(File pix) Muhammad Hazid Ikhwan Zulkarnain (left) and his mentor, Mohd Syakir Fathillah with his invention, the Smart Queue Management System. Pix by NSTP/Azhar Ramli

THE alleged waning interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) among school students have been lamented by various quarters.

Among the main issues students face is that the teaching and learning of STEM in schools generally present very little excitement and is very much a one-sided affair in the classroom, with teachers providing the information and knowledge. As the delivery is not engaging, many students are not able to grasp scientific concepts and their relevance in every day life, hence, the disinterest in STEM.

The situation is worse at schools in rural or semi-urban areas, where exposure to all things STEM and the chance to have exploratory activities to learn about STEM are hard to come by.

Members of the Graduate Academic Competence Empowerment Programme (Program Pemerkasaan Kompetensi Akademik Siswazah) at Faculty of Engineering and Built Environment (FEBE) in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), also known as PKAS, took the matter into their own hands and decided to immerse students at three secondary schools in Sepang, Selangor, in the world of STEM.

The schools — SMK Sungai Rawang, SMK Pantai Sepang Putra and SMK Sungai Pelek — participated in a five-phase mentor-mentee project that kicked off in October 2017 and lasted until December last year.

PKAS director Dr Kalaivani Chellappan said PKAS was an interdisciplinary research group focusing on Industry 4.0 — particularly the Internet of Things (IoT) automation in healthcare, education and industry safety, and productivity improvement.

“Working closely with UKM’s Faculty of Education and the Selangor State Education Department (JPNS), we emphasised the importance of STEM and highlighted to teachers, parents and students how knowledge and skills in STEM will bring us into the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR),” she said.

“With the help of mentors comprising undergraduates and graduates, the UKM-JPNS Mentor-Mentee: STEM-IoT programme aimed to instil interest in students in STEM, and show them the potential of technology and how it could shape their career choices in the future.”

The programme started with awareness talks and a STEM carnival that were aimed to introduce the concept of STEM and the development of STEM-based innovations.

It then progressed to the selection of 20 Form 2 students from each school to enter a STEM design thinking challenge. It saw the students participating in embedded systems and circuit design workshops as well as in workshops where they learned to develop mobile applications that could interface with their designs.

This was followed by mentoring sessions by UKM undergraduate and postgraduate students, who guided their mentees for the STEM-IoT 2018 competition, which required them to come up with a solution for urban farming.

The subject is close to them as they are members of an agricultural-based community in Sepang.

“Through the competition, we could test their understanding and assess their level of thinking.

We also noted students with potential to attend the STEM-IoT School Attachment programme at the UKM main campus in Bangi for three weeks starting from Dec 2,” said Kalaivani, adding that the enthusiasm and seriousness of mentees in the programme made the selection process a challenge.

Muhammad Hazid Ikhwan Zulkarnain, 14, from SMK Sungai Rawang and Nur Iman Mohd Shahrel Faizal, 14, from SMK Pantai Sepang Putra were selected as apprentices atUKM’s FEBE.

For three weeks, Hazid and Iman stayed at the university hostel and led the life of university students, which included getting to the labs via the UKM bus transport and working from 9am to 6pm on their STEM-IoT projects.

Under the tutelage of mentor Mohd Syakir Fathillah, a UKM research officer who has a electronic systems engineering masters degree, Hazid came up with an android-based smart queue management system that he said was ideal for the healthcare service industry.

“The solution allows patients to be notified of their turn and the room where they will be treated through their mobile phones. They no longer need to wait in front of the LED signage in the clinic for their numbers to be displayed.

“I used Arduino, the open-source electronic prototyping platform enabling users to create interactive electronic objects, developed a mobile app, and learned about the use of Web servers among others,” he said at a sharing session.

During the first week of his attachment, Hazid mostly followed Syakir’s instructions. By the second week, however,Hazid was confident and independent enough to work out the problems and try his hand at coming up with solutions.

“This programme helped me to think critically to develop the app and work out the solution with the knowledge and skills that I have acquired. I hope more students can experience this.”

Iman, meanwhile developed a smart door system that would enable a house owner to lock or unlock doors without being physically present through the use of a mobile application.

Her mentor, Nor Shahirah Shaik Amir — a post graduate student in electrical, electronic and systems, said Iman blossomed from being a quiet girl to someone who could discuss and argue out ideas in the lab in the three-week period.

“She became a proactive and self-motivated student — qualities that even university students find hard to acquire. Her exposure to IoT and systems integration as well as technical skills enabled her to be more creative,” said Nor Shahirah.

Iman believes other kids too should have the opportunity to experience the programme.

“Before this, I thought going to university was just a process after secondary school. From my experience, I can see that being at university exposes you to beyond classroom experience — there are so many avenues for exploration of all kinds of knowledge here.”

Sepang Education Department assistant director Mohd Alias Awang said the mentor-mentee programme had given a positive impact on the schools.

“It would be delightful if the programme continues. Effective mentoring processes enable students to continuously explore STEM in the future. With mentoring added with patience, hard work and a high level of discipline, it is not impossible for local scientists to be born from rural areas,” he said, adding that Iman and Hazid had to be role models for their friends and schoolmates and inspire their interest in STEM.

Kalaivani said PKAS intended to continue and expand the mentor-mentee programme in future.

“PKAS is confident that quality university students are moulded from those who have a strong STEM interest and knowledge at the school level. PKAS also trains students and alumni of UKM to become entrepreneurs and technoprenuers in their respective fields of expertise. PKAS aims to produce high quality human capital in terms of scientific integrity as well as willingness to serve the country in the future.”

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