Urgent Need To Develop New ideas To Promote STEM Education

There is an urgent need to improve the welfare and benefits of engineers in Malaysia before we lose our talents to other countries due to globalisation, specialist Wong Chee Fui warned.

Urgent Need To Develop New ideas To Promote STEM Education

There is an urgent need to have a paradigm shift and to develop new ideas to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in Malaysia.

According to Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR) specialist Wong Chee Fui, who is also a professional engineer and a technologist, despite having set goals to achieve the 60:40 ratio for STEM education in our education policy, Malaysia has not been able to achieve the targeted 60% STEM students for the past 20 years for STEM education.

Wong, a former executive director at the Institution of Engineers Malaysia (IEM), was commenting on the demand for more engineers in the country, which aims to become a high-technology nation by 2030.

“Engineering studies are perceived to be technical and difficult compared to other degrees such as the arts and economics.

“This is because engineering students are supposed to be trained to achieve the graduate attributes in compliance with the International Engineering Alliance and the Washington Accord standards, which are globally accepted and recognised,” he said.

Wong added that although engineers are a regulated profession much like doctors, lawyers and accountants, the general perception that the remuneration for engineers in Malaysia is not on par with that of other professions or even engineers in other countries has led to the low uptake of engineering courses at institutes of higher learning in recent years.

There is an urgent need to improve the welfare and benefits of engineers in Malaysia before we lose our talents to other countries due to globalisation, he warned.

“One way to help attract more students to pick up engineering is by introducing a special allowance – similar to that for doctors – and improving the starting salary of graduate engineers in both the public and private sectors,” he added.

Echoing his sentiments, INTI International University pro vice chancellor Prof Dr Leong Wai Yie said more of what needs to be done is to make engineering more attractive to bright students.

“Educational institutions, employers of engineers, and government policymakers have to move aggressively to address the issues effectively,” said the former IEM vice president.

To encourage more students to study engineering, Prof Leong recommended reforming the curriculum.

“We need to emphasise the creative aspects of engineering and show that it is about solving problems, not just solving equations,” she said, adding that more exposure needs to be given to primary schoolchildren to learn what engineering is.

“Universities should work with local communities, schools and teachers to talk about engineering. It’s important to start working with schools as early as possible – leaving it to the secondary school level is actually too late,” she stressed.

Prof Leong is also of the view that universities can step up on the way they offer careers advice. “Students need exposure to industry and careers information at the stages at which they are making choices”.

“Universities need to do more to partner with industry and local schools to make this happen, providing students with hands-on, work-related experience, and access to recent graduates or apprentices, and demonstrating the exciting contributions engineering makes to current and future issues and how the university engineering degrees will lead to rewarding jobs,” she said.

She added that it is important to give young professionals exposure to different areas of engineering, having them rotate into various site functions over a 12-month period, and allowing them access to senior peers.

Agreeing, UTAR president Prof Datuk Dr Ewe Hong Tat said the demand for professional engineers will continue to be high as science and technology continue to drive the growth of human societies.

“The teaching of STEM-related subjects should emphasise both theory and practical learning. Hands-on experiments will help inspire and develop students’ interest further.

“These experiments should relate to their daily life and natural phenomena so that they can appreciate and understand the importance of STEM,” said Prof Ewe, who is also the Asean Academy of Engineering and Technology (AAET) president.

Science and engineering workshops and fairs, such as the Kuala Lumpur Engineering and Science Fair (KLESF), have been doing a good job in attracting thousands of students to participate each year, he added.Noting a decline in the number of engineering students in recent years, Prof Leong said many factors have contributed to it, including the difficulty of the curriculum, the attractiveness of alternate paths to good technical jobs, and the lack of attractiveness of projected employment paths for engineering graduates.

“This decline has occurred at a time when the employers of engineers face new challenges due to globalisation, offshore outsourcing, and the need to ‘move up the food chain’ in innovation and technical expertise in order to remain competitive – thus creating a demand for more highly qualified engineering graduates,” she said.

Also observing the decline in the intake of engineering students, chartered chemical engineer and fellow of the Institution of Chemical Engineers and the Royal Society of Chemistry Hong Wai Onn said this is not limited to just a few universities.

Describing it as “an alarming issue”, he said the decline is due to many students feeling insecure about their engineering career prospects, especially post-Covid-19. “They worry that the engineering profession will become obsolete because of the rise of the gig economy.

They ask me about the career prospects of engineers in Malaysia whenever I meet them in the classroom or during group discussions,” he added. He, however, asserted that given the rapid developments in science and technology, engineering will continue to be one of the most in-demand careers in the country.

On why she would recommend students to be engineers, Prof Leong said engineers can transition into different roles comparatively easily. “It’s easy for engineers to switch careers at a later stage because they’re very analytical and easy to train.

“If they want to go into consultancy, entrepreneurism, management, planning, finance, invention, data science, analysis, research or investment, they can pick it up with some training. “But the reverse is not true. Non-engineers will find it hard to switch to this profession,” she said.