Giving students the tools to experiment
By Tengku Azian Shahriman, Executive Vice President & Partner of PEMANDU Associates
“WHAT is your name?” I asked. “Muhammad,” whispered the young boy wearing a jubah, who was representing his tahfiz school at the recent Young Innovators Challenge. When I asked him to tell me more about his project, Muhammad began to shyly describe the security device he and his team mates developed to protect his school from intruders. However, as he continued to explain to me the intricacies of the system, he couldn’t hide his enthusiasm for the project as his face grew visibly more animated and his voice became more confident. His excitement for the project was both endearing and contagious, and I was eager to see the other innovations on offer.
I didn’t have to look far. In the next booth, Usha was already a clear winner as the project lead of another security system. I listened in rapt attention as she went into detail on the sophisticated security device her team developed specifically for gated communities. Her team’s security device would enable visitors to be tracked from the point of entry at the guard house until they exit. The choice of a gated community as a focus reflected the demographics of her school’s student body, which she added was lucky to be able to enjoy coding, robotics and programming lessons at private learning centres as an after-school activity.
One encouraging shift I noticed was that girls are no longer strangers in science competitions. Speaking to a petite innovator who confidently explained to me the details of her electronic flag raising device in perfect English, I thought perhaps years of efforts to encourage young women to pursue their interests in science have finally paid off. This self-assured young lady also shared with me how technology has made the process of learning more efficient, fun and intuitive, declaring she learned to speak English and Korean, thanks to the internet.
Not being very scientifically minded, I was impressed that she and her two team mates enjoyed coding and programming as hobbies, but I was disheartened to hear that they cannot pursue their interest much further as science is not offered after Form Three in their school.
The challenge held earlier was refreshing because it was inclusive and diverse, bringing more than 200 students from 22 schools in Selangor ranging from national schools, national religious schools, international schools, vernacular schools and tahfiz schools together to celebrate their creativity and creations. The excitement in the air was palpable, generated by students who had a keen curiosity for innovation with many of them seizing the opportunity to experiment and invent without being boxed in by rigid curriculum and learning methods.
Ironically, these young inventors were given the space to explore and innovate simply because their teachers didn’t know enough about coding and therefore couldn’t “instruct” or “direct” their students. This is not a criticism of the teachers, and indeed they were very supportive of their students. While coding is taught (under the Asas Sains Komputer and Reka Bentuk & Teknologi subjects) in schools, teachers find it a challenge to catch up with technology which changes at a pace that few can keep up with. To prepare for the Young Innovators Challenge, the students and teachers were supported by the secretariat, Chumbaka, which offers coding, programming and STEM programmes at their centres, and by the students of the engineering faculty at Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) in Shah Alam.
When we read countless articles on Malaysia not being able to move up the value chain in manufacturing or that we are still stuck in IR3.0 while the world is accelerating towards IR4.0, we must look for answers to this conundrum.
The answers lie with our young generation, whether they are in vernacular schools or national schools. Being young, they are not able to suppress their natural curiosity to learn and explore. The Government and teachers can stimulate learning by giving them the tools and space to experiment and innovate. These tools can be inexpensive, such as using open-source embedded systems and software. Teachers should also feel comfortable stepping back and be facilitators and not “teach” a prescribed curriculum to students. It is no wonder when I learned that the Education Ministry has introduced coding in schools, I cannot help but fear if the rigidity of the teaching and learning methods or curriculum that characterise our national schools will curb the students’ inquisitiveness and steal their enthusiasm. My mind also wonders about the petite young budding scientist I spoke to and whether her interest in STEM, clearly ignited by this competition, will be sustained or just simply fade away after Form Three when there is no science stream in her school.
Another thing that struck me about the challenge is that we can use a common interest to bring all Malaysians of various demographic groups, race and religion to engage and speak to each other, in a common language of coding. This diversity, from the varied participation of schools, the organising committee and the panel of judges, should be celebrated.
I urge the Government, the Education Ministry and the Academy of Sciences Malaysia to provide stronger collective support to offerings of alternative approaches to the teaching and learning of STEM and technology, if indeed we are to produce innovators and scientists of the future.
The challenge is an annual programme that aims to catalyse maker movement in secondary schools. It has been held yearly since 2013 and has so far involved more than 5,000 students. This year, the state-level competition for Selangor was hosted by UiTM Shah Alam under the sponsorship of Yayasan Sime Darby and Malaysian Technology Development Corporation with Chumbaka as the competition secretariat.
This article was also published in the Star on 1 Dec 2019. Read it here.