Borak Pendidikan #1: STEM education

Our new Borak Pendidikan initiative is a series of closed-door, santai-yet-structured ‘Clubhouse-style’ discussions to advance our shared understanding of relevant educational issues. Each session will be on a unique topic, with discussion facilitated by members of the Dialog Pendidikan team. 

During Borak Pendidikan #1, which happened on the first Saturday in September, we talked about STEM education in Malaysia in the present day. Questions we discussed included: what is the role of STEM within a child or young person’s education? What is the current state of STEM education in Malaysian schools? Are there gaps or debates in how STEM education is conceptualised and practised? If so, how can we respond to these? 

Our discussants at Borak #1, in alphabetical order, were:

  • Aizuddin Mohamed Anuar, a PhD student in Education, whose research explores rural young people’s aspirations for development in Malaysia in relation to their STEM education
  • Hwa Shi-Hsia, an infectious disease biologist currently studying TB and coronavirus
  • Kaif, currently working towards a PhD in pure mathematics, and is interested in the philosophy of education
  • Ms Ellen Wong, a teacher with 13 years’ science teaching experience, currently Head of Science Department at an international school and A-level Chemistry teacher
  • Soffea, a primary school teacher who is also STEM coordinator at her school, arranging STEM project-based learning activities
  • Suzieleez, a former classroom teacher and current mathematics education lecturer at a local university
  • Wen Yao, a chartered aeronautical engineer and former jet engine designer.

Here’s a summary of some key points from Borak Pendidikan #1, with quotes from our discussants.

Theme 1: Why does STEM education matter?

STEM education equips us to understand complexity in the world around us.


For me personally, I find that the world we live in is very anchored in maths and science. So STEM education is important not so much because of the content you learn itself, but in the sense this content and these bodies of knowledge actually helps you understand the world you live in. … So for me STEM education has to be viewed in a manner where it is meaningful to the students. STEM is not a subject. It is an approach, where you look at the knowledge that you have and how does that integrate and help you understand the world that you live in. … 


I think the pandemic has really made me appreciate the importance of helping everybody get a good basic STEM education. Because as a biologist, being online, being on WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, and so on during the pandemic, you really get bombarded with questions because people are just absolutely desperate to have an understandable source of information. Because no matter how much of an effort our government is making, I think people still feel like they want to hear straight from the scientist, they want to hear an explanation that is not filtered by PR and so on. … 

STEM education helps build the awareness that the subjects within STEM don’t stand alone, but are integrated. And STEM doesn’t stand alone either, but needs to be complemented by the humanities.


I think STEM is part of the educational programme of a person—and to me personally, I think the most important part of education is to empower the sense of agency in students. Like, you shouldn’t be scared of the problems in the world; rather you should be motivated and be inspired to change things. And one part of education, one part of this programme for instilling a sense of agency is that you have the humanities, where you learn about the extremely complicated problems of the world, you know, economics, emotions, psychology and whatnot. People should be taught to appreciate the complexity of some problems, and some problems need to be approached in a non-reductive way. But there’s a class of problems, which usually have a material nature, where you should try to reduce them to principles. And this is, I think, where STEM comes in. In science, often there are easily articulated principles that can explain many things. So both of these things are extremely important. … 


When STEM is discussed in the education research literature, it’s a distinctly different approach compared to, say, just science or just mathematics, because of the integration of these bodies of knowledge together and its application to real-world problems. … So I think STEM is important because in many ways it tries to remind us that although people study very specific disciplines with different traditions of knowledge and conventions, the real world really doesn’t operate according to disciplinary boundaries. And although we have to develop expertise. It’s important for young people to be able to think in ways that look at a problem, through multiple perspectives and try to apply a broader approach to problem-solving. And the issues that we face today, like the pandemic, or climate change—these are issues that require integrated solutions. … 

A crucial part of STEM education is cultivating ways of thinking about problem-solving (but certain approaches to STEM education can damage our problem-solving styles).


