For some time now, very low numbers of students enter the science stream at secondary schools in the country compared to the arts.
Universiti Penguruan Sultan Idris (UPSI) deputy vice-chancellor (research and innovation) Professor Datuk Dr Noraini Idris said that only 23 per cent of those in upper secondary school study pure science, indicating a persistent trend.
This figure hardly warrants the number of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)-related undergraduate programmes at research universities and those in the Malaysian Technical University Network, let alone fill up the places available in such courses.
As the country targets a 60:40 ratio of science to arts students, the low number of enrolment in STEM programmes is a matter of grave concern.
“Malaysia is in need of human capital that possesses critical and innovative thinking, especially in view of Transformasi Nasional 2050, an initiative to position the country as a top 20 nation in economic development, social advancement and innovation.
“To strengthen STEM education in Malaysia, the challenge lies in getting students to love science and choose science classes. Science and mathematics must be made interesting, easy to understand, more hands-on and exploration-based,” said Noraini, who is also chairperson of the National STEM Movement.
The movement has been championing the STEM Mentor-Mentee Programme to promote greater interest and capacity-building in science and mathematics among students.
Launched in 2016, the programme has pooled together passionate lecturers, researchers, scientists, engineers and mathematicians from the academia, professional bodies and the industry to offer guidance in promoting better understanding of STEM and provide the expertise to nurture talents in the field, mainly among students from Forms One till Three.
It involves facilitators who are teaching staff from universities, mentors comprising science students from tertiary institutions and mentees who are school students.
It aims to open the minds of teachers, students and parents to the importance of STEM education, and to increase the number of Form Four students who study chemistry, physics, biology and additional mathematics.
To date, more than 25 universities have successfully introduced the STEM Mentor-Mentee Programme in the states they are located in. Through the Mentor-Mentee Programmes, more than 100 schools and 3,000 students have participated in numerous STEM activities designed to nurture interest and competence in science and mathematics.
Having implemented the Mentor-Mentee Programme in 2011, UPSI in Tanjung Malim, Perak is one of its early proponents among higher education institutions in the country.
Its Mentor-Mentee Programme evolved from various STEM-related initiatives organised by its Faculty of Science and Mathematics in line with the National Science and Technology Enrolment Policy.
Associate Professor Dr Haniza Hanim Mohd Zain, the faculty’s deputy dean (research and innovation), said: “What differentiates UPSI’s programme is it not only involves lecturers as facilitators, students from the university as mentors and schoolchildren from government secondary schools in the state as mentees but it also involves the State Education Department, STEM teachers, principals as well as parent-teacher associations.”
She added: “Everyone should be involved as we want to create awareness of the importance of STEM. Many parents are reluctant to allow their children to pursue the science stream because they believe career opportunities are limited when the children graduate from science programmes at universities.
“We impress on them that taking up science does not only mean a career as a medical doctor, scientist or engineer. There are a lot more careers which require knowledge and training in STEM.
“Our Mentor-Mentee Programme is not only outreach in schools but we also invite students to the labs at UPSI.
“Some schoolchildren cannot envision the scope of science as there is very little exposure and hardly any lab work at schools.
“Every year, when I observe trainee teachers during their practical training, I see old and unused equipment in school labs, some still in their original packaging — untouched. We don’t blame teachers as they are hard-pressed for time to perform tasks meant for the well-being of students in addition to teaching.
“But schools are beginning to start lab work once again.”
Under UPSI’s Mentor-Mentee Programme, students, teachers and parent representatives gain exposure to STEM education at science labs in the institution.
“Students wear lab coats to carry out hands-on STEM-based activities. They get excited and have so much fun that many refuse to leave after the 9am to 5pm sessions are over,” said Haniza, adding that students involved are not under the category of top students at their schools.
The programmes range from a one-day session to a three-day course conducted in a fun environment. Some involve outdoor activities to gaze at the stars and role-playing in a crime scene investigation after which lecturers and mentors explain scientific concepts and theories applied in the solutions.
UPSI lecturers train teachers in new skills and teaching delivery methods through a series of peer mentoring workshops so that they can make lessons in school more exciting and easy to understand.
“We also teach teachers to make their own practical lab kits that are fun to use and are more cost-effective. For example, to teach the properties of Pascal’s law and mechanical advantage of a hydraulic system in physics, they can create their own kits out of syringes with a total cost of RM7 each instead of paying a hefty sum to suppliers.”
So far, UPSI’s programme has impacted 30 faculty members, 100 teachers, 150 university student mentors, 1,200 mentees and 200 schools.
“We also encourage innovation among the mentees and some have participated in local and international innovation competitions. The mentors go on monthly visits to keep track of their mentees’ progress. If a school has entered an innovation contest, mentors go there every two weeks to coach their mentees.”
