STEM-ming the decline


Ignite interest in science, math by sparking curiosity, experts suggest

Almost all future jobs are related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) yet interest in these fields continues to wane.

Fewer and fewer students, particularly in the past five years, are choosing STEM subjects in schools, said National STEM Association president and founder Prof Datuk Dr Noraini Idris.

Citing the World Economic Forum’s “Future of Jobs Report 2020”, the Academy of Sciences Malaysia (ASM) highlighted that nine out of the top 10 emerging jobs in 2025 are STEM-related.

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“It’s worrying. There is a lot to be done to heighten students’ interest in STEM. Only 18% of Form Three students chose STEM subjects in 2021.

“There are not enough STEM graduates for industry and this is a serious matter that needs to be addressed by the government,” Prof Noraini told StarEdu.

Prof NorainiProf Noraini

On May 16, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim said he had tasked the Education Ministry with setting up a task force to propose ways to stimulate children’s interest in science and technology-related subjects.

He said the subjects are becoming more important with the global focus on green technology, especially in the automotive field.

He added that a recent study had found that the interest of children, especially in rural areas as well as the urban poor, in such subjects had deteriorated.

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Speaking at the launch of the 2023 National Teachers Day celebration in Melaka, Anwar, who is also the country’s former education minister, described the trend as a challenge for the country as Malaysia moves towards green technology and electric vehicles.

Prof Noraini said the challenge is in implementing recommendations of the task force.

“We’ve had focus groups, policies and blueprints, and such before but it is always a problem when it comes to the implementation process.”

Asserting that a task force is unnecessary as every state education department already has an officer in charge of STEM, she said the government should instead focus on giving clearer directions for these officers to improve on the implementation of STEM education.

Change of approach

One of the primary causes of the lack of interest in STEM is the rigidity of the school curriculum and the inflexible governance of STEM education, according to ASM based on the stakeholder engagements it conducted.

“A shift from rote learning to one that is learner-driven and interactive can spark curiosity and discovery, which is what’s needed,” the academy said in an email reply.

Proposing that inquiry-based science education (IBSE) in STEM be adopted, ASM said an investigative approach to teaching and learning encourages students to identify a problem and search for possible solutions.

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“Through this method, the students learn to carry out hands-on experiments, make observations, ask questions, test ideas, think creatively and use their intuition,” it said.

ASM conducted a pilot study by implementing IBSE in four schools for two years in 2012 and 2013, and it found the method to be successful in enhancing students’ critical thinking skills as well as competency in STEM.

Agreeing, Penang Science Cluster (PSC) chief executive officer Datuk Ooi Peng Ee said the curriculum should be enhanced to include more hands-on experimentation and project-based learning that connects the various STEM subjects.

The current STEM curriculum for Forms Four and Five students is too broad, he said.

OoiOoi

“Each subject is taught in isolation from each other; there is no link between what is taught in one subject and what is taught in another.

“Another problem lies in the mode of learning; memorisation is mainly how students are taught to learn STEM subjects.

“But memorisation without understanding the concepts will prove problematic when they continue their tertiary education or when they join industry,” Ooi said, adding that the use of English to teach STEM subjects at the secondary and tertiary levels is equally important as it is the language used by academics and industry.

The ministry, he suggested, should also simplify the Forms Four and Five science curriculum to help students understand the subject better.

“For primary and lower secondary levels especially, the best approach is hands-on learning to spark interest in STEM.

“Schools need to be properly equipped with hardware that allows students to participate in more practical activities for learning,” he said.

Experiments, added Prof Noraini, form the bedrock of many careers in science.

“A laboratory is important to ensure that STEM education is engaging. It is worrying that many science laboratories nationwide are no longer functional.

“The government must set aside a budget for the repair of laboratories and to upgrade the equipment in line with advancements in industry,” she said.

The lack of Internet access in schools, particularly in states like Kedah, Kelantan, Sabah and Sarawak is another challenge that needs to be tackled, she added.

Recounting her experiences while visiting these schools, Prof Noraini said some schools even had to print and send the materials to the students’ houses.

STEM exposure

Besides having the hardware and software in place, and a revamp of the curricula, teachers need to be properly trained. According to the 2017 ASM STEM teacher perception survey in 2017, only 53% of teachers had attended STEM-related training.

“Teachers need upskilling and training to keep up with the current technology and the career choices available for their students,” said Prof Noraini.

Schools have to work with industry if university and secondary students are to be exposed to industry demands and the career choices open to them. Proposing that a network of public and private scholarship providers and ministries be set up, ASM said this would give students access to information on the rapidly changing job opportunities in STEM and aid the distribution of financial aid based on the country’s changing needs.

Industry players, added the academy, should also participate in engaging students in emerging job opportunities and real-world applications.

“Informal STEM education is vital to provide for experiential learning by bringing together the theoretical and application parts.

CLICK TO ENLARGECLICK TO ENLARGE

“This can be done with greater collaboration between formal and informal education bodies like ministries related to talent development and organisations that champion informal STEM education,” ASM said, adding that this is important for the development of curiosity needed in critical thinking, as well as analytical and problem-solving skills so that students can come up with integrated and balanced solutions.

“Students should also be allowed to move into STEM at any time during their formal education years.”

Citing such permeability afforded by Universiti Malaysia Terengganu (UMT) STEM Foundation Centre (PASTEM), which was set up in 2018, ASM said it allows science and non-science stream students to enrol in the varsity’s foundation programmes and continue STEM-related degree courses there.

More universities worldwide, it said, are recognising the value of this approach and actively considering its implementation.

“This can increase interest among students in pursuing STEM and attract more talent,” ASM concluded.

‘Make it fun’

Going into Form Four, I found Science and Math subjects challenging. Now, I find STEM subjects interesting. Some highlights of my STEM education include stressful but interesting chemistry experiments and solving challenging math questions.

STEM subjects pique my interest when I can relate them in real-life situations, or solve questions through in-depth discussions and out-of-the-box solutions.

Basic facilities like clean science labs with complete equipment are imperative to learning STEM subjects.

Modernised science labs would be more effective in arousing curiosity among students. These models can also be used in demonstrations to attract students’ attention but Malaysia needs to provide more opportunities in the field of STEM, both to retain talent and boost our country’s development.

Ong Li Zhen, 19, student

Revise the curriculum to reduce the factual and wordy content, especially for younger students and train teachers to design lessons to be more fun and interesting. Teaching strategies like project-based, problem-based and inquiry-based learning have been successful to engage students in STEM subjects.

Project-based learning encourages students to learn and apply their knowledge through projects.

They work for an extended period to research and create a solution to a problem. Examples of project-based learning could be designing an application.

On the other hand, problem-based learning encourages students to evaluate a problem and it requires a high level of thinking as there is usually no one clear answer to the problem. An example of problem-based learning is getting students to create plans to solve a societal need.

Inquiry-based learning is student-led, encouraging them to ask many questions surrounding the subject matter. Skills including critical thinking, questioning and problem-solving are developed from inquiry-based learning.

Currently, STEM subjects are difficult and exam-oriented assessments have killed the students’ interest in STEM.

Written exams should be replaced with project-based assessments. Science exhibitions and technology competitions in schools can also encourage students to harness their understanding and talents to innovate and develop new technologies.

The Education Ministry can initiate science-based research as early as primary and secondary education.

Upgrading of facilities and integration of new technology in science classrooms such as science laboratories, interactive smartboards and virtual reality devices are also important to engage students in STEM. A collective effort is to engage students in STEM, leading to a STEM-fluent generation in future.

Tan Wai Ying, Biology lecturer, Kolej Matrikulasi Melaka

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