To echo what Miss Ellen and Wen Yao were talking about, namely problem solving in a contextual situation, I just wanted to put a label on this phenomenon: functional intuition. You see that a lot in math—you need to have a functional intuition, you need to know how to put facts together, to put two and two together in order to produce something. I mean there’s almost no regurgitation in math, that you know you need to understand the methods. And I think that’s what science education should be about. … 

Wen Yao

I just want to add a slightly practical perspective from working in STEM. I’ll give you an example of how industry problems are usually phrased. So in my experience, it’s like Airbus comes along and says, “Hey, can I get an engine that gives me 84,000 pounds of thrust at sea level. I want to cruise at 0.95 times the speed of sound. And I want to be able to do that for a specific amount of fuel, and the engine should cost me X amount.” So that’s how the tasks that are given to you are phrased. They don’t tell you to use Newton’s third law or something like that. You’re expected to figure it out. When you have a problem like that, the scale of it is immense. And if you’re thinking that you’re going to get it right the first time, you’re going to be very, very wrong. I mean, chances are that you’re going to fail a few hundred times before you get it right. But the problem, I think, is also the way failure is perceived. This relates to the points about examination. The examination system that I’ve personally been through has made me sort of petrified of failure. So I do not want to get things wrong, and I try my best not to do that. And obviously any sane person would, but it is very limiting when you are trying to come up with a solution to something, and you are unwilling to try out different things, because you’re afraid that you will be wrong. And in such situations, trying to solve Airbus’ problem on delivering an engine for them is going to be very difficult, if you’re not willing to explore and really just tap on all the skill sets that you already know, all the areas that you know, to come up with a solution for what the customer actually demands. … 

Theme 2: What is the state of STEM education in Malaysia?

STEM education in Malaysia usually provides a strong foundation in content knowledge about science and mathematics.


I really like what I’m hearing from everybody, and when I got your input and was processing it, I came up with two thoughts. So number one is that one value of STEM education is to actually appreciate the content itself. Even if some facts that you’re learning might not solve any problems in the world, but in itself there is this beauty in it. And number two is about looking at STEM education as a lens for understanding the complexity of the world. I like the statement that some of you made about how you don’t have to go through STEM education with the objective that you want to be a scientist or a mathematician or anything—it’s just about understanding the world around us. So, I like that. And I would like to pass it on to my students. … 


I will give some shoutouts to the Malaysia system first, before we look into some of the flaws. In terms of what we have done well, I think we are very good at content retrieval. Like among science students, we are being built to memorize, we are being built to absorb. So we are a very good empty hard disk that can really just download everything and then spew it out. It’s not a bad thing if you talk about pedagogy or in the psychology of learning, because there are certain things that we do have to memorize. And so content retrieval is very strong in the science learner. And because of this, we are very resilient, because we know it takes discipline, it takes being efficient with time management. … And because of this we also cultivate a mindset like, “What does not kill you makes you stronger.” So the mindset is that, if I can come up from the science stream, I can do anything. That also boosts confidence. … 

In Malaysian schools, STEM subjects tend to be taught in a standardised and exam-oriented way—and this can affect children’s passion and creativity.


I was schooled in the UK for five years, when I was in Year 3 up till when I was in Year 8. And when I was in the UK, I was super passionate about science. I was the kid who read encyclopedias before bed. I was so sure that I wanted to be a scientist. I could score in science tests super easily. But when I moved to Malaysia I realised just how differently science was taught in comparison to the UK, and my passion rapidly decreased. I wasn’t as passionate. I wouldn’t say that Malaysia is bad, actually, but it was definitely very different. … As a coincidence, I had the opportunity to do food experiments back in the UK and also in Malaysia. And when I was in the UK, the food experiment we actually had to bring food to school and we had to test, why this part of the food was protein, why is it fat, and so on and so forth. But when I came back to Malaysia, the way that we did food experiments was we had to mix chemicals. We has to mix the starch solution with the iodine—and that is so very straightforward. We didn’t have any platform to explore why is such food this and that food group. So I thought, It’s so boring! … 


At the beginning, when I started teaching during my first two years, I realized that I was quite confined with teaching science, and I almost wanted to switch to teaching languages. Because I was actually, like many, the product of the spoon-feeding system. So I realized that teaching science was very much confined by finishing the syllabus and getting students ready for exams, so there’s not much to expand our creativity in the way we want the student to engage. So a lot of the time it’s very didactic in the textbook. But, you know, when I started teaching the international syllabus based on the British curriculum, I think I can echo what Miss Soffea mentioned just now about how she has some culture shock in learning science from the UK compared to being in Malaysia. It was really interesting for me to look at the way that Cambridge Assessment drafted up the kinds of engagement activities to help in how to teach in the class. That makes me realize that hey, that we can be creative in teaching STEM as well. We can actually engage them in thinking out of the box. … 

When children are offered the chance to solve problems with their STEM lessons hands-on, they rise to the challenge.

