Tenom lad a step closer to US$100k

Maker and mentor: Chong is one of the top 50 finalists of the prestigious award.

AS science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) continues to drive advancements around the globe, Kenneth Chong Yih Haur has every intention to keep up with the times. And he is not doing it all for himself.

One of only two Malaysians being named among the top 50 finalists of the prestigious Global Student Prize 2023 – which recognises exceptional students who have made a real impact on learning, the lives of their peers and society beyond – the 22-year-old youth from Tenom, Sabah, has been serving as a STEM mentor to his peers and juniors at the Tenom Innovation Centre (TIC), a makerspace, ever since his secondary school days.

Besides leading teams to compete at national challenges, the Bachelor of Chemical Engineering (Hons) undergraduate at Universiti Teknologi PETRONAS (UTP) has helped students to improve their examination grades in the Mathematics and Science subjects, inspiring them to go beyond their rural communities and further their studies in STEM courses at tertiary institutions.Having been named one of the top 50 finalists of the annual award – the winner of which will be presented with a US$100,000 (RM453,000) prize money – Chong said he was honoured to be recognised along with another Malaysian finalist, Keningau Vocational College, Sabah, student Nurul Nazieha Jasnie.They were both selected from over 7,000 nominations and applications from 150 countries.

If he was named the winner of the Global Student Prize, Chong said he would donate a portion of the prize money to support the TIC, as well as UTP Petrobots – the varsity’s robotics club of which he was president last year – enabling them to continue their STEM development work.

“The remainder of the funds will be used to launch my entrepreneurial venture, where I will sell robot kits designed for advanced-level enthusiasts, particularly targeting undergraduates,” he told StarEdu.

For Chong, serving as a mentor to his peers and juniors is his way of paying it forward as he had benefited from being under the tutelage of his Science and Chemistry teacher Anuthra Sirisena while he was a student at SMJK Chung Hwa Tenom.

“She infused joy and excitement into every topic, making Science and Chemistry come alive with practical experiments, interactive demonstrations, and engaging discussions.

“Her unique approach to education made a significant impact on my interest in science. She was one of the reasons why I’m pursuing a chemical engineering course,” he said of Anuthra, who won the first-ever Malaysia Teacher Prize last year.

Driven by his desire to make a positive impact on his community, Chong, who is pursuing his tertiary studies under the PETRONAS Education Sponsorship Programme (PESP), goes beyond being a mentor to students.

With a string of innovative inventions under his belt, he takes pride in being a maker.

Among his achievements include developing a sonar system to detect pests in rural paddy fields, creating an app to reduce the unintentional loss of harvests during transportation to tackle food insecurity, and developing a radio-frequency identification (RFID) system for inventory management in furniture stores to overcome stock checking issues.

He has also created an all-in-one app called “U-Biz” for his university, allowing students to order food delivery, shop online, and sell second-hand items.

In addition, he has come up with a multimodal system project named “Early Depression Diagnosis System (EDDS)”, which utilises machine learning and deep learning algorithms to detect early depressive symptoms.

Last year, Chong was part of a UTP team representing Malaysia, and eventually Asia, that clinched the “Rapid Award” at the ChemE Cube Competition.

Held in Phoenix, Arizona, in the United States, the competition challenged students from top universities around the world to design and build a one-cubic foot-sized water filtration system which addressed water treatment challenges faced by third-world countries.

“This competition proved to me that my engineering skills and ability to innovate can help me make an impact in the STEM field at the international level,” the aspiring process engineer said, adding that he actively seeks help from professors, collaborates with friends, and fully utilises online resources, to foster resilience and improve his problem-solving skills.

A firm believer that STEM education cultivates analytical thinking, problem-solving and creativity in the younger generation, Chong said schools could develop a dynamic and relevant STEM curriculum which aligns with real-world challenges and applications.

This, he added, should include introducing projects and activities to showcase the practicality and impact of STEM on daily life.

STEM, he said, can also be integrated into various subjects in school.

“STEM provides skills that are essential not only for STEM-related careers, but also for overall personal and professional development,” he concluded.Last year, Sabahan Alesyah Asa from Keningau Vocational College made it into the top 10 of the award presented by the Varkey Foundation and Chegg.org.

The winner of the Global Student Prize 2023 is expected to be announced soon.

Li Lian, 18, a student in Kuala Lumpur, is a participant of the BRATs Young Journalist Programme run by The Star’s Newspaper-in-Education (Star-NiE) team. To join Star-NiE’s online youth community, go to facebook.com/niebrats.

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