STEM4ALL, AI and STREAM in education: A 20-month experience — Maszlee Malik

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MARCH 25 — Recently, I was asked by friends why I did nothing to enhance the teaching of science and mathematics when I was Minister of Education. This caught me by surprise because despite the media coverage on all the initiatives I launched, it all still failed to capture the eyes of the people (mainly the English readers). It seems that sensational headlines regarding the teaching of Jawi, swimming pools and black shoes are more etched in their minds. I feel that it is important for me to share (yet again) what we did during the 20 months I spent at the ministry. More could have been done of course, but what has been done should be made known to Malaysians.

Manufacturing is a vital part of the Malaysian economy. It currently accounts for 40 per cent of GDP and 18 per cent of the workforce. The trend towards digital manufacturing has prompted the development of the National Policy on Industry 4.0 (Industry4WRD). Digital manufacturing is a crucial part of the Malaysian Industrial Strategy (The Straits Times, 2018). This Strategy aims to raise the manufacturing contribution to GDP from the current level of 21 per cent to 32 per cent, an increase of 54 per cent. It also aims to increase productivity by 30 per cent from the 2018 level of $68,321 per person. Concurrently, the Malaysian Government aims to increase the percentage of the workforce involved in manufacturing from 18 to 35 per cent by 2025.

Recognising the need to produce more scientists and engineers, the Ministry of Education in 2019, highlighted STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) as a primary objective in the the development of the Malaysian education system. During the same time, the Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Ministry (MESTECC) highlighted the declining trend in students opting for STEM subjects in schools and higher education institutions. Minister, Yeo Bee Yin, explained that this gradual drop would eventually lead to a lack of talent for future STEM-related industries and subsequently damage the Malaysian economic growth ambition. 

Digital skills are a passport to new opportunities for millions of Malaysians and a building block to attract investment, innovation and new jobs in a global economy. — AFP pic
Digital skills are a passport to new opportunities for millions of Malaysians and a building block to attract investment, innovation and new jobs in a global economy. — AFP pic

Workforce skills in the area of STEM will determine ability to generate ideas and to translate these into innovative products and services. In 2015, Malaysia identified a need to provide at least one million people for jobs in fields related to science and technology by 2020 (Academy of Sciences Malaysia, 2015). Potential engineers in Malaysia are disadvantaged as principles of engineering are only touched on occasionally in one-off projects. In the majority of schools, STEM is entirely invisible in the school curriculum.

A survey commissioned by MESTECC found that nearly 70 per cent of students in Kuala Lumpur demonstrated low interest in STEM subjects because the teaching was too theoretical. One of the initiatives in the new STEM4ALL initiative is to ensure that STEM learning is experiential and meaningful for everyone.

Digital skills are a passport to new opportunities for millions of Malaysians and a building block to attract investment, innovation and new jobs in a global economy. To be competitive in today’s digital-first world, it is imperative to be fast adopters of best-in-class technology, including Artificial Intelligence (AI). In fact, according to a study by Microsoft, over 67 per cent of Malaysian business leaders also feel that technologies like AI will augment the jobs of tomorrow and will enhance the workforce productivity. According to the study, 64 per cent of the Malaysian workforce feel that AI will augment their work. This is an indication that our society is prepared to embrace AI technology and that the onus falls on organisations to do their part in preparing this future workforce, providing them with the right training to ensure that they are not left behind.

As the former Minister of Education and an opposition MP, I am advocating for a better education system for all Malaysians, in which STEM is a pertinent element. There should be more infrastructure, awareness, exposure and access to quality STEM education for all students regardless of their economic situation, class, or geographical background. There were numerous initiatives introduced by my administration of the Ministry of Education. Among it was the initiative to invite more private and non-governmental sectors to be involved in STEM education at both the secondary and tertiary levels. There was also an effort to semi-liberalise streams at the higher secondary level in order to allow art and non-sciences students to take STEM subjects

While the demand is growing for STEM related roles, the supply side is worrying as the number of students taking up STEM subjects had dropped from 48 per cent in 2012 to 44 per cent last year. In facing these challenges, the ministry cannot just continue emphasising STEM without putting intervention plans in place. MOE focused on getting teachers on board with the paradigm shift by launching a new STEM teacher competency framework, which would shape how future STEM teachers are trained and assessed.

MOE will be implementing three policy shifts in STEM education under the STEM For All (STEM4ALL) initiative. The three shifts are to increase the students’ interest in STEM, to expand access to learning STEM subjects, and to evolve STEM to STREAM (Science, Technology, Reading, Arts and Mathematics). The STEM4ALL movement will be ensuring that STEM learning is experiential and meaningful for everyone. The STEM4ALL campaign in collaboration with Microsoft Malaysia, is an initiative that aimed to bring together parents, educators, students, the private sector and policymakers towards advancing equitable and inclusive STEM education for all Malaysians.

