Besides schools and universities, science education can take place very successfully when researchers interact with society on the ground.
THE number of students taking subjects in science at the SPM and STPM level has dramatically decreased and we should be alarmed.
Lack of interest in science is a global issue. A recent Australian report says that while the overall number of students attending the 6th form has increased by 16% in the last decade, the portion of these students taking up chemistry, biology, physics and mathematics has declined by about 38%.
Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are drivers of the economic wellbeing of any country. In the automotive, palm oil, rubber, medicinal/pharmaceutical and other industries of Malaysia, STEM knowledge and know-how are the important prerequisites for success.
The world is now facing some serious crises, the most critical being climate change. The Conference of Parties (COP21) was held recently in Paris.
Attended by more than 160 countries including Malaysia, COP21 is regarded as one of the last efforts of humankind to ensure that the world’s temperature will not reach the increment of 2°C by the end of this decade.
In our own midst, Malaysians have and will be witnessing the effect of climate change in the form of unprecedented floods, heat waves and cyclones. Such events, we know, will be a norm in the near and not-too-distant future.
Our mitigating efforts in the context of disaster management – which seem to be focusing more on preparing food, clothing and medicines – are commendable but not sufficient.
We need indigenous wisdom and capacities to be innovative in terms of the tools and “know-how” of, if possible, preventing and not merely mitigating the effects of such climate change-induced disasters.
For example, floods will cause damage to sewerage and clean water delivery systems, which in turn will have an impact on health. STEM-based professionals and para-professionals will have the leading role in helping the victims and the country by inventing and innovating the necessary means and tools.
Can we imagine encountering such critical times without the necessary manpower (engineering and techno-scientific experts) to help? This would be the situation if the trend of not mastering sciences or STEM is allowed to follow its current course.
The scenario described above is a summary of the need for science literacy to be massively improved in our society. Not merely do the teachers who teach science have to do their science teaching in a creative way, to spark and maintain interest among students in STEM subjects. Parents, too, have to encourage their children to pursue science subjects.
Besides, as already proven in France, if properly trained, non-science-based teachers, especially at the primary level, can successfully teach science as well. Granted, the career path of those who pursue science in higher education may not be too clear sometimes, but this misperception can be unravelled and cleared up.
According to a recent chief scientist’s report, 75% of the fastest growing occupations today actually require STEM skills and knowledge. Students or those entering the job market need to be exposed to STEM content in their curricula, at least up to the secondary level.
Education in science can also take place very adequately and successfully via what is known as citizen science. One particular example is the HEARTWARE approach undertaken by the Asian Core Program (ACP) researchers of Universiti Malaya (UM), the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS), as well as Ikim.
The focus of the HEARTWARE group was to educate six villages in Kuala Selangor along the Sungai Selangor about the ecology (very much a part of STEM) of the river. The word “HEARTWARE” is significant as the thrust was to make the citizens/villagers residing in the watershed area reflect and articulate the values of the river in and on their lives.
Besides the ecological resources being explained to them in simple language, villagers were asked to identify and express their values in terms of the river being the source of their livelihood in the historical, cultural and socio-economic contexts.
Whilst doing so, the awareness and “hearts” of the villagers were lit up and they were moved to be conscious custodians of the river and its watershed for their benefit as well as the benefit of the millions of people in the Klang Valley who rely on Sungai Selangor for their water supply.
Looking at the rich flora and fauna of Kampung Kuantan, the attraction of the fireflies (Pteroptyx tener) along the Sungai Selangor is worth highlighting.
Lighting up their habitat, hundreds of thousands of pokok berembang (Sonneratia caseolaris), like Christmas trees via their synchronous flickering, the firefly community at Kampung Kuantan has become a world-class tourist attraction since the 1960s.
To date, only two countries in the world are known to be endowed with such a site. The other site lies deep in the jungles of the Amazon.
Today, the fireflies are threatened because of the lowering of the quality of the river water, which in turn is threatening the pokok berembang which only grows naturally along the banks of the river.
In order to empower the local villagers to not merely feel depressed about the declining state of “their” river which in effect is the pulse of their lives, scientific knowledge was critical.
What the researchers involved did was to create special groups such as Kelab Alami KAWA (Japanese for river) and Rakan Alam Sekitar Masjid (Mosque-based friends of the Environment), whose members are given scientific information and the “know-how” regarding the measuring of the quality of the river water, as well as other dos and don’ts for sustaining the river and its rich flora and fauna.
Awareness about how the local households and industries nearby could affect the river system is also highlighted.
The Asian Core project demonstrates how science literacy can be dramatically enhanced when and if scientists and researchers can interact with society on the ground and capitalise on local values and knowledge.