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A Revolution in Science Education is Upon Us

Modern technological innovations are happening at an incredibly increased pace, while Malaysia’s education system declines. This dissonance carries very serious implications for the future of the country. In response to this sorry situation, various passionate parties in Penang are determined to draw young people from all classes and backgrounds into the wonders of applied science.


Connecting the Dots

The Geodesic Dome at Komtar was one of the more iconic structures of its time. At the time of its construction it was considered an engineering marvel, reputedly the strongest manmade structure without internal beams. The dome was Komtar’s multipurpose hall for hosting forums, concerts and the occasional IT fair.

Over the years, however, as with many things involving Komtar, people forgot about it. Until now. Today, the dome has been replaced with polished modern furnishings and towering structures and row after row of intriguing machines and gadgets.

I walk through an IT exhibit sponsored by Intel called the Sand to Silicon Story, which teaches kids about the process that turns sand into the microprocessors we are so dependent on today. There is also a small glass room housing an actual working server, sponsored by Dell, to show kids what a real server room looks like.

Further along, we pass little toys and experiments kids can use to experience light and optical illusions. There is a large photograph on the floor that, if you stand at just the right spot, shows you standing atop a skyscraper. A small gallery of different types of lightbulbs, from CFL to tungsten, informs us how much energy each lightbulb needs to produce a certain level of brightness.

Upstairs, in the life sciences section, a camera produces a skeletal version of you on a screen that mimics your every move. Put your hand on a plasma tube and blue bolts of electricity will attempt to latch onto your hand. A mindball table is also available, where two players can attempt to control a ball by using the power of their minds. (Pro tip: relax.)

Back on the ground floor, a towering structure looms up. The highlight of the space? A vertical slide dubbed the G-Drop, where you’d be pulled up to the top before being dropped down the steep wooden slide, giving you an enhanced experience of Newton’s law of universal gravitation at work.

These are some of the ways through which Dr Khong Yoon Loong hopes the brand new Tech Dome Penang will excite and enthrall kids about the wonders of science. They get to understand how the world around them works without being lectured to. Instead, they get to see, feel and touch natural phenomena stripped down and close up.

“Science is about the experience," says Khong, who is CEO of the Tech Dome. “The kids may not be able to connect the scientific principle that they have observed to the phenomenon, but they know that if you do this, then that happens. And at some point in time, they should be able to connect the dots. That’s what scientists always do – they are always connecting dots.”

A collaboration between the Penang state government and the private sector, the RM27.5mil Tech Dome is one of several high-profile projects aimed at cultivating interest in the sciences among schoolchildren, amid concerns over the country’s declining performance in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects. It is part of a joint initiative between the state government and the manufacturing industry to bring the sciences to public schools and give the future workforce a head start.

In recent years Penang has made a serious push towards filling the gap in science education among primary and secondary school students. Penang’s best resource has always been its talent pool – a talent pool
that, according to many experts, is being failed by the current national education system. “Essentially, our education system today is almost the same system from 50 years ago, which was designed to create jobs and workers for a very different type of economy,” says Penang Institute executive director Zairil Khir Johari. “The system is focused on rote learning, and this was fine when we were a developing economy. But today, we’re trying to make the leap into high-income nationhood, which basically means we need high-income jobs.”

Over the last several years Malaysia’s performance in international assessments like the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has declined. A survey by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ranked Malaysia at 52nd out of 76 countries in mathematics and science proficiency among 15-year-olds,
putting the country behind neighbours like Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. The New Straits Times reported in June this year that the number of STEM students has been declining.

Dr Khong Yoon Loong.

The situation has become so serious that the federal government launched the Education Blueprint 2013-2025 to address this decline. But rather than wait, others have decided to take the initiative and fill the gap, leveraging on the state’s existing talents and their skillsets and experiences.

Experiencing the Sciences

A trained physicist, Khong returned to Malaysia after a stint overseas in the UK and New Zealand. He quickly grew disillusioned with the local academic scene. “The environment didn’t encourage research and critical thinking,” he says. “If you want to do good research, you must have space and openness and transparency.”

He soon left for the private sector, working at companies like Shin-Etsu, Fuji Electric, Intel and First Solar, but he kept going back to the education sector. He was dean of Wawasan Open University’s School of Science and Technology for a while, and was vice-chancellor of KDU University College.

Technology and education remain two of his biggest passions. At the Tech Dome, he gets the chance to do both. Knowing that Khong has a background in both operational and administrative fields as well as technical and research-based ones, Datuk Wong Siew Hai, chairperson of the steering committee for the Tech Dome, tapped him for the job.

“About five years ago, Wong went to San Jose and saw their tech museum,” Khong says, “and he felt that Penang should have one. The Chief Minister was also keen on the idea.” Eventually, they raised enough money from both the state and various companies. Construction soon began, and Tech Dome Penang was launched on July 16.

