Hong Kong’s teachers can help change mindsets on science and maths degrees

William Pang is alarmed at students’ growing aversion to science and maths fields and says the crux of the problem seems to be that educators are failing to convince them about the diverse doors STEM degrees can open

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 May, 2017, 1:25am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 May, 2017, 1:25am

Friends and teachers from my days at Diocesan Boys’ School would never have pinned me as an engineering major. I was mediocre at best in maths.

Which is why I was surprised to hear that many of my maths-whiz friends ended up pursuing majors in the humanities, law or medicine, rather than engineering, maths or the physical sciences.

A recent study spearheaded by Professor Tsui Lap-chee, former president of the University of Hong Kong, raised further alarm: the percentage of students taking advanced maths dropped from 23 per cent in 2012 to 14 per cent last year. But admission data shows that entry into engineering and science programmes is less competitive than for the humanities. So why are students increasingly uninterested in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) fields?

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The crux of the problem seems to be the poor job that educators are doing in promoting and convincing students to pursue STEM degrees. A science degree does not mean ending up in a government or teaching job. Most engineering degree holders don’t become engineers, but go on to pursue diverse careers, including in law or business. Amazon head Jeff Bezos and US Secretary of State (and former ExxonMobil CEO) Rex Tillerson have engineering degrees, as do 33 per cent of CEOs.

An essential point that has been underemphasised in the STEM discourse is that an education in STEM fields can open many doors. Engineering students don’t just learn about the nuances of thermodynamic cycles, they must learn to work as a team and solve real-life problems. Science and maths students are trained to think critically, question assumptions and form hypotheses – skills that are of incredible value.

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Hong Kong’s education system places too much emphasis on the idea that there is a “model answer” for every problem: which is often not the case in science and certainly not true in real life.

Educators across all levels of schooling play a role in shaping the perception of STEM fields

Educators could turn to computer programming to kindle young people’s passion for science. The beauty of programming is that there are many approaches to tackle a single problem, which requires students to think laterally and devise creative solutions.

Educators across all levels of schooling play a role in shaping the perception of STEM fields – whether it is the primary school teacher who sparks a student’s sense of curiosity, the middle school teacher who instils a love for science, or the college professor who convinces an undergraduate student to take part in research.

Unless there’s a cultural shift in the way we approach science education, Hong Kong students will soon find themselves trailing behind the international competition.

William Pang is an engineering student at McGill University