SCIENCE: Adopt a practical syllabus

09 November 2012 | last updated at 11:35PM

By Liong Kam Chong, Seremban, Negri Sembilan | letters@nstp.com.my 0 comments

I REFER to “Incentives to study science” (NST, Nov 7). Only 20 per cent of Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) candidates this year are from the science stream, well below the national target of 60 per cent.

Alarmed at the lack of interest in science among students, the Education Ministry is proposing monetary incentives in terms of tax breaks for parents whose children opt for this stream. Offering of scholarships and textbook assistance to encourage more students to enrol in the stream is also being planned.

The 60:40 science: arts policy was first introduced in 1967 by the Higher Education Planning Committee in order to meet projected demand for science graduates. The policy has since been restated and re-emphasised multiple times: in the 1999 National Education Policy, the 2000 National Science and Technology Policy II, and the 2001 Education Development Plan.

Over the years, the extent to which 60:40 targets have been reached has varied. Science stream enrolment reached a high of 37 per cent in 1998 before dropping to a low of less than 20 per cent as is reported now. Notably, through it all, it was never anywhere near 60 per cent at all. One reason given for the drop was the perceived difficulty of science subjects.

Interestingly, the Malaysia Education Blueprint (MEB) 2013-2025 preliminary report gives a new, different perspective to the 60:40 science: arts policy.

The MEB states that in recognition of the growing economic importance of vocational education, the ministry will adjust its 60:40 policy to encourage greater enrolment in the vocational pathway.

The new target is for 60 per cent of upper secondary enrolment in the regular academic pathway (either arts or science) with the balance 40 per cent in the vocational pathway. The 60:40 ratio will also be applied to the academic pathway. That is, 60 per cent of students in the academic pathway should be focused on science (equivalent to 36 per cent of total upper secondary enrolment) and 40 per cent on arts (equivalent to 24 per cent of total upper secondary enrolment).

In essence, we are looking at 36:24:40 in science: arts: vocational. This is a little puzzling. Are we now to envisage that out of 100 students completing SPM, 36 are to be from the science, 24 arts and 40 vocational, thus giving a “premium” to vocational education?

Whither our 60:40 science: arts policy? Are we progressing or are we regressing?

Taking into consideration the urgent need to produce more science-based graduates, the value and versatility of vocational education, the waning interest for science among our students and the hitherto seemingly unattainable 60:40 target, perhaps it is appropriate to do a little thinking out of the box.

FIRST, the present practice of streaming academic students after Form 3 into science and arts needs reassessing. At this early stage, students should be exposed to a more general and broader curriculum rather than a tight, compartmentalised and narrow one.

Streaming them academically into science and arts should be done only in Form 6/Matriculation/Foundation classes.

So, what science studies then for the Form 4 and 5 students? We should begin to consider having one common Science syllabus for all students in the academic, vocational as well as technical streams.

We must also take cognisance that our present arts stream students are not learning enough science; they definitely need to know more science, given the fast expanding knowledge in this field.

I am proposing that all students in Form 4 and 5, irrespective of whether they are in the academic, vocational or technical stream, pursue a common science syllabus that is broader and more practical than the present arts stream science subjects.

At the same time, this “new” science syllabus is to be spared of the “higher-learning preparatory materials” found in the present pure science subjects.

This way, everybody gets to learn sufficient science and there is still enough teaching-learning time left for other subjects.

Lest we fear that our Form 4 and 5 students may lose their edge in the pure sciences, we may know that much of the “higher-learning preparatory materials” now being taught to Form 4 and 5 pure science students can be carried forward to Form 6/Matriculation/Foundation science courses.

Moreover, the introduction phase of these courses always repeats or revises materials currently taught to the Form 4 and Form 5 pure sciences students (I can attest to this as I had taught Form 4, 5 and 6 Physics and Mathematics).

With the impending abolition of the Penilaian Menengah Rendah examination, it is an opportune time for the curriculum people in the ministry to begin designing the curriculum and syllabus for the new common Science subject.

SECOND, we need to discard our mindset and perception that “Science is difficult”, purportedly a main causal factor in declining science interest. We live in a world of science and technology. Knowing basic science and technology helps us to live a better and fuller life.

And, we should begin to think: “Now everybody can do Science!” (AirAsia chief Tan Sri Tony Fernandes who sits in the MEB panel will like this). Our mental preparedness and belief is a necessary first step to our successful science learning.

I always believe that if the present Arts stream students can proceed to acquire degrees in the Arts subjects of their choice and, for some, going on to attain highly esteemed professional qualifications, a master’s and even a PhD in their choice of Arts specialisation, then these same students are certainly endowed with sufficient intelligence and academic prowess to handle the substance of Form 4/5 Science subjects.

Proposing that streaming and, therefore, the 60:40 policy be done after Form 5 is not to postpone a hard decision; it is actually giving students a firmer foundation on Science/Arts subjects before they decide.

In addition, learning to like and not to fear Science will certainly help place one confidently in the forefront of valuable, applicable and useful knowledge. Our nation will progress well if our students have this mindset; believe in it and execute it. The 60:40 policy will then have a higher chance of success.