Meanwhile Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) Penang’s mentor-mentee Pelajar Bumiputra Cemerlang Sains (PBCS) programme targets Forms Four and Five students from low income households, single parent families and orphans.
UiTM Penang senior lecturer (human resources management) Dr Mohd Subri Tahir said: “We have a special interest group focused on human capital, social engagement and innovation in Penang with the aim of exposing schoolchildren in the target group to the opportunities an education in STEM can offer.”
Under the annual PBCS programme, which kicked off in 2013, 150 Form Four students from secondary schools in the five districts of Penang are selected each year to join a fully-sponsored two-year course at UiTM Permatang Pauh campus.
“In the two years, we have 36 interactions on Saturdays and Sundays to work on six critical subjects — English, modern maths, additional maths, physics, chemistry and biology. These children are average C students in science classes that we aim to inspire and coach so that they have a deep knowledge of and skills in STEM subjects, and can apply higher order thinking skills to STEM-based questions and problems,” he said.
Thirty volunteer lecturers work on the students’ weak areas.
“We do not aim to replace teachers in school but play a supporting role to strengthen students’ understanding of STEM subjects. When the students experiment at the labs in UiTM, they get to visualise the various STEM topics and understand them better. Through this method, students’ performance in STEM subjects and English at school has improved.”
To help students learn better, they are assigned buddies, mentors who are UiTM Penang’s top science students. The buddies sit with the schoolchildren during the sessions conducted by the lecturers/facilitators and help them in the activities and beyond.
Before Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM), the PBCS group conducts intensive seminars for students as the goal is results-oriented with the ultimate aim of qualifying them for universities.
“After the SPM results are announced, we brief students on the programmes that they should pursue. We don’t want them to forsake their interest and knowledge in STEM,” added Mohd Subri.
Acknowledging that learning can be a chore and generating interest a challenge, UiTM created an innovation programme under PBCS that sees 40 lecturers each taking three or four students under their wing to create innovative inventions and solutions.
“This is where their knowledge in STEM and higher order thinking skills come in. We encourage students to enter innovation competitions to show them what others in the world are doing and the level of STEM research and innovation at universities in other countries. This experience is a great motivator for PBCS students. We have won 84 medals at contests held in 10 countries. The boost to their confidence and exposure is priceless,” said Mohd Subri, adding that UiTM wants students to share their knowledge and inspire others at their schools.
“Students from disadvantaged backgrounds can achieve great heights but they need support and space to grow. We at UiTM are a second family to them and we seek their parents’ permission to be regarded as such, especially when we take them abroad. We need to create the opportunities for them because they face financial constraints.”
Universiti Malaysia Terengganu (UMT) has been running Mentor-Mentee Programmes with schools in the state since 2015 in collaboration with the Terengganu State Education Department with the objective of instilling interest in STEM and increasing enrolment in science stream.
Its STEM Plus package — for select Forms One to Three students in nine schools across Terengganu — consists of six structured modules covering pure science, information communications technology, engineering, English language, mathematics, oceanography and aquatic resources, which is its niche. Lecturers facilitate sessions at schools and UMT.
STEM Foundation Centre director Dr Laili Che Rose said: “UMT students who are mentors develop leadership, communication and problem-solving skills.” The programme has proved to be effective and has resulted in an increase in students pursuing pure science at schools not exposed to innovation previously.
With the success of the STEM Plus programme, the Terengganu State Education Department intends to include 10 more schools this year.
UMT is expanding its STEM initiative by making available a STEM-based foundation programme in June at its STEM Foundation Centre, a first of such facility among universities in the country.
The one-year course allows those eligible to join STEM-related bachelor’s degree programme at UMT facilities.
The recently concluded Malaysia Technology Expo 2018 introduced the inaugural STEM Mentor-Mentee Awards to recognise those in the STEM education industry.
UiTM Penang clinched top prize while UMT came in second and UPSI, third.
“These universities have been aggressive in conducting the Mentor-Mentee Programme and other tertiary institutions are also revving up their game,” said Noraini.
“Together with the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation and Education Ministry, through its State Education Departments, we have been holding town hall sessions and colloquiums, and organising science fairs in various locations across the country.
“Parents and teachers have been very positive towards the activities which include the Mentor-Mentee programme and are now more aware of STEM career paths.”
The National STEM Movement is championing the STEM Mentor-Mentee Programme through the National Blue Ocean Strategy, which is the government’s approach to promote a cause by maximising the use of available resources in various ministries involved.
“We will present our programme to the Ministry of Finance so that it will be given due recognition, which will enable us to structure and monitor the initiative better. I hope the Prime Minister’s Department will also acknowledge this initiative so that we can move faster and wider, and be more effective.”