Taking education outside the school


As the world shifts further into technological mode, the emphasis of local education is expected to shift to Science, Technology, English and Mathematics (STEM). While this is yet to be fully a reality, learning centres are presently filling the gap.

According to the World Bank, in 2010, 14% of our GDP per capita consisted of public spending on primary education. Singapore on the other hand recorded 11.2% of its GDP per capita being spent on primary education through public spending1. This puts us in a position where it is quite safe to say that Malaysia does take its investment in education quite seriously. But are our investments receiving the returns they deserve?

The two charts show that the return of investment on education is in fact not all too impressive in the areas of mathematics and science. This is further accompanied by the fact that PISA ranked Malaysian students at 39th place out of the 44 countries involved in assessing students’ problem-solving skills2.

For a country that puts so much effort and resources into its education sector, we should be extremely concerned about our performance. Of course, there is no one single cause of this but rather a combination of past events and policies. Perhaps it is worthwhile to take a look at educational concepts from around the world to look for a plausible solution.

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 companies3. 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.

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 them4. 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 showing me around the Penang Science Cafe.

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.

I had the opportunity to drop in for a look at all the gadgets and equipment that I would never have been able to see at school. One thing was for sure: this place does not resemble any school lab or science class I have ever been to before.

Later, I caught up with Teng Kok Liang, CEO of PYDC. “I wasn't a science stream student back in high school,” he says. “However, I could and still can dismantle a motorcycle and put it back together so that it still works,” he adds with a grin.

Teng is certain that hands-on experience and personal interest in the workings of machinery such as motorcycles were what enabled him to do such things. He lamented that some engineering students are not even able to do this. “This is why we have called in industry experts and even MNCs to lend their expertise and guide these children in creating their own projects. Exposing them to the real world will certainly be different from the science lessons taught in schools and will show them the bigger spectrum of STEM.” However the Penang Learning Centre is not aimed at being an alternative to schools, he adds, but is to be seen as a complement to existing classroom studies.

One of the many projects done by schoolchildren which will be featured in the Penang Science Fair from November 18-20.

Looking at both the Penang Learning Centre and the Penang Science Cafe, it seems clear that the partnership between private corporations and government bodies is essential to provide the best quality of education and reach as many students as possible. Proven by the Germans through their Duales Ausbildungssystem (dual education system), this should be an interesting policy to implement in Asia.

But Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was any other successful education system in the world. Long in the shadow of the Swedes, the Finns had every reason to be surprised when the first PISA results in 2000 ranked them at the top of the table5. Early reforms in the 1970s allowed the Finns to slowly ensure that their workforce was ready to respond to the industry that was transitioning from being a traditional agricultural industry to a more modern telecommunications-based one. But this transformation took them 30 years.

There was no single policy or campaign behind their success, but rather a collaboration of many different policies implemented by leaders of similar vision, one of the many crucial educational reforms being the setting up of upper secondary vocational schools and polytechnics. Through the joint efforts of private companies and the Finnish government, their secondary vocational school system has become so favoured that 47% of graduates from comprehensive schools enrol in them6.

At the end of the day, this may not seem like a very crucial thing to be focusing on for these MNCs, but the skill sets and employability of the future labour force really does depend on it. For them, it is all the more worth considering: are we really investing our resources in the right places?

1 World Bank (http://data.worldbank.org/ indicator/SE.XPD.PRIM.PC.ZS/countries).
2 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) Results in Focus (www.oecd. org).
3 Council of Foreign Relations US (www.cfr.org/ united-states/us-education-reform-nationalsecurity/ p27618).
4 Subahan, Lilia, Khalijah & Ruhizan (2001), IRPA report: Non-option physics teachers: Preparation for better teaching.
5 Programme for International StudentAssessment (PISA) Results in Focus (www.oecd.org).
6 Center on International Education Benchmarking (www.ncee.org).

Sarah George is an economics student at the University of Bristol.

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