STEM EDUCATION REMAINS an enigma to policymakers, even after decades of research. Since economic growth today hinges on technological development, and the latter on a steady supply of scientifically-trained workers, a decline in a country’s STEM performance can be distressing.
With Covid-19, the urgency to generate interest in science education and research has increased. Adding to this conundrum is the puzzling fact that high science interest levels in secondary education do not necessarily translate into a higher number of STEM workers. The alarming question to ask may be this: are we slowly losing our sense of awe and wonder for the natural world?
Starting from Ground Zero
In hopes of developing a robust knowledge-based economy, Malaysia has placed heavy emphasis on STEM development in all of its education reforms since 2001. This led to two major developments. In the Education Development Plan 2001-2010 (EDP), Information and Communication Technology (ICT) was identified as key to increasing interest in the national and English languages, as well as mathematics and science subjects. Significant changes were made to introduce technical and vocational schools (TVET), and to use English as a medium for subject delivery at secondary schools.
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More STEM courses were added at the tertiary level to match graduate output – in terms of both quality and quantity – with employers’ demands, and to increase the number of qualified teaching staff. Strengthening the initiative further, higher education institutions (HEIs) began partnering with industries to curate and create industry-led courses. Though the policies were well-intentioned, the results proved disappointing. Malaysia’s performance in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), an indicator of the quality of STEM education, ended up declining rapidly instead.
Before the EDP implementation in 1999, 93% and 87% of students who participated in the study met the minimum benchmarks for mathematics and science, respectively (Figure 1). Malaysia rivalled Singapore in that most of its students possessed basic knowledge of both subjects. Furthermore, Malaysia ranked above developed nations such as England and Australia in average mathematics scores, and followed closely behind in the science scores (Figure 2). By the end of the reform in 2011, however, that picture had vastly changed.
Slightly less than two-thirds of Malaysian students now passed the minimum benchmark for mathematics and science; the figures are well below the international median of 84 for both subjects, and are indicative of a severe deterioration in fundamental mathematics and science skills. Adding salt to wound, Malaysia now lags far behind Australia and England in average subject scores (Figure 2).
While Malaysia’s education system has been widely lauded for its success in raising school enrolment and bridging the urban-rural divide, international commentators have noted that there is a severe “mismatch between intention and implementation”. Rising scores in national exams are not reflected in international tests, leading many to question if quality has been compromised.
In reviewing Malaysia’s education policies, Unesco concluded that the infrastructure and vocational education have not met government targets, and “do not yet represent a core pillar of the larger education system”.
Faced by these dismal outcomes, the Ministry of Education pivoted towards an education model that focuses on developing critical thinking skills, and on teaching the value of mathematics and science in daily life. The new Malaysia Education Blueprint (2013-2025) benchmarks primary and secondary-level curriculum against international standards set by TIMSS and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), and strongly advocates enrolment in the Science Stream. It intends to raise the teaching standards of mathematics, science and English through tailored on-theground teacher coaching.
Science equipment and facilities in schools are to be continuously upgraded, as stipulated in the EDP. Practical testing elements in national and school-based examinations were also reintroduced in 2016 to help nurture students’ interest and awareness of STEM subjects. Reinforcing this was an increased effort to widen students’ exposure to science through science fairs and centralised science camps. But more controversial yet was the switch to teaching mathematics and science in Bahasa Malaysia by default1; this reversal was completed in 20162.
At the tertiary level, the Blueprint is carrying on with previously implemented initiatives, such as prioritising the building and promoting of industry-led courses, and investing in TVET.
This new round of reforms has so far delivered mixed results. Four years after introducing the Blueprint, the country saw improvements in the TIMSS scores and basic STEM skills (Figures 1 and 2).
However, an examination of STEM education outcomes in Penang reveals less positive trends. Both the number and share of secondary students enroled in STEM3 have been on a persistent decline. Between 2016 and 2019, the percentage of students fell from 48.7% to 45.8%. (Figure 3). The national target level is 60%.
The low STEM uptake is driven by many factors, but the argument that students are not interested in science subjects is only a half-truth in Malaysia’s case. A survey of secondary students in Penang showed that 71% are in fact interested in the sciences. Yet, of the students who claimed to be interested, not all are in the Science Stream or are planning to pursue STEM.
It is interesting to note that in the student’s mind, there is a distinction between school science and societal science. The former is lamentably associated with textbooks, teachers and school laboratories – not at all the kind of science students identify with the modern world, and most importantly, have keen interest in.
Studies have shown that teaching methods and teacherstudent interactions outweigh syllabus content in generating and sustaining interest;4 and that the quality of teaching forms a major, if not the most influential, factor in continuing with science education5. In order to debunk the notion that school science is too rigid, uncreative and overly exam-based, specialist teachers may be needed to engage students in interactive lessons and to make clear the link between theory and scientific developments.
STEM Pathways – A Winding Road to Success?
Tertiary students do not seem to think of STEM pathways as a worthwhile investment. Not when they perceive these to be substantially more difficult than non-STEM pathways such as finance, and yet not more lucrative, at least not within the domestic job market. This, coupled with a lack of accessible information, has sadly deterred many from pursuing STEM career pathways within the country, inadvertently contributing to Malaysia’s brain drain.
Commencing 2020, upper secondary students no longer need to choose between Science or Art Streams. To boost academic performance, the Education Ministry now allows students to select electives that play to their strengths and interests. The assumption is that encouraging the motivation to study will increase class performance, including in STEM subjects. There is a low to moderate correlation between interest in a subject and achievement, but it is not clear if interest precedes achievement, or if the case is vice versa (Osborne citation).
Less clear still is how the new policy will generate more interest in science. For now, the policy change is overshadowed by the pandemic. In the short run, it does not seem that abolishing the streams will change STEM-enrolment outcomes as schools have considerable freedom in the actual implementation of the policy. And bearing in mind the present crisis, it is possible that schools will fall back on the default method of streaming, in order to prioritise students’ health and safety.
Even more difficult to predict is the policy’s long-term impact, especially since STEM outcomes are dependent on the schools’ eventual responses. It seems HEIs fear that STEM interest and enrolment will only decline, now that students are less likely to be exposed to a wider range of STEM subjects.
Two decades of education reforms and spent resources have provided dismal results, with performance in STEM subjects slipping from when compared to 20 years earlier. Furthermore, STEM uptake is falling. These pose a threat to innovation, and to the economy’s ability to elevate welfare for all.
But be that as it may, meeting industry demands and arbitrary quotas should not be the complete raison d'être for education.
What education in the sciences should do is excite our curiosity and our ability to marvel at the unknown. When this appears to hold decreasing appeal to young people, then something needs to be done. No doubt every new generation holds awe for the world around them, but keeping that awe alive, requires society’s concerted participation.