13 April 2016

STEM and the future of the nation

By Dr Moritz Mueller

My three-year-old son surprises me with questions every day. It amazes me how much he learns each day. He has an inborn and unbound curiosity, exploring anything and everything. There are many “small” things that we, the adults, no longer take the time to look at, but he shows me many of them every day. As a parent, it makes me proud, and often, curious as well.

Children learn by trying out new things, touching stuff, getting dirty, and testing their own hypotheses about how things work. They are born scientists, often asking and answering their own questions by observation and experiments, as shown in the “Scientific method” chart from Wikipedia below.

Interestingly, my wife, also a lecturer at a local university, asked her second-year students if they considered themselves scientists. Only very few responded in the positive. Somehow, these students who were “born scientists”, have “lost their science” over the course of their kindergarten and secondary school years. The Academy of Sciences Malaysia recently warned that we face a bleak future with only 21% of those in upper secondary schools are keen to study science subjects in 2014. This means only one in five kids continue to be interested in exploring, ask scientific questions, and testing stuff, like my son. The Ministry of Higher Education confirmed that if this trend continues the nation can expect to face a shortage of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) graduates in the coming years.

Is this a problem, you may ask. Everyone is different and develops a different way of life. That is absolutely fine, but STEM is vital to our future, our country, region, and our children. You see, STEM graduates are major drivers of local economies. In the graph below, you will notice straight away that a high percentage of STEM degrees awarded in the top six countries are either in highly developed economies (UK, Japan and US) or in nations challenging the global pecking order (China, India and Brazil). In short and very superficially, a high number of STEM graduates equates to high GDP.

STEM degrees as % of all degrees in 2011
(Source: Accenture Institute for High Performance)

Countless companies in India and Brazil operating in capital-intensive sectors are becoming world leaders in their field and are in need of more skilled workers. Their governments have realised this and are rapidly increasing STEM enrolments at universities. Accenture predicts that Brazil will produce more PhD engineers than the US by this year.

China has, a few years ago, decided to restructure its export-oriented economy to a domestically-driven one, a shift that requires diversification and investment in innovation. Since then, Beijing has implemented a long-term funding programme for science and technology to kick-start knowledge-based sectors in order to supplement its manufacturing sector. Between 2006 and 2010, investments from its Ministry of Science and Technology totalled US$32 billion. China’s investment into R&D was even higher, with US$138 billion in 2011 alone, making it the second biggest R&D investor in the world and the results are there for everyone to see. A staggering 41% of all degrees awarded by Chinese universities were STEM degrees, and the country now stands behind only the United States in the number of science and technology journals published annually.

STEM employment in the US grew three times more than non-STEM employment over the last 12 years, and eight out of 10 most wanted employees were STEM graduates. This is expected to grow twice as fast by 2018. STEM careers are also often regarded as “helping” professions, meaning that they contribute to building communities and transforming nations. STEM professionals solve the complex problems of today’s world and its future, such as researching solutions for global warming, cancer, world hunger, destruction of the environment, and an interdependent world economy.

Introducing our young children and students to STEM opportunities, getting them engaged and excited about it is therefore essential. Realising the importance of boosting such awareness and skills among Malaysian school children, Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus will host the YOUNG INNOVATE 2016, a national level STEM competition where secondary school students create their own innovations using open source hardware and software platforms. Their projects will need to address real life problems which they identify through research, surveys and interviews with the relevant parties in their neighbourhood. These are skills that go back to the Scientific method which are needed to create a more advanced nation. Participating students will learn the necessary skill sets and then have three months to come up with a solution to their problem. Selected teams will compete in the final in Kuala Lumpur at the end of this year.

Like most parents, we cannot help but worry about our son’s future. In view of the significance of STEM, I will certainly encourage him to pursue a career in the field of his interest if he is still interested in this area when he grows up, like his parents did.

Dr Moritz Mueller is a lecturer with the Faculty of Engineering, Computing and Science at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He is contactable at mmueller@swinburne.edu.my