Hands-on experience to drive student interest in Stem careers
In the second of a series of reports on the highlights of the Singapore Science Festival this year, we focus on the strides made by local scientists in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and how to groom the next generation of scientists.
SINGAPORE — After one of her students attended classes working with small computers to create circuits and code, he decided to take design and technology as an O-Level subject, saying that he wanted to be a design engineer.
Ms Siah Pei Shan, 29, who teaches such applied science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) learning classes by Stem Inc at secondary schools, said that she was surprised, as were the boy’s teachers. “He was scoring As, and usually such students will go to the pure science stream,” she said.
Classes by Stem Inc are a collaboration between Science Centre Singapore and the Ministry of Education. The boy, now in Secondary 3, wanted the hands-on experience in a workshop because of his dream to be a design engineer.
Ms Siah, who has been a Stem Inc educator for two years, said that early exposure to hands-on work in Stem subjects can generate interest in related careers among students.
And scientists at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) said that more students may embark on Stem careers if they learn that the knowledge acquired in science and maths classes can be applied to solve real-life problems, and not just to pass examinations.
Dr Kwok Sen Wai, 35, an A*Star researcher who works on devices for medical application, said: “If schools can show students that the skills they learn can help them come up with practical solutions to help people ... I think quite a lot of students will be interested.
“Just studying and using research to solve problems are two completely different things.”
Dr Kwok himself chose to go into engineering-related research because he wanted to create something others could use. “If you have a major breakthrough in technology, you can have an impact on a lot of people,” he said.
Programmes that immerse students in research and lab work, could also spark their interest, he added.
A*Star offers research opportunities to upper-secondary and junior college students, and the Ministry of Education (MOE) has a Science Mentorship Programme with institutions such as the Defence Science and Technology Agency, polytechnics and universities. At the A*Star Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN), 2,400 have completed research attachments since 2003, with 59 later joining the institute as research staff.
Dr Kwok said that aspiring scientists should work in a lab before graduating from university. “It’s good to start early ... to see if you really want to do such work, (because) the hours can be gruelling, with graduate students spending 12 to 16 hours in a lab.”
IBN executive director Jackie Ying said that schools should bring in more people working in Stem so students can get to know different jobs in Stem. “People only know what doctors do, and if they’re interested in Stem, they just go to medicine ... (but) there are different ways to make an impact,” she said.
Comparing scientists to artists, she said they have to come up with creative solutions and take risks to do so. For example, a team of scientists — which Dr Ying led — developed a new nanomaterial sensitive to glucose, which can be taken as an oral solution to release insulin in the body when needed, so diabetic patients would not need to prick their fingers to check blood sugar levels all the time.
At a younger age, lower-secondary students can be exposed to Stem Inc’s classes as well. Educators conduct weekly hands-on classes in robotics, food science, perfumery and other applied Stem subjects, reaching out to Sec 1 and 2 students in 60 schools.
For example, in an embedded electronics module that Ms Siah taught, students used Arduino microcontroller boards to create closed circuits, and used code to programme the board. When asked to solve real-life problems, one of her students designed a device to remind his grandmother to lock the house gate. It was a push button located at the gate, and if the gate was left unlocked, an alarm would sound and lights would flash.
Such creative solutions are what Ms Siah hopes to encourage, allowing the students to be free to innovate, and showing them that Stem-related courses are not boring.
She added that more Singaporean engineers were needed, citing a 2016 Manpower Ministry report, where engineering took three of the top 10 professional, managerial, executive and technical occupations with the highest number of vacancies that were hard to fill by Singaporeans.
She said that despite growth in the number of engineering graduates, there was still the problem of vacancies, suggesting that not as many were going into engineering due to a lack of sustained interest.
“(Our classes) link theory to hands-on (learning), so students have a better understanding of how to use the maths and science they learn in school,” said Ms Siah. The Stem Inc classes have no exams, and the students do not have to take down notes conscientiously, so they listen and take part more actively, she said.
Significant Singaporean scientific breakthroughs
1) Thumb drive
The humble thumb drive was first made by Singaporean company Trek 2000, which had a patent for what many refer to as a USB (Universal Serial Bus) stick and partnered with IBM to sell the first commercial USB flash drive in 2000.
2) Portable music player technology
Singapore’s Creative Technology Limited was the first to incorporate a flash memory and storage program into a portable music player, allowing users to electronically erase and re-programme play lists, and listen to thousands of songs on the go.
3) EZ Link
Long before the launch of Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and Android Pay, our very own EZ Link contactless smart card, introduced in 2001, was the first local e-payment system.
4) Glaucoma treatment
A new nanomedicine developed by Singapore Eye Research Institute and Nanyang Technological University’s School of Materials Science and Engineering provides drug therapy for glaucoma patients that can give months of relief with just a single application, reducing reliance on daily medication.
5) Automated Wearable Artificial Kidney
Weighing about 1kg and carried around in a pouch, the wearable kidney allows kidney patients to undergo dialysis wherever they go. It was created by technical experts from Temasek Polytechnic’s Biomedical Engineering Research Centre