October 28, 2014

Taking Education Outside The School


The emphasis on Science, Technology, English and Mathematics (STEM) is a relatively new concept in Asia. Originally brought about by the Americans, it was designed to uproot and change the education system alongside the everevolving technological realm we live in.

It was reported by the Council of Foreign Relations in the US that 60% of US employers are having difficulties finding qualified workers to fill vacancies at their companies [3]. Meanwhile, Change the Equation estimates that STEM employment will grow 17% between 2008 and 2018, much quicker than the 10% growth projected for overall employment. Having said this, it is a growing concern for employers not only in the US but all around the world to ensure that the current and future workforce will be able to adhere to the changing needs of the industry.

For a world that is so reliant on technology and its fruits, our education system seems to be oblivious to the understandings and mechanisms of technology and innovation in itself. Countries like China (Shanghai in particular) and South Korea have pioneered such movements and have incorporated such skills into their curricula, albeit through different programmes. These initiatives have clearly produced results as seen through PISA and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) scores of these countries, not mentioning the boom in their technological industry and never-ending streak of innovative creations.

Figure 1: Student performance in Mathematics (mean score)

If we really want our students to focus on STEM, we require the manpower with adequate skills to inspire and nurture children who are used to the current exam-orientated education system. At school level, Malaysia is currently facing a shortage of teachers in these subject areas. Worse, we still have teachers teaching these subjects without even majoring in them [4]. How then do we expect the enforcement of these subjects in schools without a prior revamp to the education system and the selection of teachers?

Furthermore, hypothetical and almost ideal models taught in classrooms often do not offer children the opportunity to discover conditions in the real world and how to adapt to them. Children are unable to inquire and discover the wonders of science and technology through trial and error when they are constantly being assessed and put through a system that prioritises grades before creativity and innovation.

At the opening of the Karpal Singh Penang Learning Centre, Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng said that the Penang state government intended to enhance the education system by providing annual funding to all existing half-funded vernacular and religious schools, building learning centres with the concept of STEM as their main focus, and attracting world class universities as well as adopting the German vocational school system within MNCs.

The Karpal Singh Penang Learning Centre is the first of Penang’s learning centres aimed at teaching STEM, built as a public-private partnership between the state government, which allocated the land, and ECM Libra, which provided the funding. It is run by the Penang Youth Development Corporation (PYDC), one of the three departments set up to pioneer the STEM movement in Penang. The other two departments include the Penang Science Cluster (that runs the Penang Science Cafe) and the Penang Tech-dome.

Ooi Peng Ee, CEO of the Penang Science Cluster, informs me about the various workshops and programmes that they organise: “TechMentor is a programme where engineers from the industry, undergraduates and parents of students are recruited and trained to be mentors to schools”. National Instruments, B. Braun and Keysight are among the names that have participated in the programme.

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