When gender matters not

Hands-on: Experts say that a more hands-on and inquiry based approach towards STEM education will increase overall interest towards the subjects. - File photo

THE Asian culture is often equated with being an exam-oriented one that places pressure on achieving good grades.

This high achievement culture, according to a study, does not bode well for students, especially in building their interest in certain subjects, such as Mathematics.

According to the ‘Gender Differences in the Interest in Mathematics Schoolwork Across 50 Countries’ study, Malaysian female students were far more engaged in the subject of Mathematics than their male counterparts.

The comprehensive study was based on the 2011 and 2015 waves of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) data of more than 500,000 eighth grade students in 50 countries.

While the study’s author, Sweden’s Mälardalen University professor of mathematics and Stockholm University researcher Prof Kimmo Eriksson, believes this could be because of female students’ higher conformity to peer influence and the lower standards in Malaysia, Malaysians involved in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) think otherwise.

Secondary School Standard-based Curriculum (KSSM) Science textbook author Tho Lai Hoong said a factor that affects a student’s ability to do well in not only Mathematics but all STEM subjects depends on their collaboration and teamwork skills.

Girls are generally more skillful when working as a team, he said, as they are more inclined to collaborate and share their thoughts and ideas.

Concurring with him is Universiti Malaya STEM Centre head Dr Mas Sahidayana Mohktar, who said research shows girls are better planners when it comes to studying as they understand how to allocate sufficient time to do their revision.

It is vital for educators to create an environment where students are comfortable to learn Mathematics and other STEM subjects, to use interactive and attractive teaching methods and to show its practical application in their daily life, she pointed out.

Why Malaysian girls fare better than their male counterparts and what can be done to increase student interest in STEM

Academy of Sciences Malaysia Senior Fellow Prof Datuk Dr Halimaton Hamdan said over the years, Malaysia has achieved gender parity in STEM as 57% of our science degree holders nationally are women. “The country’s effort in improving outcomes involve putting specific policy measures on STEM education such as teacher capacity-building, motivating girls to select STEM, development of contextualised gender-sensitive guidelines on curricula, legislation promoting gender equality and specific measures for the advancement of women.

“We ranked 35th of 129 countries in the Global Innovation Index 2019 and 22nd of 63 countries in the World Competitiveness Index 2019.

“These rankings indicate that a country’s competitiveness is truly driven by good talent with knowledge of STEM, ” she said.

The overall findings of the study, she said, is encouraging as women constitute about half of the total population of Malaysia.

Prof Halimaton, who is also a professor of chemistry at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, said girls are more adaptable to changes, challenges and are less distracted by external environments.

This, she said, could be some of the reasons why they show more interest in Mathematics compared to boys.She, however, stressed that gender does not determine one’s success and capability in studying science.

Science educational resources in schools do not contain gender-biased visuals, she said, adding that such a presentation is an essential first step towards showing children that both men and women can do science, which will contribute to more gender-balanced science and technology fields.

“Science education has gone through many changes and challenges.

“Serious efforts were taken to implement inquiry based teaching and learning of STEM in schools (to increase interest) but due to the unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic, the activities were put on hold.

“Consequently, students shy away from learning STEM because they find it difficult to comprehend through online learning, ” she said, adding that there is a shortage of content development expertise for online learning.

Malaysia’s female participation in STEM education, Teach for Malaysia (TFM) chief executive officer Chan Soon Seng said, has been exemplary.

He believes that it is, however, hard to conclusively pin down reasons as to why female students show a higher level of interest in Mathematics than male students.

TFM is collaborating with Yayasan Petronas and the Education Ministry on a project called “Program Duta Guru” which is aimed at upskilling 4,500 teachers as role models to enhance higher order thinking skills through STEM education.

“In Malaysia, girls generally outperform boys in academics, not just in Mathematics.

“So, there would naturally be higher interest in academics overall and as a result, they stand a higher chance at enrolling into the science stream, and eventually, into STEM courses in university, ” he explained.

Malaysia should continue its policies to encourage female participation in STEM, especially in areas with lower female involvement, such as tech and engineering, the former teacher said.

From an education perspective, Chan said the country’s education system must ensure that fun, hands-on and inquiry-based methods to learn STEM are implemented.

“This starts with equipping Mathematics teachers with the skills to facilitate such learning in the classroom.

“Pusat STEM Negara has taken the initiative to run inquiry-based Mathematics workshops for the subject teachers to support them in using a method that would allow students to understand mathematical concepts and apply them in daily life.

“It is important for students to see the relevance of Mathematics in solving real world problems, and to be able to see how mathematical reasoning and skills are valuable in their future careers.”

Ooi Peng Ee, chief executive officer of the Penang Science Cluster (PSC) – an organisation that promotes interest in STEM – said the TIMSS may not be the best indicator of Malaysian students’ interest in Mathematics as the average overall scale scores in all subjects have decreased.

However, commenting on the study, he said girls tend to be more diligent in their studies.

There could be cultural factors at play too, he said, where girls are generally more restricted in their exposure to matters other than their studies.

“Interest in Mathematics and STEM among students could be increased if teachers connect the topics they are teaching to real-life applications.

“This could include how linear equations are used in everyday problems, revising the curriculum to emphasise more of formulating the solutions rather than solving a given formula and teaching STEM in English.

“It is hard enough to learn and apply STEM without the additional burden of terminology translation when in university and subsequently when joining the industry, ” he said.

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