Exhibits at the Tech Dome are divided into several sections: Forces and Motion, Optics, Information Technology, Electromagnetism and Life Tech. Some exhibits are a permanent fixture while others will be rotated to keep things fresh. Khong also plans to have regular events: Japanese Technology Weekend was last month, where the Dome played host to Japanese technology companies that ran workshops for some 120 children. This month, the biggest telescope in Penang will be installed as part of a collaboration with the Astronomical Society of Penang. A BlackBox LAN Party will be held in December to showcase the latest video games and provide a glimpse into how games are developed.

Science is about the experience. The observation. The kids may not be able to connect the scientific principle that they have observed to the phenomenon, but they know that if you do this, then that happens. And at some point in time, they should be able to connect the dots.

Next year visitors can look forward to programmes like Women in Science, and science camps on aerospace and forensics. “One thing I want to kick off is Bridging the Digital Divide,” Khong adds, “using a very cheap Android device that we can load into a discarded PC, and then bringing that into communities that otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to have access to IT facilities.”

One look around the Dome and you might notice though that the scientific fields it showcases in its main galleries are seemingly industry-focused – no surprise, given that many of the sponsors are from Penang’s manufacturing industry. Khong is keen on expanding to include subjects like biology and ecology in the future. “Biology is an important component in the scientific world and should not be excluded. We want this place to showcase broad-based science rather than industry-mechanical.”

And the Tech Dome isn’t just for kids. It may have started out that way, but as Khong and his team discovered, adults are enjoying the exhibits as much as the kids are. Some companies even organise team-building sessions here. “They were behaving like little kids!” he laughs. “There’s nothing uppity about this place. People come here and do silly things and we don’t mind as long as they experience it.

“This is what science is about. You look at nature and you see something and you are amazed by it. Then you start to think, how does that work? If we get people to that stage, I think we have done our job.”

A High-Tech Curriculum

The Tech Dome is not the only public-private initiative designed to bring sciences to young people. The Penang Science Cafe, which opened its largest branch on the ground floor of Wisma Yeap Chor Ee in George Town, is bringing technology to the classroom.

One of the first things you’ll notice when you step into the Penang Science Cafe is the inescapable sound of enthusiastic children walking past rows of science exhibits that fill up a good portion of the space. Every day, dozens of Penang schoolchildren take part in volunteer-run classes or demonstrations where they get to learn the intricacies of programming or, more popularly, build their own functioning Lego robot. In the courtyard, an intern is showing his charges how to build an air pressure rocket: every child is noisily engrossed in his or her lessons.

Main entrance to the Tech Dome.

The Penang Science Cafe is the second such cafe to open in Penang; the first was at Krystal Point in Bayan Lepas. It is an initiative of the Penang Science Cluster, a non-profit industry-driven entity that works closely with the state government to promote science education among Penang schoolchildren. “We’re doing this because we’re passionate about Penang,” says CEO Ooi Peng Ee. “Penang must develop our only natural resource, our talent pool.”

Ooi is a veteran of Penang’s manufacturing industry. A computer engineer, he started out with National Semiconductor in 1981 before moving on to Hewlett-Packard the following year, where he stayed for the next 30 years. When he retired, he volunteered his time and expertise at the Science Cluster, and was a part of the first Science Cafe at Krystal Point. What started out as a volunteer job turned into a 24/7 operation. “How these things grow!” he remarks.

The Penang Science Cafe is a space to teach and inspire young students in the sciences. Ooi calls this stage the “sparking interest” stage – not only do kids get to learn about programming and robotics, the Cafe also aims to get their creative juices flowing.

Every day, programmes are organised for dozens of public schoolchildren, ranging from engineering to physics-related fields, all centring around STEM. The Cafe organises STEM Bootcamps, where students from 140 Penang schools take part in half-day programming and science experiments to learn new things and have hands-on experiences. These workshops are free of charge to public school students; the Cafe even covers food and transportation costs thanks to the sponsorship of both the state government and various companies. “We try to do this very cheaply so we can reach a lot of schools,” Ooi says. “If you ask the schools to pay, chances are they’re going to say no. So we make it easy.”

Coding is also an important part of the Cafe’s curriculum, and not only do kids get to learn how to code at an early age, in the process they will learn how to create their own games. The Cafe sets them on the path by first teaching them Scratch, a visual programming language developed by the MIT Media Lab used as an easy way to introduce children to the ins and outs of coding. From there, the students are introduced to Python, a high-level and widely used programming language. “Once they learn Python,” says Ooi, “they can learn anything.”

