How STEAM education can help Malaysians find good careers

STEM alone not enough to give students an edge in the working world

SCIENCE, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) education is key to a good career.

STEAM was credited with preparing learners for some of this year’s most in-demand JobStreet positions in information and technology (IT), software development, digital marketing, finance, business development, medicine and education.

ALSO READ: How the arts help Malaysians boost their careers

This is because STEAM is a broad discipline that helps nurture versatile individuals who are equipped with various skills and are ready to take on these in-demand jobs, said University of Nottingham Malaysia (UNM) Faculty of Science and Engineering associate dean and associate professor Dr Marina Ng Kher Hui.

While acknowledging that STEAM education only offers a broad base for graduates to get into these jobs, she said it provides students a taste of what these roles entail.

This, she added, would give students an idea of what to expect should they decide to further their careers in the field.

Careers in science are highly reliant on research, innovation and technology, which are part and parcel of what STEAM education encourages, she told StarEdu.

Communication, critical thinking, collaboration, problem-solving, innovation and creativity are all examples of soft skills that STEAM education and the arts foster in students, according to the US National Education Association.

“These skills also widen one’s perspectives of a problem and the many ways to approach it,” she said.

Ng: The arts element also offers an opportunity for more impactful research.Ng: The arts element also offers an opportunity for more impactful research.

The arts element also offers an opportunity for more impactful research from our future science and technology-related talent, she added.

“In teaching communication skills, it enables them to present research and data, and communicate with future peers more effectively,” she said of students who are exposed to STEAM.

STEAM, she said, creates an inclusive learning environment that encourages students to exercise both the left and right sides of their brains simultaneously, as they would need to do in a 21st century working environment.

This is supported by a study in the Journal of Research in Innovative Teaching and Learning, which reports that students developed perseverance and adaptability, and transferable skills as a result of learning STEAM, Ng noted.

“In most cases, science and arts are segregated, with the assumption that one has no correlation with the other.

“In truth, encouraging a multidisciplinary education experience through STEAM ensures students are well-rounded and not limited to one field,” she added.

Citing an example, she said a big part of engineering involves design and creative thinking, both of which fall under the arts.

“Engineering also requires effective communication to relevant stakeholders before an idea can lead to the creation and implementation stage,” she said, adding that engineers who are exposed to STEAM also go into the workplace equipped with the ability to visualise and sketch out ideas that will make the individuals more effective in the role.

Prof Lim: Making connections between science and artistic design principles are essential for ensuring a well-rounded workforce.Prof Lim: Making connections between science and artistic design principles are essential for ensuring a well-rounded workforce.

The arts, she believes, can inspire engineers to put forward unique and unconventional ideas.

The best innovators risk thinking beyond the rules, and this results in life-changing inventions such as the world’s first automobile and aeroplane.

“Engineering teaches theory, while arts is about the imagination and encouraging students to think beyond what’s possible,” she explained, while sharing how her collaboration with UNM Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences associate dean and professor Joanne Lim Bee was a good example of STEAM success.

“Together, we have jointly worked on numerous projects, including developing digital and mobile health apps for cancer patients and for children with mental health issues,” she said.

Prof Lim had conducted in-depth research to understand the behavioural patterns of the target community for intervention strategies while Ng had developed and designed the prototype.

The duo’s interdisciplinary research projects exemplify and affirm the need to merge the arts and sciences for outcomes that have a bigger impact on society.

Making connections between science and artistic design principles is essential for ensuring a well-rounded workforce that is able to fulfil the demands of a technology-driven society, said Prof Lim.

“Science-focused students who learn the arts and humanities become quality literate,” she said, adding that quality here is also defined as producing meaningful outcomes that are in line with the needs of society.

The arts also equip students with the skillset to study and understand societal behaviour, motivations, influences and their relationships with one another.

“It also helps science-focused students become more aware of the cultural differences and specific nuances of societies and communities that may be managed, structured and governed differently,” she added.

She said adaptability and teamwork are crucial skills needed to survive in the workforce and in life.

Prof Noraini: STEAM learning has helped students improve tremendously, not just their knowledge of the sciences, but also their personal growth.Prof Noraini: STEAM learning has helped students improve tremendously, not just their knowledge of the sciences, but also their personal growth.

“Do not underestimate the importance of body language, non-verbal communication skills, social skills, negotiation skills, conflict resolution skills as soft skills needed for success.

“Empathy and emotional awareness are the secret weapons for effective communication, while creative thinking is largely tied to resourcefulness when the circumstances require it.

“And the strongest soft skill one could acquire is good ethics. When being ethical is ingrained in individuals, we can take another important step towards becoming a society that creates and innovates for the good of humanity,” she added.

Knowing arts subjects, and developing soft skills such as empathy and ethics, said Prof Lim, also help scientists better understand their career choices.

“It enables them to reflect and immerse themselves more fully in the objectives and intentions of the many career trajectories in the sciences.”

STEAM education has also proven to be beneficial to young students, a study by Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris emeritus professor Aminah Ayob revealed.

Fouzi: Students would also know how to appreciate art and the beauty of cultural heritage and the environmentFouzi: Students would also know how to appreciate art and the beauty of cultural heritage and the environment

When STEM-STEAM modules were implemented in their lessons, Prof Aminah found a significant increase in the ability of children aged between three and four to inquire, explore, invent, reflect, communicate and cooperate.

National STEM Association president and founder Prof Datuk Dr Noraini Idris said she has seen the results of how STEAM learning has helped students improve tremendously, not just their knowledge of the sciences, but also their personal growth.

Students who partook in the association’s STEM Theatre, for example, she said, had gained the confidence to speak up, interact with others and even present their innovations to industry bigwigs.

“Learning STEAM allows students to interact creatively with others as they are free to use various artistic ways to learn science,” she said, adding that students prefer this method of learning.

National Union of Teaching Profession (NUTP) secretary-general Fouzi Singon said STEAM education aims to increase creativity and aesthetics in STEM learning and to produce scientists, engineers and technologists who are creative and innovative.

These students would also know how to appreciate the arts and the beauty of cultural heritage and the environment, he added.

Embedding STEAM into the existing curriculum, said Prof Lim, would require a revamp of the syllabus, the programme and the country’s education system.

“By offering programmes that allow for students to mix and match subjects from the arts and the sciences, students will be more open to embracing STEAM education, regardless of their intended career pathways,” she said.

What teachers think

STEAM aims to ensure that future students are viable on their own through innovative, creative and aesthetic work, and have humanistic values, but the STEAM module has not yet been formally introduced in teacher training or in-service training. The emphasis on STEM is given primary attention, which is in line with the education policy and school curriculum choices to increase competitiveness in the field of science and technology. The integration of arts in the sciences, however, is indirectly implemented through the Kefahaman Melalui Rekabentuk (Understanding through design) learning concept in the School Transformation 2025 programme (TS25). All teachers have been exposed to, and given skills on, how to use the Curriculum and Assessment Standard Document (DSKP). We were taught how to break down and link the curriculum in several subjects to create modules.

National Union of Teaching Profession (NUTP) secretary-general Fouzi Singon

It is important for science-focused students to also learn the arts and humanities as it helps them to be compassionate, to be able to feel for people and to put themselves in their shoes. This allows them to become more effective problem-solvers. Combining the aesthetics appeal to human senses with STEM maintains an innovation’s functionality. Hence, activities that encourage students to imagine, visualise and explore alternatives will help them to become artistic scientists and engineers capable of creative problem-solving.

Keningau Vocational College English Language teacher Mohd Sirhajwan Idek

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