Empowering STEM teachers to attract and better educate students

Petronas has set up PDG to upskill STEM teachers with an aim to reach 4,500 teachers as participants by 2030

by AZALEA AZUAR / pics courtesy of Yayasan Petronas

THE declining interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects among many students in Malaysia is worrying, as Arts and Humanities, Education, Social Sciences, Business and Law are becoming more popular.

Former Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Minister Yeo Bee Yin said students are either opting for easier subjects or they might not realise the importance of science.

Meanwhile, Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Khairy Jamaluddin Abu Bakar said the annual tertiary education enrolment in STEM courses was 40% in 2016 from the targeted 60%, according to the Science Outlook Report for 2017.

STEM for IR4.0

Yayasan Petronas CEO Nelly Francis Shariah believes STEM education is important to address the increasing demand of skilled technical workforce as the country gears towards Industrial Revolution 4.0 (IR4.0).

“We need a sustainable source of talent that can address the complexities and challenges of the 21st century, so Malaysia can continue to remain competitive. However, this is not an easy task to achieve,” she said.

The Malaysia Science Outlook 2017 also revealed that there is an average decline of 6,000 students in STEM enrolment each year.

Nelly feared this declining trend will affect how Malaysia moves into the future, as well as the attractiveness of local higher education institutions for international students, which would then affect the country’s ranking.

To address this growing concern, Yayasan Petronas had set up the Program Duta Guru (PDG) to upskill STEM teachers.

Currently, around 200 teachers have enrolled in the programme and it is hoped to reach 4,500 teachers by 2030.

PDG is a long-term programme which focuses on addressing teachers’ competency in three phases.

The first phase, which started last year and will end in 2022, is on awareness and acceptance, while the second phase, from 2023 to 2025, will focus on building internal depth and expertise.

Lastly, the third phase will be on mastering continuous improvement and sustainability which will take place from 2026 to 2028.

The Education Ministry (MoE) and Yayasan Petronas have collaborated on this programme to ensure substantial value is delivered to and through the teachers, including providing the teachers access to the latest STEM teaching and learning resources “All participating teachers must perform all of the activities that have been set during the programme to receive the status of a ‘Duta Guru’,” Nelly said.

The first year of the programme focuses on building a strong foundation and resilience among the teachers, as well as their skills and capabilities.

The second year would be about guiding the teachers on demonstrating consistent professionalism and focusing on the impact of partnership and sustainability in the school.

“Participants will undergo activities such as training, workshops and visits to the related industries for practical exposure, as well as attending current-situation workshops and courses virtually and when possible physically to further complement their core training,” she explained.

To ensure the teachers’ times are balanced between teaching and attending training, the activities may be conducted during school hours, on weekends or school holidays.

Participants would be using the framework process for STEM innovation projects, resolving issues faced in their school or community, and improving their lessons.

Engaging Scientists

Being a technical industry, Petronas has brought their own scientists into the programme to train the teachers.

“In one of the recent sessions that we had, we brought in Petronas Research Sdn Bhd CEO Dr Shahidah M Shariff, who is now leading our Petronas research team in Bangi.

“She was one of the first Malaysians to be awarded the American Chemical Society International Fellow for the Chemical Industry and Engineering Division,” Nelly said.

Dr Shahidah shared with the teachers about her experience — how the skills she had picked up in the STEM subjects she went through have helped build her career and allowed her to be in the position she is now.

All participating teachers must perform all of the activities that have been set during the programme to receive the status of a ‘Duta Guru’

Making STEM attractive

According to MoE National STEM Centre head Dr Ihsan Ismail, another reason for the declining interest in STEM subjects is parents are more concerned about their children scoring good grades.

“Parents would normally use the drilling method — send their children to tuition centres where they are drilled with questions,” he said.

This teaching or learning style will make the subjects seem boring and tiresome, which the students are only sitting through for the sake of passing examinations instead of for their long-term future.

“They do not know why they have to learn all these subjects, except just to get good results at examinations.

“They cannot relate whatever they have learned to the real world,” said Ihsan.

Therefore, the PDG trains the teachers to work with the inquiry-based education method, where teachers do not simply explain the concept to their students, but encourage them to question certain phenomena to pique their curiosity.

Later, the students were told to investigate and conduct experiments to get the answers to their questions.

“We have been conducting inquiry-based education for the past two to three years and we can see improvement in terms of students’ interests and skills in STEM,” he said.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the Movement Control Order, STEM teachers are also facing challenges in trying to keep their students interested in learning as lessons are now conducted virtually.

“A lot of activities and experiments cannot be done through online classes, therefore students would lose their interest as all they can do is sit and listen to their teachers through the screens.

“There is also the issue of accessibility, where only 30% to 40% can join the online classes.”

Peer-to-peer Sharing

In the PDG, Ihsan is involved in group discussions where participants share their ideas and opinions on various issues, which allows more new perspectives to be gained.

“We like it when our ideas or opinions are being challenged with different or better ones, so teachers need a programme like this to grow.

“This is the kind of platform that we are offering,” Ihsan explained.

Not only are the participants able to discuss ideas with their counterparts within the same school or district, but also among other teachers nationwide.

Currently, applications for the PDG are closed. However, interested teachers can inquire about the next session by writing to [email protected].