Coding is getting increased recognition in schools around the world, and even the Ministry of Education plans to introduce it into the national curriculum next year. “In the process of learning the language,” Ooi explains, “you develop computational thinking – the ability to see a problem and break it down.” The Cafe’s Scratch programmes are currently aimed at Form One students, and Form Two students get to move on to Python. “Coding is a core skill that every child should have,” Ooi adds.

The Cafe is also thinking long-term and beyond simply creating an interest in the sciences among kids; once that spark is lit, it is vital to keep the fire going. The Cafe has what they call a TechMentor programme, where more than 150 volunteer undergraduates or engineers from Penang’s vaunted manufacturing industry go to 140 schools to engage students in a variety of workshops on robotics, coding and embedded systems. Students can even take part in robotics competitions.

Students who show an even deeper engagement at this point and actually want to physically create things can make use of the Cafe’s own workshops, found at the back of the building. The Cafe’s MakerSpace provides budding inventors – typically university students – with the tools to translate their ideas into prototypes.

Makers with the potential to become entrepreneurs or who have built functional prototypes may gain access to the Garage, with more complex power tools. “To build really good prototypes, you need access to industry tools and platforms,” says Ooi. Mentors from the industry are also available to provide their expertise.

The MakerSpace is free to students, while membership access to the Garage costs RM60 a month, and RM30 for students. Students who still can’t afford it may gain access for free if they also donate their time to volunteer at the Cafe. “We call it democratising education,” Ooi says. “We don’t want to deny anybody access to any of these things, especially the poor.” The Science Cafe is also planning to set up “tech clubs” in schools, with the aim of providing schools with their own MakerSpace.

Empowering Students on the Mainland

Daniel Russel, 27, never planned on becoming a teacher. Originally from KL, he graduated from Multimedia University with a degree in mechanical engineering when he took part in a community service homestay programme in Malaysian kampungs. He helped run academic workshops, and what he found was eye-opening: “Their maths was not up to par,” he says. “Their basic algebra was not there.” He started wondering if this was a more common problem throughout the country.

Then he heard about Teach for Malaysia and quickly signed up. “It was really interesting because it’s something done by Malaysians to help solve something in the country instead of just talking about it. The fact that you can actually get to spend two years at a school to do something and not just a one-off programme, was really attractive to me.” He was soon posted to SMK Sungai Ara in the Penang mainland.

Meanwhile, other Teach for Malaysia teachers on the mainland started to see the limitations of what they could do. Alina Amir had started an after-school peer tutoring programme called Blok A that aimed to empower students living in Flat Taman Sri Janggus, Alma to teach each other Maths and English. David Chak initiated the Project Afterschool Coding Enterprise (ACE), teaching students coding, computational thinking and problem-solving skills.

As successful as those programmes were, they eventually felt something had to change. “In order for programmes like these to grow, they need to be outside the system,” says Russel. “There are a lot of restrictions in the system. We thought they would have a better chance if they were outside.”

Coding is also an important part of the Cafe’s curriculum, and not only do kids get to learn how to code at an early age: in the process they will learn how to create their own games.

So Alina and Chak founded Arus Academy in December 2014, along with Russel and fellow Teach for Malaysia alumnus Felicia Yoon. Arus offers students an after-school programme to teach coding and programming while placing an emphasis on project-making. The bulk of the academy’s curriculum is focused on students from SMK Taman Sejahtera, particularly students who have shown high promise. “We do not target students who lack basic proficiency or literacy,” says Russel. “We get students who should be having these kinds of opportunities but do not because of where they are.”

Arus takes in 20 secondary school students per year, with its very first intake happening in March last year, and pays close attention to their growth throughout the semester. Operating as a social enterprise, it does not charge any fees to these select students.

Russel provides students with an engineering perspective in their projects. “Students actually learn more hardware knowledge, like how to build things and put things together. They incorporate software and hardware and start making projects. Every semester in Arus is about making something.”

The projects these students come up with are interesting and ambitious given their relatively young age. One group came up with an anti-snatch theft bag that is connected to a Bluetooth device; a loud alarm rings if the bag is a certain distance away from the device. “They actually went around doing surveys on what kind of crimes were prevalent in the area and realised the one that needed the most attention was snatch thefts.”

Other projects include a robot vacuum cleaner for buses, a document sorter for teachers and a roaming recycling bin that rewards you for discarding waste properly (inside the bin as opposed to simply around it) with vouchers.

At the end of Arus’s first semester, students get to present their projects at a graduation ceremony in front of their parents and give a speech. (Every Friday, students take part in a TED-Ed curriculum that teaches them how to present TED Talks-style.) If the parents had any doubts about Arus’s worth before, they were soon erased. “Some parents came up and thanked us, saying, ‘I’ve never seen my daughter present so confidently.’ That was the buy-in we needed to validate what we do.”

