Don’t kill interest in the sciences


  • Education
  • Sunday, 23 Aug 2020

Rekindling curiosity: Allowing children, who are naturally curious about things, to explore, discover and learn new scientific knowledge in their own initiative can spark their interest in STEM. — Filepic

ONLY 19% or 85,500 students out of an average of 450,000 students who completed the Form Three Assessment (PT3) will take up science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects when they enter the higher secondary school level each year, according to National STEM Movement chairperson Datuk Prof Dr Noraini Idris.

Prof Noraini, who is also National STEM Association president, Universiti Malaya (UM) STEM Centre advisor, as well as the Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand Growth Triangle (IMT-GT) president, said the percentage of PT3 finishers opting for pure science has not surpassed 21% annually since 2015 – the year which saw the most drastic drop of students enrolling into the science stream.

“In fact, some secondary schools do not even have pure Science classes. Schools which previously had four or five science stream classes are now left with only one or two.

Also, not all of the 19% of students enrolled into the Science stream are good candidates, or end up in STEM-related jobs.

“This is why some Teacher Training Institutes (IPGs) and universities have to shut down their science and mathematics training programmes, ” she said.

The country’s economy will suffer in the long run, should the decline of students taking up STEM continue in an upward trajectory because there is an imbalance of supply and demand of skilled STEM talents in the country, she said, adding that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report on Malaysia’s job market has demonstrated that the supply for skilled STEM workers fell short of industry standards and demands.

“Companies even had to close some of their STEM-related departments because Malaysia could not supply workers that could do the job.”

Noting that in schools, a gaping disparity exists between theory and practice, Prof Noraini said the school syllabus is overly fixated on the theory aspect of STEM due to the deeply ingrained exam-oriented culture here.

“This is the problem with our education system. The majority of teachers only emphasise on theory and concept, not practicals. Hence, students are just memorising the information and not really learning. This quashes their curiosity and natural tendency to question things.

“Science is about being curious and quenching a thirst for knowledge by exploring through experiments and practicals – these are not done enough in schools, ” she said, adding that the lack of practical knowledge hinders the development of students’ problem- solving skills and critical thinking.

Students, she said, lack awareness and can’t see the link between Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Additional Mathematics, which lead them to believe that what they’ve learnt in school will not be applied to their future careers.

A school management that is not confident in the ability of its teachers and students in STEM areas is also a contributory factor to the decline in STEM interest nationwide.

“Some schools are not cooperative when their teachers want to be more creative in teaching Science and Mathematics. This is especially so where the school heads and management do not come from a STEM background.”

Parents, said Prof Noraini, also play a large role in steering children away from taking the STEM pathway.

“Many parents do not come from a STEM background and are stuck in the Third Industrial Revolution. While they did study Mathematics and Science, many of them did not venture into the field.

“Parents want children to score in their exams, which may be harder to do with STEM subjects.”

Pointing out that the industry here is not ready for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (IR4.0), Prof Noraini said parents deter children from entering the STEM field out of concern for their future careers and earning potential.

“Some of our students are sent to advanced nations like Japan to learn and study the advanced machinery used, but they can’t get a job when they return because such technology is not widely used in local industries.

“When parents see this, they are scared to allow their children to venture into STEM, ” explained Prof Noraini.

Stressing that STEM is not just doing research, she said the country is in dire need of more STEM talents because these subjects are present in every aspect of our lives.

“It is applied in agriculture, medicine, manufacturing, production and even politics. We need policymakers who have a solid background in STEM so that they know how to plan for the economy and create policies, ” she said.

Noting that STEM was a “turn- off” to most students because they want easy As in exams, Universiti Malaya (UM) STEM Centre head Dr Mas Sahidayana Mohktar called on the government to accelerate the plan to increase the starting salaries of the STEM graduates under the National Science, Technology and Innovation Policy.

Citing JobStreet’s 2019 report, Dr Mas Sahidayana shared how junior finance executives in banking and financial services (central region) have a minimum average salary of RM2,687, while junior engineers who work in the same sector have a lower minimum average salary of RM2,298 even though engineering students spend a minimum of four years to obtain their degrees, while finance students need only three years.

The salary range for senior managers in the central region who are from an accounting background working in a government sector is between RM14,021 and RM20,938, while a senior manager with an ICT background working in the same sector only gets a salary between RM8,133 and RM14,000.

She doesn’t blame parents for not encouraging their children to take up STEM.

“Parents, especially those from the B40 group, are more focused on income generation to sustain their day-to-day living and to ensure that their children’s basic necessities are provided. This results in them having less interest in STEM education.

“Educators and learning institutions should step up to better promote STEM. Educators should be able to explain how STEM subjects integrate into daily life and careers, as well as the importance of STEM knowledge.”

The lack of STEM graduates in the country will stunt the nation’s growth and development, she said, adding that there will be heavier economy outflow due to high dependence on foreign workers.

“Based on the OECD Skills for Job Malaysia 2019 report, Malaysia is facing a shortage of 34% of high-skilled workers at the moment. If STEM talents keep decreasing, we will not be able to compete in the global market.

“We will not have enough STEM minds to solve challenges and will have to depend on foreign professional workers.”

The public and private sectors can help address the decline in students taking STEM by establishing more STEM public-private partnerships with national and multinational firms, businesses, universities and research centres.

“These partnerships can facilitate the emerging role of STEM educators in promoting STEM learning and allow STEM students access to the latest research and innovation at the universities. Arrangements can be made for students to do internships and apprenticeships in the industries and gain first-hand experience in specific professions, ” said Dr Mas Sahidayana.

Malaysian Science Academy chief executive officer Hazami Habib had previously warned that parents were giving out the wrong signals about science and mathematics, which end up killing their children’s interest in these subjects.

“This is one of the reasons why each year, the national education system loses about 6,000 students with potential in STEM areas, ” she told Bernama.

She added that parents were taking the safer route to ensure that their children excelled in the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) but in the end, their children would suffer when they failed to realise their full potential.

Hazami proposed that science subjects be taught at the preschool level and parents be informed of the importance of these subjects.

In May, Education Minister Dr Mohd Radzi Md Jidin said the government was working to address the decline of interest in STEM subjects among students.

He said during a live television interview that interest in STEM has to be inculcated at an early age, starting from Year One or earlier, or students’ choices will be affected when they choose their majors.

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