As the STEM versus STEAM debate rages across the globe, editor Marissa Carruthers takes a look at the scene in Cambodia. Photography by Lucas Veuve.

loud bang reverberates through the air, followed by a chorus of screams. The large crowd of young Cambodians gasp and giggle as a whoosh of fire stretches to the sky before disappearing into thin air. This is not a magic show; it’s the final day of the country’s second Science and Engineering Festival, which attracted a record-breaking 17,500 Cambodians during the three days.

To one side of the Institute of Technology of Cambodia’s (ITC), spacious ground floor, students gather around a collection of cardboard boxes, attempting to create the optimum office space. Another group crowds around tables filled with robots, miniature housing developments and gadgets spectacularly spun from 3D printers.

“STEM requires creativity,” says Allen Tan, a staunch advocate of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and founder of NGO STEM Cambodia, which organises the festival. “That’s why we have included the Mini Maker Faire at this year’s festival.”

While STEM has been increasingly inching towards the top of the country’s education agenda for the last year, with Education Minister Dr Hang Choun Naron pledging to overhaul the curriculum to encourage more Cambodian students to take up the subjects and fill the widening skills gap, in other parts of the world it is argued that something is missing – the A for arts. “All STEM subjects require creativity and innovation,” adds Tan. “That is where STEAM comes in.”

Starting with STEM
“Cambodia needs more young people, skilled and qualified in these [STEM] subjects to develop our human resources, the economy, and drive our nation’s development. Our nation needs STEM graduates to become more competitive in the region and the world.”

That was the plea from Dr Hang at a conference in October addressing the urgent need for educational reform if Cambodia is to fill the widening skills gap in these fields, and fulfil its ambition of transforming from a least developed country to a lower middle income country. “Recently, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in business graduates, creating a surplus in job seekers in that sector and a skills shortage in STEM sectors,” he adds.

And the statistics back up the need for change. According to figures from the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, just three percent of the 250,000 post-secondary school graduates in 2014 came from technical and vocational fields, such as agriculture, science and engineering. In the same year, five percent of Grade 12 students passed their mathematics examination, with that figure doubling to a still measly 10 percent last year.

“There is a real skills gap in areas that require these subjects, and that is only going to grow in the future,” warns Deputy British Ambassador Bryony Mathew, who is leading a series of initiatives to stimulate STEM study in schools. She adds civil engineers, medical laboratory technicians, chemists and water sanitation experts are just a handful of the jobs that currently require recruiting foreigners.

“It’s shocking the lack of technical skills and knowledge in Cambodia,” says Carlo Figa Talamanca, CEO of Sustainable Green Fuel Enterprise, which produces eco-friendly coal and struggles to find Cambodians equipped with the right people to fit skilled roles. “Many companies here would prefer to employ Cambodians but right now, they just can’t.”

Adding the A
“Creativity and innovation are two very important things,” says Jeffrey Holte, learning co-coordinator at Liger Learning Centre on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, a school that takes a fresh, unconventional approach to tackling education through STEAM subjects.

With the main aim of creating the country’s next generation of leaders and “change agents”, the school is close to completing its rigorous, two-year selection process to find its second batch of students from across the country. Travelling to government schools in all provinces, the Liger team selects those who have the potential to transform their country in the future, selecting just 50 Grade 6 students to enroll in the six-year scholarship programme.

Having opened in 2012, the school runs a practice-based curriculum that leans heavily towards STEM subjects while also pushing the importance of creativity and innovation. “We want these children to be the next generation of leaders, and to do that they need to be problem-solvers,” adds Holte. “They need to be able to connect the dots, be creative in their thinking and resourceful, with good entrepreneurial skills.”

Typical classes are diverse, and, as well as the usual subjects, take in a range of others, such as robotics and coding, with practical exercises that stimulate the thought process. An Innovation Centre is home to a hive of materials, from Play-Doh to bamboo poles, where students are let loose to invent, build and create whatever they like. “We are seeing kids of 13 who are already achieving some of these change agent goals,” says Holte.

In January, a set of students launched a 140-page, bi-lingual Illustrated Guide to Wildlife of Cambodia, which is being distributed by the Ministry of Education to schools across the country as well as being sold on Amazon. “This is a prime example of STEAM,” says Holte. “It takes in science, bio-diversity, creativity, language, team work.”

