IN the era of globalisation, digitisation and fourth industrial revolution, the need for talents in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is becoming more pronounced to move the country forward.
However, the interest in mathematics and science in schools and, consecutively, universities seems to be waning as reflected in the poor enrolment into science stream at secondary schools, and the lack of good candidates for STEM-based programmes at universities.
National STEM Movement chairman Datuk Professor Dr Noraini Idris said this disinterest in science and mathematics stemmed from uninspired teaching of the subjects at schools, which had a continued impact at the higher-education level.
“When I was studying in the 1970s and 1980s, science and mathematics teachers at school were knowledgeable and well-versed in the subjects. In class, they had students enthralled with their stories on the subjects being taught, whether it be maths or science,” she said.
“In mathematics, we were thought to reflect and think, and had to give reasons for equations, like whether it is true that one plus one is two. And, if so, we had to give reasons why is it true. We had to prove it in class — both students and teacher.
“And, it didn’t matter if we get it wrong, as it is a learning process. During break time, at the canteen, students had the opportunity to play chess with the mathematics teacher. So, the rapport was very strong between teachers and students.”
For science, Noraini said teachers would have students carry out experiments in the science labs.
“But science is not just about chemical elements and confined to labs. Teachers would also teach science through agriculture or gardening, where students had fun and were encouraged to ask questions and think,” she said.
“Last time, we were not that clever but we built up interest in science and mathematics because our teachers were engaging.
“The textbooks used in class was not used to just copy exercises from. We read the textbooks and applied or link the knowledge to everyday life. That was what made me like science and mahematics till today,” said Noraini, who holds a string of qualifications in mathematics, including a PhD (Mathematics Education) from the Ohio State University, in Columbus, Ohio, the United States. She obtained the doctorate in 1998.
“Teachers were strong in the knowledge, as well as pedagogically. I think this is what differentiates today’s and yesterday’s classroom,” Noraini said.
“We have to strengthen our kids’ interest in STEM. When they enjoy learning STEM and partake in STEM-based activities, this will trigger curiosity and go towards exploring the use of STEM to provide innovative applications and solutions,” she said.
She said only allowing students who obtained As and Bs in science and mathematics into the science stream in upper secondary, which has been the common practice, might not be the way to go.
“When I was young, students were encouraged to take up science. 15 is too young to decide on streaming.
“What is best is for all to enter the science stream, fortified with subjects like social science and economy. That way we can get more talents in STEM,” said Noraini.
She said Malaysia could learn from Finland in training and grooming great teachers, as well as an ecosystem that supports insightful and fun learning that encourages interest in science and mathematics.
In a recent study visit to Finland, Noraini saw that to teach sicence, candidates must not only be strong in the subject, but also in pedagogy, with a clear grasp of in-depth technique of teaching science.
“They take five years to graduate to become teachers. This is inclusive of active research done in schools,” she said.
Apart from preparing competent and passionate teachers, the Finnish government facilitated the setting up of start-ups comprising graduates to create teaching modules and toolkits to be used in schools, like 3D printing kits.
There were also companies which created applications to be used in schools that animated and gamified elements of science to get children excited about STEM.
“The whole ecosystem is in place, from school to talents and start-ups, that come up with teaching aid. The framework is impressive,” said Noraini.
She said Finland parents were welcomed to school, whether they had a background in STEM or not. They get involved in teaching the kids, where parents share their careers in STEM.
“We at the National STEM Movement have been trying to involve the community and other stakeholders in the STEM Mentor-Mentee Programme to promote greater interest and capacity-building in science and mathematics among students,” she said.
Launched in 2016, the programme pools together lecturers, researchers, scientists, engineers and mathematicians from the academia, professional bodies and the industry to offer guidance in promoting better understanding of STEM and provide the expertise to nurture talents in the field, mainly among students from Forms One till Three.
It involves facilitators who are the teaching staff of universities, mentors comprising science students from tertiary institutions and mentees who are school students.
“Apart from universities becoming mentors to schools and teachers and students, parents as mentors, too, will be our push this year. It is already happening in SMK Batang Kali. Some parents who work in the medical line in hospitals and clinics have adopted Form Two and Form Three students to became mentees to doctors in the area. They are given lab coats and stethoscopes to follow the doctors when doing their rounds,” Noraini shared.
“We also encourage schools to form STEM learning centres. Some schools choose to develop agriculture centres as the core of this initiative. There are schools that have come up with fertilisers, and are selling them commercially. This is supported by the principals.
“For principals who are not keen on STEM, we hope the Education Ministry will allow teachers, school management, students and parents to collaborate.
“Schools should welcome such efforts. We shouldn’t be territorial and should be more flexible. The community volunteers can help out, if well planned. Students can see careers related to STEM with this initiative,” she said.
On other activities by the National STEM Movement this year, Noraini said the organisation would hold an Asia-Pacific Roundtable event in November involving universities, industry stakeholders, the ministry and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.
“The event will focus on issues and challenges concerning STEM education and best practices, higher-order thinking skills that seem to not be successful, and Asia-Pacific collaboration going forward.”
The movement is also active in training teachers to develop digital games.
“We will continue with the mentor-mentee programme, science carnivals and hold the Malaysia Technology Exhibition in February next year,” she said.
Noraini is also currently helping University of Malaya set up its STEM centre, which would see the development of science- and mathematics-based teaching modules, aimed at making learning the subjects more exciting and insightful.
The National STEM Movement was established by passionate academicians from institutions of higher learning who were concerned about the declining performance in science and mathematics among students in secondary schools and universities. Its mission is to nurture greater interest and understanding in science and mathematics among students from primary and secondary schools.
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