SINCE Malaysia set a target ratio of 60:40 science-to-non-science students at the upper secondary school level in 1967, the government has been working together with educationists to increase awareness on the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
More than five decades on, and with an even more pressing need for STEM talents, we are still way off the target.
In 2010, the ratio of science to non-science students was 48:52 and in 2014, it was 47:53 with 29% of Form Five students enrolled in the pure science stream.
With the Form Three assessment (PT3) examinations cancelled last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, schools have had to consider various other factors when advising students on whether to pick the STEM or the Arts and Humanities package as they enter Form Four this year.
At briefing sessions held when schools reopened on Jan 20, a secondary school teacher in Subang Jaya said more students were inclined towards the Arts and Humanities package.
“The classes are full but more students are appealing to enter. The arts and accounts classes in my school have always been popular because the subjects are taught by experienced teachers.
“Our counselling unit is stepping in to encourage students to take up the STEM packages, ” said the teacher who only wanted to be known as Kumar.
Subject packages for the Form Four students in his school were selected according to the Education Ministy’s criteria which include taking into consideration results from the Form One to Three final examinations and classroom based assessments.
“It’s a good method as it takes into account the students’ track record.
“Another important aspect that’s taken into account is the psychometric test administered by the school’s counselling unit to see where students’ interests lie.”
Physics teacher Daniel Pang, however, said it was the reverse in his school, which is a private set up.
The majority of Sri KDU Secondary School Form Four students chose the STEM packages because of the fun teaching and learning method and the medium of instruction.
Unlike the Arts and Humanities classes where Bahasa Malaysia is used, STEM classes are in English, said Pang.
The way STEM subjects are taught in schools is the main reason why more students are opting for arts and humanities instead of the sciences, National STEM Movement chairperson Datuk Prof Dr Noraini Idris said.Teachers, she said, often leave out life examples in their explanations so students have difficulty relating to the concepts taught.
“Subjects like Mathematics are taught in such a dry manner, without the inclusion of logical thinking and innovation.
“Teachers complain about being bogged down with administrative work that eats into crucial teaching time but the ministry has taken measures to reduce their burden, so this shouldn’t be an excuse, ” she explained.Prof Noraini, who is also the National STEM Association president, Universiti Malaya STEM Centre advisor and the Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand Growth Triangle (IMT-GT) president, said it is crucial to highlight STEM role models in the media so that students are aware of the carer pathways open to them.
“The number of students taking up STEM in schools are dwindling and if we do not encourage them from young, it will be challenging for our country’s future development.”
According to data from her own research, a drastic decline in the number of students who have opted for the sciences in schools since 2015 is evident.
Therefore, using PT3 as a gauge to ascertain whether students are fit for the sciences or not, does not hold water, Prof Noraini argued.
She stressed that every student has the capability and capacity to acquire STEM skills – it’s just a matter of infusing fun into the learning process, encouraging them and providing them examples they can connect with.
Academy of Sciences Malaysia (ASM) president Prof Datuk Dr Asma Ismail questioned whether students are aware of the broad spectrum of careers available in the sciences. Are they getting accurate information from career counsellors and their parents, she asked.
“In Malaysia, when the sciences are mentioned, a parallel to medicine or engineering is made but the field is vast.
“There are areas like artificial intelligence, data science, blockchain development and precision technology.
“It is an interesting time to be involved in the sciences because the possibilities are endless, ” she said.Uncertainty over STEM-related careers and the way school assessment and reward systems are currently, said Young Scientists Network-ASM member Prof Dr Fatin Aliah Phang, are why the sciences remain unpopular.
While varsities have failed to produce sufficient high-skilled talents to meet industry demands, it is also true that STEM career prospects are limited, she said, when explaining why parents often caution their children about studying the sciences.“The Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry is reviewing current practices but this needs to involve teachers and counsellors as they are the ones guiding students at school level, ” she said, adding that school assessments built on memorisation skills and difficult Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) questions, create barriers for students even before they get a chance to go into the sciences.
“So it is no surprise that students are now opting for the arts and humanities package.”The Penang Science Cluster (PSC), an organisation that promotes interest in STEM, along with Penang Institute, a think tank, is looking into why more students are entering non-science classes.
PSC chief executive officer Ooi Peng Ee said the academic background of parents seems to be the most significant factor.
“Parents with tertiary STEM qualifications are a great influence on students doing science in Form Four. They either actively encourage their child to do so or they cultivate their child’s interest in science from a young age.
“On the other hand, a main factor that causes students to have a lower interest in science is their perception that the subjects are difficult, ” he said. – By SANDHYA MENON
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