As well as nurturing the leadership and innovative skills the country needs to move forward, Liger’s ambition of creating change agents comes coupled with sparking a pride in their country. “We don’t want to teach these kids the skills for them to go and work in Singapore or America,” says Holte. “To do this, we need to make them proud of their country and give them knowledge about Cambodia. We are certain those jobs will be there in five to 10 years from now, and we’re really working to get the kids ready for those creative, innovative jobs. That’s why STEAM is important.”

The A Debate
With the UK being a front-runner in the global STEM surge, during a nationwide push to promote related subjects in schools, in 2011, Lord David Puttnam, the British Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy to Cambodia, wrote to the country’s Education Secretary urging them to add the arts into the acronym.

“We developed STEAM and pushed very hard for it to become a subject in the UK curriculum,” he says. “We lost that battle because we found many maths teachers couldn’t get their head around working with people in the arts so I retreated to STEM.”

This is a sentiment semi-echoed by Mathew, who is spearheading the British Embassy’s campaign for STEM in Cambodia. This has seen a team of STEM ambassadors recruited to visit schools in the provinces as well as hosting roadshows, teacher training sessions and activity days at Kids City in Phnom Penh.

In a bid to further break down these barriers, the embassy has produced an advice booklet listing the top 20 STEM careers, such as construction site supervisors, architects and automation technicians, with case studies and information on subjects that need to be studied, training, starting salary and hours of work, which is being distributed throughout schools.

Earlier this year, Mathew launched Sky Pods in Phnom Penh, a colourful bilingual book that follows a young Cambodian girl’s journey to become a successful engineer, which is being distributed in schools and libraries. And in March, a maths app aimed at boosting the pass rate of Grade 12 students was launched by the British Embassy.

While Mathew agrees that creativity and innovation are essential skills, she argues adding the A dilutes the message about addressing the urgent need for STEM skills in the country.

“A lot of it depends on how people interpret what is meant by STEAM,” the neuroscientist says. “I don’t think it’s the right time to be talking about STEAM in Cambodia if we’re talking about promoting these subjects. A lot of students don’t choose STEM because they think it’s too difficult and opt for the arts because it’s a safe option.”

With 70 percent of pupils already studying art-related subjects, and just 20 percent STEM, Mathew says that in Cambodia the focus should be on STEM, not STEAM. “Of course, if you are talking about the arts being the creative side and promoting innovative thinking, then that is important,” she adds. “But adding arts can be confusing, plus critical thinking and problem solving are part of STEM anyway. For example, science is all about coming up with new ideas.”

Radical Reform
If Cambodia is to achieve the goals set out to become a middle income economy by 2030 – with its GDP currently standing at $1,081 per capita – radical reform to the education system is essential. “The labour market needs more people working in science, more engineers,” said Dr Ing Kantha Phavi, Minister of Women’s Affairs at the second ASEAN Forum Question Time debate on STEM education in Cambodia, held in February. “We don’t find this for the moment in Cambodia. We have to reform the whole system of education, beginning with the quality of education, improving the quality of teachers, what they teach and their knowledge, and review the curriculum.”

To address these issues, last year the government unveiled its Teacher Policy Action Plan, stating that by 2020 all teachers will have a minimum of a Bachelor’s degree to ensure they can educate the next generation of students to their full potential. Careers advisors are also being placed in schools to offer guidance to youngsters about their future, and, to curb the problem of a surplus of business and finance graduates, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports has temporarily suspended issuing licenses to launch new programmes that are business or finance related to enable universities to shift their emphasis towards subjects, such as engineering and science.

Another challenge is getting more young females interested in STEM subjects, with just one percent of graduates from the ITC being women last year. “The question is how to attract young people, especially women because it is not the traditional vision of parents to send girls to do STEM,” adds Dr Kantha. “How can you change the vision of society to see women can pursue a career in STEM fields?”

With a lack of female role models in Cambodia for youngsters to look up to, Mathew hopes small steps, such as using a female as the protagonist in Sky Pods in Phnom Penh, will help engage more young women. And government officials are working with careers advisors to spark interest in female students and show them the potential these fields hold.

Back at the Science and Engineering Fair, it’s hard to believe there is a lack of interest in STEM subjects as the crowds grow bigger throughout the day. Tum Sopheak, 21, is studying chemical engineering and food technology, and is acting as a STEM ambassador, talking to youngsters in the provinces and at the festival about his own experiences to kindle an interest in the subjects.

“There is a huge need of human resources in this area. It is all about awareness and information, and letting people know what is available. Just look around you; the interest is there,” he says, pointing to the thousands of students eagerly engaging in the festival’s activities.

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