through this way and in­te­grat­ing the four dis­ci­plines of STEM, a clear suc­cess cri­te­rion is set for our stu­dents. Be­fore we start, all the par­tic­i­pants in the learn­ing have a solid no­tion of what suc­cess looks like. How they map it and ar­rive at that suc­cess de­pends on their cre­ativ­ity and crit­i­cal think­ing.”

The meth­ods of teach­ing STEM sub­jects have also bee in the spot­light of cur­ricu­lum development.

Quit re­cently, a video show­ing a group of Ja­panese high school stu­dents learn­ing about the development of a chick in an egg through a lab­o­ra­tory ex­per­i­ment went vi­ral on so­cial me­dia.

STEM ed­u­ca­tion teaches stu­dents to draw knowl­edge from science and math­e­mat­ics and ap­ply it in var­i­ous tech­nol­ogy and en­gi­neer­ing as­pects.

The stu­dents de­vel­oped an ar­ti­fi­cial cas­ing to see a chick’s development out­side of the eggshell and pro­duced a healthy baby chick.

This video was not only en­ter­tain­ing to watch but showed in­no­va­tive teach­ing meth­ods. The Ja­panese high school science teacher re­ferred to a re­search pa­per on ex­per­i­ment pro­to­cols and repli­cated the meth­ods with his stu­dents.

Not only were the stu­dents able to bring knowl­edge to life, they were able to hone re­search and development skills at a much ear­lier stage in their STEM ed­u­ca­tion.

In­ter­na­tional schools in Malaysia are more ad­ven­tur­ous in us­ing dif­fer­ent teach­ing meth­ods in STEM ed­u­ca­tion, in­clud­ing the use of a vis­ual learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment (VLE).

Iron­side says, “In­ter­ac­tive white­boards, 3D print­ers as well as teach­ing and learn­ing plat­forms such as Google Suite and its wide range of ed­u­ca­tional apps mo­ti­vate teach­ers and stu­dents to de­sign, share and see their ideas take form so much faster as well as with greater suc­cess and im­pact.

“VLE gives our stu­dents greater ac­cess to re­sources and ma­te­ri­als so that they can ef­fi­ciently de­velop the skills, at­ti­tudes, think­ing and knowl­edge re­quired for sci­en­tific in­quiry and tech­no­log­i­cal prob­lem­solv­ing.”

Pol­i­cy­mak­ers, schools and ed­u­ca­tors are now work­ing to cre­ate more sus­tain­able, ver­sa­tile and rel­e­vant teach­ing meth­ods for STEM ed­u­ca­tion.

The knowl­edge and skills ac­quired through STEM ed­u­ca­tion tran­scend a ca­reer in the sciences and have proved ben­e­fi­cial in

The knowl­edge and skills ac­quired through STEM ed­u­ca­tion tran­scend a ca­reer in the sciences and have proved ben­e­fi­cial in any field a child would even­tu­ally pur­sue as an adult.

any field a child would even­tu­ally pur­sue as an adult.

To­day, we see men and women who are the back­bone of the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem con­tin­u­ally come up with unique, cre­ative, in­ter­ac­tive and ef­fec­tive teach­ing meth­ods in STEM ed­u­ca­tion.

As we move for­ward both na­tion­ally and glob­ally, STEM ed­u­ca­tion will con­tinue to be of great im­por­tance. In­cul­cat­ing sci­en­tific lit­er­acy and skills must be­gin from the ba­sics to cre­ate a gen­er­a­tion of amaz­ing minds and tal­ents.

Hence, it is im­por­tant to con­tinue to in­spire and en­gage young chil­dren in em­brac­ing STEM ed­u­ca­tion.

“It is a great way to get stu­dents to ap­pre­ci­ate STEM fields from a young age. Catch them and groom them. They will not leave STEM fields once they en­joy it,” says Dr Sya­mala.

STEM ed­u­ca­tion is cru­cial in un­der­stand­ing the world around us and pre­par­ing chil­dren for in­dus­trial and liv­ing applications.

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