As the number of young people pursuing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) career pathways continues to lag, a number of education programs are aiming to engage youth with STEM opportunities.
A Cambodia Development Resource Institute education report released earlier this year highlighted the mismatch between “what students choose to specialise in and what the labour market needs: too many students are graduating in liberal arts and too few in science, technology, engineering and maths.”
So far this year, efforts to promote STEM professions have included Cambodia’s first Science and Engineering Festival, an event funded by the US Embassy which organisers expected to draw about 3000 people but exceeded expectations with more than 10,000 people attending over three days.
Allen Tan, director of the Golden West Design Lab, a lab that develops products to help people destroy explosive ordnance worldwide, said the festival was a result of his realisation that Cambodia was lacking in STEM education.
“I saw how poor STEM education was in Cambodia and decided I should look into what we can do about that,” Tan said.
“Kids are just not choosing [STEM] as a university track or a vocational track … NGOs dealing with education in Cambodia know that … and the Ministry of Education knows that, they’ve identified that in their plan.”
He looked at a number of possible models before meeting with Lary Bock, the founder of the USA Science and Engineering festival, who acted as a mentor to Tan in the initial stages of planning the Cambodian festival.
Eight months after submitting the concept paper to the Ministry of Education, the festival came to fruition, allowing Cambodian businesses to showcase the opportunities available through a STEM education path.
Local organisations are also contributing to engaging youth in STEM professions.
The Golden West Design Lab hires engineering students while they are still at university and provides them with paid practical experience working as an engineer.
Funded by the US Department of State, the lab focuses on teaching students the skills an engineer needs to know to design and build projects.
“These include practical skills like Computer Aided Design and fabrication, to the theoretical like understanding stress analysis,” Tan said.
Working with chief design engineer, John Wright, an experienced designer from the UK, the student employees work on real life projects.
Twenty-six-year-old Samnang Seng from Takeo province, a third year mechanical engineering student at the National Polytechnic Institute of Cambodia, was hired by the lab eight months ago.
“The first thing I learnt here is 3D printing, ad I learnt how to assemble the designs we print. I’ve also learnt how to use Computer Aided Design,” he said.
“He’s made a remarkable kind of transformation; what they learn in school doesn’t prepare them necessarily to go to work,” said Tan.
Further plans to continue engaging youth with STEM professions include a travelling science roadshow - using many of the exhibits from the Science and Engineering Festival - to access youth in the provinces.
“We’re not trying to be everything, we’re focussing on one aspect … we’re trying to energise STEM education and get people thinking about it as a career, to create a national dialogue and get kids excited,” said Tan.
Tan said the idea of the festival is not to have just one event but a series of events and support structures that are there year round to build momentum around STEM in Cambodia.