Wen Yao

I think the most significant STEM experience for me was taking part in a water rocket competition when I was in Form 4. That really brought out a lot of the realness of what I was learning in class to life. So we had to, you know, figure out how to build the rocket that would fly the furthest or stay airborne for the longest time. And you had to just implement everything that you know from your class, and try to come up with an estimate of what you think would be the best design. … 


One STEM education-related experience that means a lot to me is that as part of my PhD research, I spent part of a school year doing research in one specific secondary school in Pantai Timur. And we engaged in this STEM education project, trying to address a particular problem related to development or pembangunan in their community, and it was a really interesting experience trying to do something different than what they are usually doing in school. And so we ended up working on a recycling project, because although they are in a rural community they increasingly have observed that there’s a lot of plastic pollution that’s creeping in. So we discussed the problem, came up with a potential solution and applied these sort of techniques to participate in a STEM competition at a local university. So I think that those kinds of experiences remind me of how education is much broader than, you know, just exams or trying to finish the syllabus so a lot of the kind of pressures that we are usually faced with when talking about the education system. … 

We need to rethink what we mean by success in STEM education, whether in our education policy programmes or for individual students.


The official criteria for making a STEM culture in school, I just find it extremely superficial. It’s so much on the surface. I just don’t see how that actually helps our students. They want to see billboards on STEM. They want to see a STEM corner in every classroom. And there’s just very little emphasis on what the students are doing; it’s mainly the physical structure of the school that they are focusing on. They want to know how many STEM books there are in the library, not how many students are reading STEM books. I just don’t see how that is actually helping our students to be STEM-inclined. And I think a lot of schools struggle with the same thing. … 


I was thinking about what Ellen was saying about the exam-oriented curriculum … And that gives us a big blind spot in one area which is very important to people who actually do STEM-related things for living, which is the questions of where are the gaps in our knowledge, where are the unknowns, and also the freedom to make mistakes. So in our education system, if you make a mistake, then it’s something shameful. You’re going to be punished, you have to do pembetulan, you know, you get scolded by the teacher in front of the class. And if you say, “I don’t know,” in answer to a question, then it’s like, “Why don’t you know? Why didn’t you read the textbook?” and so on. And it gives the illusion that somewhere out there, whether it’s in a book or an expert, somewhere out there is somebody who knows everything. And that there’s some source of knowledge that is fixed and immovable. … This ties back to what Kaif was talking about logic. I think one of the important concepts in logic and game theory is the question of how do you know certain things, how do you know if other people know certain things. And this has very important real-world implications when we’re talking about things like fake news, policymaking, and all kinds of different things in society. So there has to be a modernizing and improving STEM education. Education should include some sort of lowering the bar and not having so much like moral punishment or social punishment from making mistakes. And also this idea of trying to have a better mental picture of what you’re doing and where the gaps in our knowledge are, and so on. … 

Our closing thoughts as the Borak Pendidikan team:

Firstly, we are grateful and humbled by the richness and authenticity brought by all the participants to this short discussion, and their willingness to share, listen and respond to one another. The seven key ideas under the two themes above are our summary of the discussion, and really make us optimistic about the intellectual capital that exists within our system to engage more meaningfully with the challenges relating to STEM education and nation-building.

We concluded the discussion with two provocations for our discussants—and for you, our readers:

The first provocation is what we call the standardisation problem

An underlying theme in the discussion, which is the long shadow of modernity that is cast upon the history of STEM education in Malaysia. An implication of this is that standardisation is viewed as a very appealing way of running a country: a top-down, bureaucratic approach that dovetails with our “Asian” hierarchical traditions.

The challenge here is that, on one hand, standardisation can be important from an equity perspective because it can help to maintaining a shared baseline of what people can access and expect from their educational experience. The flip side, as many discussants have pointed out, is that Malaysian education is sometimes over-standardised, so that the standards become the end goals, which restricts the relevant actors from seeking authentic and relevant local solutions. Moreover, standardisation is often measured through narrow indicators of success that don’t always authentically reflect the substance of what is desired—and can be gamed or manipulated (as succinctly expressed by Campbell’s Law). 

The second provocation, linked to the first, is the hierarchy of values problem

In our view, the privileged position of STEM in relation to other fields can sometimes distort our life choices, as in the familiar example of the high-scoring student who wants to study humanities but is pressured to remain in science stream throughout schooling, only to ultimately choose not to pursue a career in STEM. The hierarchy of values question, we believe, in some way takes the passion out of STEM and penalises STEM itself because, as we found in our discussion, STEM benefits from interdisciplinarity, and finds fuller expression through rich interaction with the humanities and social sciences. 

So the two questions we leave with you are: 

  1. How can we resolve this standardisation question while still maintaining a good baseline of equity?
  2. How can we really promote and advance STEM in Malaysia while also building up individuals and our understanding of knowledge in a comprehensive and holistic way? 

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