STEM awareness comes with proficiency in English

Former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad has again recapped that STEM subjects in schools should be taught in English. Many educationists and interested parties may or may not agree with him.

STEM is the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, and encompasses a vast spectrum of subjects that fall into each of those terms. As manifested by its multitude of disciplines, it’s understandable that STEM fields affect every component of our everyday lives and there is a high demand for these subjects in the job market.

Many educationists have the opinion that the teaching of STEM is best done in English, with good reason. This is to help students familiarise themselves with scientific terms and definitions at an early stage of their education, as it will in turn help them when they pursue higher education. With a good grasp of the language they would be able to excel in their prospective careers.

English, by far, is still the most important language for developing countries to move forward economically. Studies by the World Economic Forum have shown that there’s a direct correlation between a country’s English proficiency and the growth of its gross national income and gross domestic product.

The EF English Proficiency Index has shown that in almost every one of the 60 countries and territories surveyed, a rise in English proficiency was connected with a rise in per capita income.

It was also found that job seekers with a good command of English earned 30% to 50% higher salaries, while the skill also directly correlated with a population’s quality of life.

Indeed, jobs in STEM-related careers are currently some of the fastest growing and best paid and they often have the greatest potential for job growth.

In other words, in the job market, those with better English can simply outshine those who lack competence in the language. It is important that the country remains competitive in the fields of science and technology. And the best way to ensure future success is to ensure that students are well versed in these subjects in English.

A subject of debate

Most parents may not object to the idea of STEM being taught in English. There may be some teachers who would object to this idea as they are still ill-equipped to handle these subjects in English. Some may lack adeptness in computing when teaching using multimedia tools.

They seem to overlook the fact that though they may not be competent in English, teaching can always be assisted by ready-made teaching and audio-visual aids.

With the present use of state-of-the-art technology in teaching, their role can always become that of facilitators in the classroom.

What more, lesson presentations using technology helps students to have access to, review and learn these subjects in the comfort of their home.

The Internet provides all the facilities for STEM to be handled in English and some of these subjects can even be self-taught online.

Projecting lessons using multimedia in the classroom will not only excite students, it will also help teachers to gradually be familiar with scientific English terminologies besides improving their proficiency in English.

Studies have shown that even children who cannot speak English and come from rural backgrounds can handle the nuances and technicalities of modern-day technology with their inquisitive mind, and this will help them deal confidently with technical subjects.

Regrettably, the use of English to teach STEM in Malaysian schools has always been a subject of debate.

The DLP is still a better option

The policy of using English as the medium of instruction for Mathematics and Science (PPSMI, the acronym in Bahasa Malaysia) was introduced in 2003 to all schools in the country, suspended in 2009 and abolished in 2013.

Among the reasons were that some teachers felt not all students could cope with the subjects when taught in English. They claimed that only the bright students benefitted from this policy and those in “backward” classes were left behind.

The policy was, according to them, making students perform poorly in the related subjects.

On the contrary, it was found that above-average students, especially in urban schools had no problem with this policy. Only rural schools had some teething troubles in handling the subjects in English.

Studies have also shown that 90% of teachers were not competent to teach the subjects in English and many others were not skilful in using multimedia tools.

The Dual Language Programme (DLP) was introduced in stages by the government in 2016 and has continued to be strengthened. The DLP is the government’s latest attempt to ensure that the population’s grasp of the language continues to improve. It is expected to play a more prominent role on how STEM is taught in schools.

The dissimilarity here is that PPSMI was forced onto all schools and children whereas the DLP provides a choice. To revive the teaching of STEM in English, and for a start, the latter approach should still be the preferred choice in the local context and it has to be implemented in all schools in the country.

Let parents and students themselves choose as to which line of learning they prefer – using English, Malay or the mother tongue, as in the vernacular schools.

As such, since there is a choice here, there will be fewer debates by educationists and language enthusiasts on the issue of using English to teach STEM subjects.

STEM awareness comes with proficiency in English

To avoid grumblings by teachers and parents that English is the root cause for students not being able to cope with STEM subjects, let DLP, for now, be the option rather than the PPSMI.

Hopefully the success of the DLP policy will gradually encourage students to opt for English as the preferred language for these subjects.

Critics of the DLP and PPSMI should be cognisant of the fact that students at their tender age can be remarkably curious and impressionable. Thus, instilling an interest in English and the sciences at an early age could trigger a lasting aspiration for them to pursue a career in any of these STEM fields.

Above and beyond, with early exposure to the teaching of STEM in English and by the time students are ready to enter the workforce, they would have enough knowledge to make invaluable contributions to the nation’s STEM industries.

Building a solid STEM foundation in English through a well-rounded curriculum is the best way to ensure that students are exposed to the sciences throughout their educational career. To achieve this, the education policy should not be tinkered with a political populist approach.

It is imperative for the country’s education policy to be pragmatic, and teachers, for their part, should inculcate in students that advancing in STEM studies comes with proficiency in English.


Moaz Nair is an FMT reader.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.