Getting our education policy right

  • naturalLy
  • Saturday, 26 Jan 2019

From STEM to STREAM, it is the love for knowledge that we need to inculcate. 

I HAVE a confession to make. When I was very young, my head was filled with dreams of becoming a writer like the author of my favourite books in childhood, Enid Blyton.

I was not even aware of genetics then, the very field that I have built my adult life around. Science in my primary school days was known as Alam dan Manusia – a collection of various facts about geography and anatomy. I remember making a scrapbook on volcanoes for my Standard Six project and that’s about it.

Following my aunt’s cancer diagnosis when I was 12, I started reading about cancer from health pamphlets and magazines available at the hospital where she was treated.

I changed my ambition from writer to doctor then, and had no reservations to being enrolled in the science stream when I started boarding school for my secondary education. After all, smart kids do science – or so the policy dictates.

Additional Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and even Biology did not excite me; they were merely subjects that I needed to pass in high school to become a doctor specialising in oncology.

SPM and matriculation came around, and my results were not the straight As that had been expected. For a while, it looked like my dreams were crumbling down and I resorted to petitioning my parents to allow me to pursue my childhood dream of becoming a writer.

My petition failed and I found myself enrolled in a Bachelor of Science course. It was only in my second year that I fell in love with the field of genetics, and this was due to several factors.

Firstly, the genetics course was taught in English and the resources available in the Universiti Malaya library were plentiful. And most of the books were in English.

Secondly, my lecturers in genetics were cool. I must note Professors Sam Choon Kok, Koh Chong Lek, Rofina Yasmin Othman and Zulqarnain Mohamed as the persons responsible for my love affair with genetics.

Thirdly, the early days of the Internet then meant more resources were available for a book-loving nerd like me and I took advantage of it.

Animation of gene replication, protein modelling and even stories about the scandal of solving the double-helix structure of the DNA were information not divulged in textbooks although they were on the Internet.

For the record, a woman scientist named Dr Rosalind Franklin did all the X-ray crystallography work that led to the evidence of a double-helix DNA as proposed by James Watson and Francis Crick.

Dr Franklin missed out on the Nobel Prize as she died from ovarian cancer before the award was decided (Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously).

Finally, genetics led me to think at the macro level of how interconnected science is. One needs all the components of science – Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, Engineering and, yes, Biology – to understand genetics.

As the Internet boomed, the field of digital technology added value to learning and teaching science.

We are now on the cusp of the fourth industrial revolution, and yet Malaysia not only has yet to achieve the policy goal of 60% enrolment of students in the science stream, but our local achievements, innovation, and investment in research and development are still very low compared to other OECD countries.

Recently, Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik announced that the new education policy would go beyond STEM, with reading and arts being added – STREAM.

Dr Maszlee talked of creating a society that loves reading, has high values, and a learning environment that is both conducive and happy.Through STREAM and improved English proficiency, he envisions a future for Malaysia that is value-based, highly ethical and progressive.

While these visions are theoretically good, the implementation may prove challenging. Inculcating a love for a subject, more so a love for STEM, requires ardent exposure.

How many TV programmes or social media channels do we have currently that promote science? Are our primary and secondary school teachers adapting technology to inculcate interest and a love for science?

Is English proficiency a barrier to many Malaysians, preventing them from falling in love with science? Do we have enough scientists residing and working locally to motivate young children to say that when they grow up, they want to be a scientist?

From personal experience, I think our aim should be to inculcate a love for knowledge itself. STEM may not be every body’s cup of tea, but the critical, analytical and questioning nature of the field of science is what we need in a progressive nation.

It is this love for questioning that we must encourage among our young. We must not enforce hard, quantitative policies but instead nurture and encourage a general love for knowledge and learning if we are serious about a value-driven and progressive society.

No matter the acronym, a love for knowledge would indeed spell greatness for Malaysia.

  • Lyana Khairuddin is a virologist turned policy nerd living in Kuala Lumpur. The views expressed here are entirely her own.
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