As a trained neuroscientist, Deputy British Ambassador Bryony Mathew is helping nurture a new generation of STEM-trained Cambodians with the release of Sky Pods in Phnom Penh – a colourful book aimed at inspiring young pupils. Words by Marissa Carruthers; photography by Charles Fox.

How did the book come about?
We were looking broadly at the skill gaps in Cambodia and saw there was a big gap in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). About 80 percent of university students are doing business and less than 20 percent are studying STEM, while about six percent are studying science and English, so our first step was to get people interested. I did some research and discovered there seemed to be very few books inspiring STEM in children. I looked at Khmer language children’s books to see what they’re like but there weren’t really any good ones. They all seemed to be about teaching morals. I wanted to produce a really fun, brightly coloured, educational book.

What is the book about?
It features a nice story about a successful girl who becomes an engineer. It’s aimed at five to 10-year-olds, is in English and Khmer and is a rhyming book in both languages because children can learn easier that way. It is about a girl called Kiri who has to do chores around the house that interrupt her studies so she invents devices that help her do jobs around the house, such as sweeping the floor and feeding the chickens. She becomes an engineer who creates sky pods in Phnom Penh.

Why did you choose a female protagonist?
There are not many female engineers anywhere in the world – about seven percent in the UK – so I wanted to show it is a career path for women as well. I wanted to create a role model as there are hardly any. One in 10 maths teachers are women here so they don’t even have that inspiration. This is a way of saying to girls that they can do this as well. It’s about getting people thinking about these things from a young age because there is a real need, especially in engineering.

Why is there a lack of Cambodian students studying STEM subjects?
There are different reasons. There is the idea that they are difficult and take longer to study; they won’t lead to a well-paid career; parent and peer pressure – there is a lot of cultural influence here in terms of prejudice in jobs. If you’re working for a ministry, even if it’s a low-paid salary, your family has kudos. You won’t get that if you’re a biomedical scientist. Students are under a lot of pressure. People also have no idea what engineering is or what engineers do; they think if they become an engineer, they have to work on a construction site and there is the conception here that if you sit behind a desk for work you are more successful.

What are you doing to counteract this?
We have identified the top 20 careers and are compiling a booklet to make it easy for students to choose subjects and show their families what it can lead to. For example, there’s a lot of technology here but when things go wrong there’s nobody to fix it. If people knew how to fix it, they would be in huge demand and paid well. The brochure will include details on different careers, such as botanists and health technicians, details of what they need to study at school and university, training, starting salary and hours of work. There will also be case studies of Cambodians who have got there, or those in similar roles. We want to send the message out that there are different job opportunities. A lot of students who study STEM subjects become teachers because they don’t know what other options there are.

Have perceptions about the importance of STEM subjects changed on a national level?
Last year, Education Minister Dr Hang Choun Naron made investing in STEM one of his top priorities in education in Cambodia. We spoke with the minister and asked which subjects are most lacking and he said definitely science and maths. The pass rate in 2014 for maths was five percent. Physics, chemistry and biology was even less. The Minister has been great; he really understands the importance in pushing STEM subjects in schools.

What other measures are you taking to promote STEM?
We are producing a maths app that is free to download for anyone in Grade 12 as part of our push to increase the Grade 12 pass rate. We’ve already trained 300 teachers on how to use it. We’ve also recruited STEM ambassadors to act as role models and are trying to get people who are working here within the industries to talk about it, particularly women, by hosting roadshows throughout the provinces. We also want to create a STEM centre with public access with a science and technology environment, like the Science Museum in England model. It would have resources for teachers and children and could host video conferences with other schools around the world so pupils can exchange ideas.