CONCERNED over students’ declining appetite for science, Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who is also Education Minister, has announced that a special committee comprising experts and academicians has been set up to assist the Education Ministry in drafting an action plan to increase the number of students in the science stream.
“The less than 20 per cent figure is nowhere near the ministry’s projected 60 per cent science and technical, and 40 per cent arts students,” he was quoted as saying during a visit to a school in Ampang last year.
A developing country such as Malaysia needs experts in the fields of engineering, science, medicine and other technological sectors. A drop of interest in science may stunt efforts to make the country a developed country.
On a bigger scale, the Global Science and Innovation Advisory Council, chaired by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, is a sounding board set up to improve and optimise the country’s capabilities in the field of science and innovation.
CREATE INTEREST FROM YOUNG
Students know science is hard to begin with and they need to work hard to do well. While science majors draw the most interest initially, not many students graduate with degrees in the subjects. Some drop out because they encounter an unexpected amount of the work and others may just not make the grade.
The Academy of Sciences Malaysia (ASM), the nation’s “think tank” for matters related to science, engineering, technology and innovation, wants to encourage more young people to take up science.
ASM Fellow Professor Datuk Dr Abdul Aziz Sheikh Abdul Kadir said: “Interest in science has to start from the early years, and our science education has been subject to too many changing policies, which have disrupted focus on the subject.”
There is a need to embark on a major project to popularise the subject.
“Holding more science fiestas and expos will be another way of generating more interest, and such events will add a lot more mileage to this quest,” said Dr Abdul Aziz.
ASM aims to instil a deep interest in science and technology through the National Science Challenge (NSC) held annually for Form Four students.
The NSC has its humble beginnings as a mere science quiz organised by a group of scientific organisations in 1983. For the past 30 years, the NSC, jointly organised by ASM and ExxonMobil, has positively impacted science education in Malaysia and improved interest in the subject among youths.
The lack of quality teachers is a probable cause of students’ declining interest in science.
During the recent ASM Fifth General Assembly on Matching Talent with Economic Transformation Programme, panellists from ExxonMobil, the Performance Management and Delivery Unit, US Embassy and TalentCorp Malaysia offered suggestions to arrest the decline of interest in science. The solutions included running programmes to produce highly qualified and competent science teachers. Teachers should also be encouraged to innovate existing teaching methods and incorporate the use of technology, for instance, through virtual demonstration, YouTube videos and online quizzes.
“We also need teachers who are well-prepared for the task and we need to give them the pay and recognition that they deserve,” added Dr Abdul Aziz.
“In Finland, teachers are professionals selected from the top 10 per cent of the nation’s graduates with a master’s degree in education. Teaching is the ‘most respected’ profession and primary school teaching the most sought-after career in Finland.
“We have to spend time to seriously bring skills back up to a competent level, so as to be on a par with other countries at least.”
Muhyiddin said the lack of support from parents contributed to the drop, among other factors. Parents’ involvement in their children’s interest and ability to learn science can result in great success for students.
SMK Batu Lintang, Kuching student Faye Jong-Sow Fei, 16, who received a First Award of US$3,000 (RM9,000) in the Enviromental Management Category for her project at the recent Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles, chalked her success up to support from her parents.
At science fairs, you apply principles and see the impact on the real world. Students gain hands-on experience of scientific methods.
For the last three years, Faye looked for natural colourants from bio-waste materials to substitute synthetic dyes and chemical mordants. She experimented on cotton fabrics until she got the right combination of five materials to produce a dark brown colour.
“My father, who is an engineer, was always ready to help with the home experiments and data-processing. My mother helped collect bio-waste,” says Faye.
Projects can and do fail, sometimes ending up with findings that don’t match initial hypotheses. Student-led projects are one way to incorporate open-ended inquiry into education.
Faye’s father Jong Chin Chyuan said: “Parents can inculcate values such as hard work, perseverance and responsibility in a child through modelling actions.”
Faye was also won the Top Winner of the Best of Category with prizes consisting of US$5,000 and US$1,000 for her school and the affiliated fair she represented. In addition to that, she walked away with an all-expenses-paid trip to attend the European Union Contest for Young Scientists in Warsaw, Poland this August.
Much of our science education centres on the “product” of science — established laws, facts and theories. The classroom experiments we perform are not really investigations but illustrations because the outcome is almost always a given.
“We must produce quality people to drive 2020 — people with knowledge to create technology and new products, and not mere consumers of technology,” said Dr Abdul Aziz.
“Funding is an area that needs to be improved on. The money spent is necessary to provide youths with the skills necessary to be globally competitive.
“The Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation needs to invest in teaching and research resources.
“Tun Dr Mahathir, when he was Prime Minister, said Malaysia was keen to prepare her scientists to be future Nobel laureates. The Swedes were so impressed that they invited our ASM Challenge winners to Sweden. Such visits overseas proved to be invaluable exposure for our students, and provided many moments to treasure.”
The Chief Minister generously donated winter clothing for those travelling to Sweden the year a school in Sarawak won the challenge.
He added: “One year, however, we missed the Nobel prize presentation because of a lack of funding, and that year’s students missed out on their moment of inspiration that could have had far-reaching impact.”
The ASM has a strong connection with the Nobel Foundation, among other similar international bodies.
“The academy will be a good partner, and is prepared to work hand in hand with corporate citizens.
“We believe there must be linkage between university and industry. Let us hold hands in this visionary venture together and work together.
“Funding and financial support from the government and private sector are important, as both stand to gain from a more skilled workforce.
Intel Malaysia has sponsored students to participate in ISEF since 1999, and the commitment proves fruitful each year. At the science fair this year, the Malaysian finalists hauled in the biggest win with three science projects bagging awards at a combined value of US$10,500, after 16 years of participation.
Intel Southeast Asia corporate affairs director Abdul Rahman Abu Haniffa said: “Young minds are key to a successful nation and with brilliant minds in presence, we are on the right path in creating a better future.”
ExxonMobil human resources director Lokman Baharuddin said his company relied heavily on technology and innovation in its business, and has been supportive in promotinginterest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, among young people.
“In order to progress in today’s high-tech, international workplace, a solid understanding of these subjects is essential.
“A business case can be made in view of shortage of talents. We need a steady supply of talent, amd there is an urgent need for the right talents by 2020,” said Lokman.
“Not only do we need to do something for primary schools to start the interest in science early, we also need to give more publicity and recognition for achievers in science, both local and foreign,” added Dr Abdul Aziz.
“The lack of interest could be due to the lack of high-profile role models like the ones we have for sports and the arts. We need to create awareness of and interest in success cases.”
THE Global Science Innovation Advisory Council(GSIAC), chaired by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, is a joint secretariat of Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology and the New York Academy of Sciences.
One of GSIAC initiatives for 13 to 15 year olds is the BITARA STEM UKM-Felda, a programme to increase the participation of students, science teachers, parents/families of students and graduate students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The camp, themed Science of Smart Communities, was recently launched by the prime minister at Maktab Rendah Sains Mara Felda Trolak.
The international council members consist of renowned industry captains from cutting-edge fields, prominent academicians as well as members from the New York Academy of Sciences. Officials from key ministries and comporate leaders in Malaysia are national council members.