THE decline in the interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) field among students has been a major cause for concern for the Penang state government.
This is due to the state’s large manufacturing base and the need to continue nurturing the talent pool to support the needs of Industry.
Something needed to be done to nip this problem in the bud, says Penang STEM general manager Richard Chung.
He adds that the declining standards in schools, based on recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) and Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) studies, and the declining number of students opting for the science stream in Form Four is worrying.
“How can we produce more engineers and STEM practitioners if there is a dwindling pool of students interested in this field?” he asks.
To tackle this problem, Penang STEM formed STEM Clubs for lower secondary students in government schools.
The clubs make STEM-learning fun by taking practical hands-on programmes to selected schools and also seek the participation of industry to help fund the programmes and mentor students towards STEM excellence.
The clubs are part of Penang STEM’s StepUP initiative, and was piloted in nine schools from July to September last year.
These clubs were adopted and funded by seven multinational corporations (MNCs) and small and medium enterprises (SMEs).
To keep the momentum going, Chung says the club must conduct at least one activity per month and the students must take part in at least one state and one national level competition.
Their KPI for the schools, he adds, is to increase the number of students opting for the science stream and improvement in average science scores in the following years.
They also want these students to win prizes at state or national level competitions.
Penang STEM is the umbrella body set up in 2017 to coordinate the state’s STEM initiatives under its six STEM Centres - Penang Skills Development Centre, Penang Science Cluster, Tech Dome Penang, Accelerate, Connect & Transcend, Penang Math Platform (PMP) and Penang Digital Library.
Each centre is focused on producing and conducting workshops and programmes for their respective target groups.
The body has been working towards creating more awareness in STEM so that Malaysia will have a competent talent pool to tackle the needs of IR4.0 and the digital economy.
To establish a more formal working relationship with the state education department (JPN), the body established a Joint Task Force with the Timur Laut District Education Office (PPDTL) to try and establish the reasons behind the declining interests in STEM education.
The joint task force comprises PPDTL officers, science and mathematics teachers and members of Penang STEM.
Chung says that one of their projects is the StepUP Initiative, which was primarily aimed at sparking the interests of students at lower secondary level towards STEM-learning by providing more hands-on learning opportunities.
“The added benefit from the programme is the participation of industry which has long been lamenting about the declining number of STEM graduates or even school leavers with basic STEM knowledge, ” he adds.
“An effective way, we believe, would be to involve participation of industry by connecting schools to them so teachers and students will have a better understanding of the industry’s working environment and know their focus and expectations of fresh graduates, ” he says.
StepUP began with the joint task force approaching several MNCs and SMEs to visit their plants and gain insights on the current technological focus and working environment, job opportunities and career prospects in industry.
He says that based on this feedback, they devised workshops and programmes which could be conducted in schools to complement the formal education curriculum.
Some of their programmes were coding workshops and life sciences workshops.
Although their efforts have been focused on government schools, Chung stresses that the role of Penang STEM and their centres “are mainly to complement, and not compete with, the the Education Ministry’s efforts towards STEM education.”
They aim to ultimately lobby the Education Ministry to change the school science syllabus to attract more students to take up STEM based on the STEM extra-curriculum they came up with.
He is appealing to more companies to “step-up” and support the initiative so that all 128 secondary and 271 primary schools throughout Penang can benefit from the programme.