MOE in partnership with Microsoft (Malaysia) launched the STEM4ALL campaign on 12th March 2019, an education initiative that aims to bring together parents, educators, students, and policymakers towards advancing STEM education for all Malaysians. STEM4ALL aims to transform the education industry in Malaysia by promoting STEM education among Malaysians and ensuring our graduates are equipped with the right skill set to drive their employability in this digital age. The campaign provides vision and direction to one of the goals under the Malaysia Education Blueprint, that is to enhance STEM education in the country and to future proof our workforce.

STEM4ALL aims to equip the future workforce to adapt to advancements in such technologies and increase their employability by developing skills and navigating their learning in line with requirements of the digital age. With advances in technology like AI, today’s kindergarteners need new skills to be life-ready by the time they graduate as the class of 2030. The STEM4ALL campaign also focuses on how technology can support the educational journey of our students. The primary objective of the STEM4ALL campaign is to build a culture of inclusivity among all Malaysians when it comes to STEM education, which in turn will help enhance the quality of STEM education in Malaysia. Through the campaign, MOE aims to ensure that STEM education is “for all”, regardless of background or whether a student decides to pursue a non-STEM profession. Microsoft has been at the forefront of technology-driven innovation. By working with them, MOE looks forward to honing the education system to embrace the shift in technology and embrace new ways of thinking about skills and training.

It was aimed at enhancing the level of competency, knowledge and skill among teachers and armed with the latest information on STEM education, they would be equipped in teaching the subjects to students. It would have helped to create networking opportunities among policy makers, academicians, educators, counsellors, government agencies and non-government organisations in order to ensure that STEM becomes successful. The objective was to make students think logically, create, use technology and solve problems creatively and innovatively.

Universiti Teknikal Malaysia Melaka (UTeM) was chosen by MOE to pilot the Microsoft Professional Programme for Data Science Curriculum (MPP). The execution of this curriculum in UTeM would have made it the largest MPP curriculum to have ever been rolled out in the education world, with over 250 students from the first batch to go through the curriculum and to receive data science certificates from Microsoft. This effort was also in line with the nation’s vision to produce 20,000 data scientists by the year 2020. In order to promote education in the realm of AI, Microsoft also recently launched their AI Business School, an engaging master class series for business leaders that is focused on leadership in the age of AI. This ground breaking school aims to empower business leaders to be successful by leveraging the power of AI as well as foster an “AI Ready” culture.

As part of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics implementation of the STREAM approach, MOE started piloting problem-based and project-based lessons in selected schools where STEM teachers were working together among themselves as well as with non-STEM teachers. For example, when a school in Perak was conducting a science lesson on pests, the STEM and non-STEM teachers collaborated to extend the topic into art lessons on aesthetics and designs of pest traps, as well as on writing about health and environmental care. With findings from this pilot, MOE was able to plan for better implementation of the approach, as well as better realisation of impacts.

This new approach required a shift from conventional teaching and learning techniques by STEM teachers in planning and conducting their lessons. To accommodate that need, MOE decided to review its capability management framework for STEM teachers. This framework encompasses skills relevant to them such as ability to integrate STEM and non-STEM contents, as well as relating it to real life situations. MOE then intended to support the teachers by developing and implementing professional development plans to equip our teachers with the necessary skills to better improve our student outcomes. Those updates mentioned led to MOE reviewing the recommendations submitted in May 2019 by the Jawatankuasa Kajian Dasar Pendidikan Negara to implement the STREAM approach in teaching and learning in the future.

MOE was not just looking to put the “R” and “A” into STEM, but STEM into the “R” and “A”. The introduction of STREAM highlighted the relevance and importance of STEM education in all facets of our lives. STREAM should also have expanded the access to learning STEM to those in rural communities, low-income families and students with special needs. With the help of NGOs, in 2019, MOE tried to go directly to rural schools accessible only by boat and dirt roads to bring STEM to them and work with schools to organise experiential activities.

However, there are challenges. STEM was seen as difficult and demanding and that interest and per centage of students taking the science stream had declined from year to year. Being too preoccupied to wanting to score excellent results during examinations, this mindset contributed to the decline in students choosing the science stream because they were not confident in getting good grades despite having interest in STEM. Based on observations made, there were also students who changed to other courses when they entered universities although they were from the science stream when in schools. They did so despite knowing areas such as biotechnology, nano technology, mechanical engineering, robotics and big data are critical fields of the future. Hence, we need to make changes now to feed the need of the future by instilling interest in STEM. We can introduce a multi-stream education system as implemented in many other countries.

Honestly, I am saddened to see that we are no longer hearing about these initiatives. I strongly hope that the current administration would further enhance what we had started then, and extrapolate them into new territories for the sake of the nation. The future of Malaysia depends heavily on the agility of our future generation to be able to respond to the changes in technology and humanity. We are left with no other choice, we snooze, we lose!

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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