Penang STEM Reignites Student Interest in the Practical Sciences

By Emilia Ismail

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State government, industry giants and schools are stepping up to address STEM learning decline through Penang STEM’s Step Up programme. Seen here are representatives from the participating MNCs and SMEs, and from various schools with Penang STEM chairman Prof. Dr P. Ramasamy and chief minister Chow Kon Yeow during the official launch. Photo: Emilia Ismail.

Ask a school kid today what they want to be when they grow up, and the answer might vary vastly from the old answers of “lawyer”, “doctor” or “engineer”. These days, “technopreneur”, “influencer” or “professional gamer” may be the response instead.

Around the world, teenagers are creating apps. Case in point: in America, Michael Sayman was only 13 when he built his first smartphone app; he was subsequently offered an internship with Facebook, which led to a full-time job. Sayman, now 23, is a millionaire. He is also listed in Forbes 30 under 30 2019 list.

“Students today are hooked on social media,” says Richard Chung, general manager of Penang STEM – a platform that brings together various independent Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) learning organisations to create a synergistic ecosystem in Penang.

They also find theoretical maths and science boring. “For the last two decades, our Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) scores have shown continuous decline in standards and interests in science and mathematics among our 14 and 15-year-old schoolgoing teenagers. There was also feedback that local schools have recorded corresponding declines in the number of students opting for science studies in Form 4,” says Chung.

How can we spark student interest in STEM learning, particularly at the lower-secondary level, and prepare them to meet the needs of the future economy, which includes creating job creators and not job seekers in this digital era; as well as ensuring a ready pool of talent for Penang’s flourishing free industrial zones?.

This is one of Penang STEM’s missions. The platform was set up in 2017 with six centres: Penang Skills Development Centre (PSDC), Penang Science Cluster, Tech Dome Penang, @CAT, Penang Math Platform and Penang Digital Library; these have been individually conducting STEM workshops, programmes and activities – for example, Penang Math Platform’s Rubik’s cube competitions and memory skills workshops; and Penang Science Cluster and Tech Dome Penang’s “Coding on Wheels”, and other outreach programmes.

In 2018 Penang STEM formulated a comprehensive, systematic and sustainable plan to address the STEM learning decline in Penang, particularly among Form Four students. This culminated in its Step Up programme, which is a pilot project using a more structured approach of bringing programmes and activities from the six STEM centres to selected schools on a regular basis.

The programme was officially launched last September at Penang Math Platform by chief minister Chow Kon Yeow. It marked the coming together of the state government, represented by Penang STEM centres; the State Education Department, consisting of schools and the North East District Education Office; and the industry (MNCs and SMEs) in Penang.

Penang STEM general manager Richard Chung (far left, white shirt) and former Penang STEM CEO Ang Lye Hin (centre, in blue striped shirt) with representatives from Jabatan Pendidikan Negeri. Photo: Emilia Ismail.

The foundations of the programme was laid by former Penang STEM CEO, Ang Lye Hin. Ang and the State Education Department established a taskforce at the end of 2017 to explore avenues for sparking the interest of lower-secondary students in STEM. They found that students are given to social media (a survey conducted by Penang Institute reveals that out of 87 respondents below 20, 44 of these spend between two to 10 hours a day on social media), and that schools and teachers faced their own respective issues.

Schools are burdened by an outdated formal curriculum, insufficient labs or field trips for hands-on learning experience, and a limited budget; while teachers are burdened with heavy workload and are often overworked. Some teachers are found to have had little STEM exposure or training, and are out of sync with new technology.

“We cannot change the structure of the curriculum,” says Chung, “but we can change the structure of the extracurricular activities. The taskforce attended the two-day DeTech conference organised by @CAT in 2018, which offered them useful insights about the latest in the digital world and what to expect from the digital economy. It was an eye-opener for most of the teachers and education officers in the taskforce – they gained useful knowledge about current buzzwords in the digital world such as Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, big data analytics, fintech and blockchain.

“The taskforce also visited several established factories to identify the gaps between the current and future needs of the industry vis-a-vis what is currently offered in the school curriculum. Extensive discussions were then conducted with the six Penang STEM centres to identify relevant workshops and programmes that can be conducted in schools to complement the school curriculum.”

Since the programme is mainly targeted at increasing the pool of science students at the upper-secondary level in order to increase the number of future STEM graduates to meet industry needs, Penang STEM has sought support from various MNCs and SMEs in Penang.

“We realised early on that we cannot fully address STEM learning decline by ourselves. The workshops, though beneficial, can be costly, and schools may not have the budget for them.

To help fund the cost, Penang STEM and the State Education Department reached out to industry players to adopt schools of their choice. It’s a win-win collaboration – the talent pipeline can be secured for the next wave of Industry 4.0,” says Chung.

At the moment, seven companies – both local and multinational – namely Inari Amertron, Flextronics Technology Penang, Pentamaster Corporation, Greatech, Motorola Solutions, Mi Technovation and VAT Manufacturing, have adopted nine schools in Penang. These are SMJK Chung Hwa Confucian, SMK Bukit Gambir, SMK Perempuan Methodist, SMJK Convent Datuk Keramat, SMJK Chung Ling, SMJK Heng Ee, St Xavier’s Institution, SMK Abdullah Munshi and SMK Jelutong.

These companies will be able to offer insights into current industry needs, and complement the knowledge and skills that students acquire through the school curriculum.

“After this pilot phase, we aim to proliferate this programme to other school districts in Penang, both on the island and the mainland, with more multinational and local companies stepping up to participate. Hopefully, we can finally address the learning decline in Penang. The success of the programme can lead to changes in the current schooling system at the federal level in the future,” Chung says.

Emilia Ismail

is the co-founder of Penang Hidden Gems and a writer. Her articles can be found in The Star, Penang Monthly and Penang Global Tourism.