Arus has received funding from MaGIC and the British Council, and is working with the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) to develop modules for the Ministry of Education. Several Arus camps have been organised courtesy of corporate sponsors, and Bank Negara even sponsored a workshop in KL. Arus is also collaborating with the Penang Science Cluster, and has launched a Penang Science Cafe in Alma, Bukit Mertajam, dubbed PSC@Alma, where they run public workshops.

Makers with the potential to become entrepreneurs or who have built functional prototypes may gain access to the Science Cafe's Garage, which has more complex power tools.

A volunteer with students at the Cafe's courtyard.


Structural Changes Needed

Before becoming CEO of Tech Dome Penang, Khong has hired some three to four hundred people throughout his career, and the declining standards in the workforce he has seen has been troubling.

“I had an electrical engineer who came to the interview,” Khong says, “and he was not able to draw a simple transistor diagram. That was absolutely shocking. I can say for a fact that, since I started in the mid-1990s to when I left industry in 2013, there has been a significant drop in technical capability.”

And it’s not just a matter of technical knowledge – it’s also about communication skills, and Malaysia’s English standards have notoriously been on a decline. It got so bad at one point that Khong estimates he had to end seven out of 10 job interviews after a two minute conversation over the phone. “I need these guys to function in a global environment. All the companies I worked for in the industry are multinationals.”

The Malaysian public education system has not been able to keep up with the demands of the 21st century. A new kind of approach is needed, away from the usual memorise-and-regurgitate syllabus many of us grew up with, but this has been slow and difficult to rectify. “The Education Blueprint acknowledges all these weaknesses,” says Zairil. “The steps taken to address them are still not enough, because a lot of these problems are structural. Power is so structurally centralised in the Ministry of Education that we don’t have a flexible school system.”

The Education Blueprint, Zairil adds, doesn’t address the overly centralised nature of education in Malaysia, which prescribes a one-size-fits-all solution to every school in the country without taking into account the local context. “A school in an urban area in Penang is so different from a school in a rural area in Kelantan or Sarawak,” says Zairil. “The environment is different, and even their basic knowledge is different. And yet the government does things like implement IT policies throughout 10,000 schools in one go and expect students who have never even seen a mobile phone before to suddenly know how to use a computer.”

At the end of Arus’s first semester, students get to present their projects at a graduation ceremony in front of their parents and give a speech.

The centralisation of education also runs counter to a growing trend in the developed world, where countries such as Finland have given individual schools more freedom to set their own syllabuses and pedagogical approaches, allowing them to structure their classes to fit the local context. “Studies everywhere have found that the more flexible and autonomous a school is, the better learning outcomes you get,” says Zairil.

With the declining standards in the national curriculum, initiatives like the Tech Dome, Science Cafe and Arus can be vital in nurturing creative minds and sparking that love for science and discovery that may be missing from the syllabus. “Encouraging learning in the sciences is extremely important,” says Zairil, “especially for Penang. But more important is the way that they are doing it, making science fun.

“What we want for a 21st century Penang economy are workers who are constantly at the forefront of technology, and who are trying to bring us forward in terms of research and design. We don’t want only good factory workers; we want inventors, designers and researchers.”

But these initiatives are expensive and limited; there’s only so much they can do to affect real change. And how do you even gauge the success of these initiatives when there’s nothing that can be easily quantified?

“We get this question a lot,” says Ooi. “First of all, you have to track (the students) over several years. If you’re working with someone in Standard Five, you won’t see results until Form Five, Six or beyond.” The Science Cafe has just six people on staff, not including volunteers, so keeping track of every individual student who passes through is out of the question.

At Arus, the graduation ceremony is crucial to getting the much-needed buy-in from the parents. “Right now, the only thing carrying us forward is the perception of what we do,” says Russel. “We don’t have data to back that. It’s very difficult for us to say how much the student has grown because we do not put it on a grade. (But) people want to see the impact and the data. It’s difficult to position ourselves.”

Khong says no one has set any KPIs for the Tech Dome. “I guess there’s the mundane matrix, like the number of visitors and so forth. We are supposed to be self-sustaining – I am determined not to go back to the state government for anything. The mundane things are what sustains the space and keeps it alive so that it can fulfil its real mission. If our mission is to inspire, then only time will tell how well we have succeeded.”

But Ooi points out that no one really knew either how to gauge the success of the very first schools that emerged centuries ago. “Imagine back when there were no educational schools, and then somebody said, ‘okay, let’s start a school.’ Would you say, ‘Hey, are you going to prove that educating a child would be beneficial?’

Of course it’s going to be beneficial! And then you see the reaction of the kids who are excited when it’s all hands-on science. So you imagine: this is going to work.”

And if these initiatives get our kids to actually be excited about learning, that will be enough.

Daniel Russel.

Jeffrey Hardy Quah is a freelance writer and editor.
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