Catering to the labour market | Daily News

Catering to the labour market

The Cabinet recently decided to appoint a subcommittee, comprising the Ministers of Education, Higher Education, Vocational Training and Skills Development and Science Technology and Research to prepare a Strategic Plan for promoting STEM education in Sri Lanka.

A timely move, indeed!

STEM is more than just an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. STEM is an approach and a way of thinking for educators – and to a certain extent parents – to help students integrate knowledge across subjects by incorporating flipped learning. By flipped learning it’s meant a type of blended learning that reverses the traditional environment by delivering instructional content outside of the classroom. It also encourages students to think in a more logical and holistic way in order to be equipped with 21st Century skills.

Experiences from many other countries reveal that a vibrant capacity in STEM education is pivotal to increasing a nation’s productivity. During the last two decades, STEM has become a central preoccupation of education policymakers across the world. In fact, in some developed countries, the system is now upgraded to STREAM adding robotics and arts as fields.


This writer has studied how a number of countries have successfully implemented STEM education system and the corresponding benefits they have reaped. With that background, he wishes to point our few issues which might have to be addressed by the sub-committee.

(1) How STEM enrolments can be introduced in three domains of our educational activities: (a) Cognitive: mental skills (knowledge), (b) Affective: growth in feelings or emotional areas (attitude or self), (c) Psychomotor: manual or physical skills (skills). Most countries have allocated this as number one priority.

(2) Extent of access and absorption of STEM graduates to the labour market according to the estimated human requirements needed for projected economic growth in the next two decades.

(3) The perceived relevance of STEM to social growth and well-being of citizens.

(4) A detailed study of other countries how they have successfully increased STEM uptake with an analysis of its impact on their workforces, and lifting national performance. Study should also analyse what strategies, policies and programmes they have used to enhance STEM at all levels of education.

(5) Are measures put into effect in other countries and cultures successful and how has this been evaluated?

(6) Could such measures be applied in the Sri Lankan context, taking into account our typical racial, religious and cultural diversity?

(7) If not, how should the policy framework be modified to accommodate the application of appropriate measures which are acceptable to all sectors.

The country comparisons are needed for us to draw out lessons and ideas from them for introducing STEM policy and strategy in Sri Lanka. To this end, the support of a team of professionals with relevant experience (including foreign experts) can be utilized.

In global terms, Sri Lanka has so far lacked the national urgency found in the United States, East Asia and much of Western Europe, and runs the risk of being left behind.

Basics of STEM

The countries which are strong in STEM may be diverse in their economic policies, political, social and religious cultures and traditions but in their educational policies, certain features recur in common.

First, school teachers enjoy high esteem, are better paid and work within more meritocratic career structures. In China, STEM teachers receive salary increases not on the basis of seniority but via continuing professional development programmes, specific to the discipline. To be promoted China’s teachers must demonstrate an improving standard of work.

Secondly, these countries have a solid commitment to disciplinary content knowledge. They do not equate teaching with class management and credentials alone. They focus on content knowledge, experiences and skills related to the content and critical thinking in a way that is meaningful within the content area. This contrasts sharply with our country where academic and professional development is primarily focused exclusively on the content knowledge rather than generic programmes.

Thirdly, these countries have instituted active programmes of reform in curriculum that are focused on making science and mathematics more engaging and practical, through problem-based and inquiry-based learning, and emphases on creativity and critical thinking.

Fourthly, these countries have developed strategic national policy frameworks for STEM which provide favourable conditions for a range of activities: Government funded programmes, including curriculum reform and new teaching standards, world class university programmes, the recruitment of foreign science and mathematics talent, decentralised programme initiatives and partnerships and engagement that link STEM activities in schools, vocational and higher education with industry, business and the professional organisations.

Designed-backed tasks

The integrated STEM instruction is typically accomplished through research - the use of problem or design-based tasks to engage students in addressing complex contexts that reflect real-world situations. For example, students might be invited to build an oven that is environmentally friendly or functional in settings where people do not use or not have access to electricity.

The students would use the engineering process to create a solar oven and in doing so investigate a wide range of STEM concepts such as the thermal properties of materials and how density affects a material’s performance as a thermal insulator. They might use mathematics for measuring, and for graphing and interpreting data, and even develop a mathematical model of device behaviour to inform the process of design.


A classic example of success in STEM education is Malaysia. The importance of Mathematics, Science and Technology education has always been a priority in Malaysia.

This can be seen as far back as 1970 with the implementation of the first National Science and Technology Enrolment Policy of 60:40, which guaranteed that 60 percent of students would be enrolled in science and technology with the remaining 40 percent in arts.

In 1991, Vision 2020 was implemented and one of the goals was to establish a scientific and innovative society. As a result, the government has since established 69 science secondary schools and 51 Junior Science Colleges.

To move a step closer in achieving the goal, the Malaysia Education Blueprint was initiated in 2011. One of the priorities identified in the blueprint was STEM.

In August last year, Prime Minister Haji Mohammad Najib bin Tun Haji Abdul Razak announced that computational thinking skills will be integrated into the country’s school curriculum in January 2017 starting with students in Year One, Forms One and Four. Why computational thinking? That is because computational thinking and STEM go hand-in-hand.

In other words, computational thinking is the ability to think in a structured and logical way. This type of thought process is a methodical approach to solve problems and is used by engineers and programmers.

With 2020 just on the horizon, Malaysia is moving closer to the realisation of the goal to establish a scientific and innovative society.

Skill training

In the writer’s opinion, STEM education is a must for our country and should be introduced soon, at least for three good reasons.

STEM education makes students learn the skills together and study information (investigative skills of science), evaluate and make sense of information (analytical skills of mathematics) and determine how the information can solve a problem (inventive skills of engineering) using the technology available to them today.

STEM provides students with the opportunity to investigate information provided to them in order to understand it based on their own experiences; also known as contextual learning. By allowing students to construct their own meaning and understanding of an area of study strengthens their learning.

STEM also makes learning more relevant as students are exposed to the concept of what they learn based on current and real-world situations. By facilitating and asking the right questions, educators can stimulate students to incorporate identifying, comparing, predicting and testing activities in their investigation thus nurturing problem-solving skills. 


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