STEM education in ASEAN: For informed and improved lives

Southeast Asian economies have taken to Industry 4.0 policies to drive digitization but are their aspirations sustainable? That is, whether do ASEAN nations want to aspire for digitalization of process and still maintain status quo on other policies and/or reform and evolve policies for a technically equipped future. The aspiration for a digital first might be there but how are the Southeast Asian economies prepping their labour force to not go redundant?

Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education is among other strategies adopted by many growing economies to support their digital journey. However, global trends may show among the popular first steps to digitization are through uptake of products such as financial apps and e-commerce. If one had to name the three arms of digitization, then they would be ICT tools and services, business and society.

COVID-19 has accelerated the uptake of digital solutions. Rampant digital transformation has led companies to find faster and cost-efficient solutions with or without physical presence of human capital. Market strategist envision a ‘new normal’ where digital strategies will be most spoken about. Many companies are thought to be using digital technologies hoping to recover faster from the pandemic and be more resilient to such shocks in future.

With a population of over 630 million, Southeast Asia demands a big share of global trade and investments in the digital sector. The mobile-first generation is on a rise in these nations and it is mostly as consumers that people interact with digital tools.

STEM integration in education

Home to some 7,000 Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) with around 12 million students, Southeast Asia is one of the important and fast-growing regions for internationalization of education in the world.

Compared to total student population in ASEAN, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam have a higher number of student population with more than 7 million, 3.5 million, 2 million and 2 million students respectively every year. While Indonesia has a little more than 4500 higher education institutions, Vietnam with a third of the student population that of Indonesia, has only 235 higher education institutions. Philippines has close to 2000 and Thailand has 154 institutions.

It is also important to note nearly 20% of GDP gets spent on education in Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam. Even as education expenditure is high, the countries are not getting enough bang for the buck that goes into education.

A report by Southeast Asian Digital STEM Platform talks about how teacher training is equally important to drive the interest from an integrative approach. This integrative approach says that there is need for teachers to grasp the concept holistically and put it to practice. This comes with research and experiments.

CountryApproach to STEM education
MalaysiaThe govt. has phased plan to implement STEM education until 2025. Being the frontrunner in STEM education, the curriculum includes analysis, critical thinking, hypothesis building and decision making and project-based learning and research through adaptive learning. Media plays a big role in educating both students and the public about the career opportunities in STEM.
SingaporeSTEM as a discipline was brought in to deliver the human capital engine for economic growth. The govt. discussed STEM strategies and policies at all level of education.
CambodiaWith lack of qualified teachers and low motivation for STEM students and fewer STEM institutions, the country has taken to MINT education approach. The program looks at conducive environment for imparting skills in STEM, improving research and capacity building for teachers and researchers.
PhilippinesThe govt. is taking an integrative STEM educational approach and is encouraging student interest in STEM. The ministry organised events at school, technical and regional levels. The country is also conscious of attracting more women for STEM.
ThailandA specially designed STEM education keeping in mind it’s importance for country’s development through integration of STEM. Thailand also recognises the gender imbalance in STEM education. The policy pushes for development of STEM curriculum and mobilization of STEM education in Thai schools.
VietnamNascent stages of STEM education. Approach to STEM has been through MINT education where the students learn by making a selective adoption of ICT tools, devices and apps. Vietnam is takes lessons from Malaysia’s STEM education policies and approach.
IndonesiaPromotion of STEM is priority in Indonesia. Increasing number of graduates from integrative STEM.
MyanmarOutdated curriculum and private school education is expensive. STEM not a priority in any curriculum.

*MINT: Meaningful International Network Training

ASEAN approaches to tech education

Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) is one of the seven priority areas for educational development in Southeast Asia from 2015 to 2035. Acting as a group, the ASEAN countries have come together to form The Southeast Asia Ministers of Education Organisation has about 11 member states and have a regional centre for higher education and development (RHED) in Bangkok, Thailand. Their aim is to drive this initiative across ASEAN nation and to create a pool of technical expertise.

In one of the SEA-TVET consortium meetings, there were few strategies that were recommended for Southeast Asian countries to promote TVET student and staff exchange programs- this would include cross-country industrial attachment and internship programmes. These would be implemented by SEAMEO in order to bring in internalisation and harmonisation to improve TVET competency; Lecture/student exchange, joint research programmes and industrial linkages and; create a networking platform among TVET stakeholders in Southeast Asia.

STEM education endeavours to improve the human capital and capabilities to avoid disruptions like unemployment. Integration of STEM education in school and university curriculum is the need of the hour for these countries as digitization may disrupt jobs that are currently the most sought-after by the people. Training in STEM also helps the people make informed choices in usage of newer technologies which often are prone to frauds and other risks. Lastly, scientific education can help in indigenous innovations that are conscious of local preferences which many early adopters of tech are finding difficult to achieve.

Need for a larger “Idea Generation”

The adoption of Industry 4.0 (4IR) can increase efficiency and productivity by enabling real-time tracking of supply chains for production and inventory management of raw materials and finished goods. Artificial intelligence and machine learning are leading technologies that provide insights into consumer behaviour to customize production. Tedious and menial labour that are often low paid can be overcome by advancement in robotics. Augmented reality and virtual reality can be used to train employees in new tasks.

While new technologies come with affordances, enslavement by technological solutions and lack of innovation might lead to higher global inequality levels. A good example of STEM education would be hackathons. Hackathons are a growing phenomenon in Vietnam, Philippines and Indonesia, ofcourse not to forget the more mature markets of ASEAN – Malaysia and Singapore. Hackathons are very often seen a starting point of the “Idea Generation” both literally and metaphorically. They are thought to be good events where natural disasters can be studieD and mitigation strategies can be thought of.

It is important for the citizen not just to lap-up these technologies in their daily life but also have the foresight to build or help the technologies evolve in line with their cultural nuances. This is possible with STEM education, which prepares the country where people are able to make informed decisions in uptake of digital technologies offered from overseas. Being ignorant of this dynamicity of digital work will perhaps land the people in issues as they will be obligated to use the digital solution provided to them and be controlled by these solutions.

Creating jobs of new nature

Popular opinion on digital transition worldwide is that it might contribute to unemployment. But the fact of the matter is that it perhaps changes the nature of jobs. These jobs may require upgraded skill levels which are often expensive to attain and not a common field of choice among the citizens. But when there is a lack of STEM skills in the people, technology companies entering Southeast Asia may have to import non-native skilled workforce to bridge the skill gaps.

Digital technologies permanently change the organizational structure contributing to phenomenon like hybrid jobs and diversification in jobs. The labour force which lacks the high-level and dynamic technological and interpersonal skills will be vulnerable to redundancy. Developing economies which are welcoming digitization even if to improve their social indicators need targeted and strategic skills and STEM education to respond to fast-changing technological world.



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