Getting young people excited about science

My heart lifted slightly when I read the latest Singapore Salary Guide from Kelly Services. Among the five highest-paying sectors, four were in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (Stem).

With Stem careers losing their shine in recent years, such information, on a more regular basis, may be what's needed to restore them to their former glory. But the realist in me knows that such studies can only do so much for the field I love.

Speak to any scientist, researcher or engineer today and you will find that what drives them is not monetary returns (though there have been many Stem-based entrepreneurs who have made it big in Singapore), but it is their intrinsic desire to change the world for the better and a conviction that their work makes a difference to people's lives.

But the prognosis is not good. A Straits Times report in February estimates that half of all trained engineers leave their field. In the latest Job Vacancies Report from the Ministry of Manpower, we continue to see high vacancy rates among engineering and technology-related positions.

As Singapore charges towards the Smart Nation vision and becomes the biomedical hub of Asia, demand for Stem professionals is expected to rise.


The writer believes Singapore children need to learn about local innovations and hopes that Stem discoveries will be included in the school syllabus so that they can be inspired and learn to love science again. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

To meet this demand, a multi-pronged approach to reverse the trend is needed.

Much is already under way. Last year, the SkillsFuture initiative was launched to encourage Stem students to remain in the field upon graduation. Carrots in the form of sign-on bonuses and continuing education arrangements were dangled. Those in the field were also put on the scheme, to help them remain relevant as technology evolves. But what about conveying the excitement of discovery or the romance of making the world a better place?

We need to appreciate what Stem has achieved here, recognise the Stem behind what we enjoy, and dream of the future that Stem can bring. Science has played a key role in Singapore's transformation from Third World to First , and SG50 is a great opportunity for us to acknowledge the nation's Stem forefathers. They made life better and put Singapore on the world map.

Today, we traverse our sunny island in a matter of minutes, our system of roads seamlessly connected. These roads were inconceivable barely decades ago. Home-grown civil engineering companies, such as the Tiong Seng Group, stepped up to build the first highways.

A supply of clean water flows from our taps, despite the difficulties of collecting rainwater on a small island. We should applaud the chemist who believed she could contribute to the country's pursuit of self-sufficiency in water, Ms Olivia Lum.

Her company, Hyflux, developed the membranes that made it possible for Singapore to recycle water, resulting in Newater.

The technology has also paved the way for Singapore to become a global hydrohub.

Life today would be unimaginable if we were unable to share big amounts of data. From leisure to work, we carry around large amounts of information, sometimes on the cloud, and often on the ubiquitous thumb drive. The thumb drive is the invention of Singaporean Henn Tan - an outstanding innovator who married his technical background with a nose for identifying where novel solutions are needed.

Everyone should be able to enjoy what science makes possible, and for parents and students to see that it is not just a subject to ace in school. Science is everywhere and, thus, it is possible for everyone to join hands and put together an enjoyable showcase of Science.

For instance, Sky Green, Singapore's first vertical farm, represents a whole new area of science education for students.

They can learn how the marriage of different Stem disciplines enabled this innovative approach to farming, which has been so significant in increasing yield and food security that Sky Green has been invited to display its vertical farming system at the Science Centre Singapore.

SCIENCE FESTIVAL

This year's Science Festival will take place from July 10 to Aug 2, to celebrate and share the latest Stem findings and developments.

The annual event is co-organised by the Science Centre and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star).

Their 40 partners for the festival include Underwater World Singapore, which has made scientific contributions to global conservation efforts.

The staff breed and study the reproductive parameters of the rare pink dolphin and have been instrumental in the rescue, rehabilitation and breeding of sea turtles in Singapore.

Then there's the team from Wildlife Reserves Singapore, which includes veterinarians, zoologists, endocrinologists and aquarists.

These Stem professionals not only care for and study endangered species at the parks here, but they also support efforts all over Asia, ranging from research on the King Cobra in Thailand to free veterinary care for working elephants in Cambodia.

There are also partners who make technology fun, getting people to come together in a hack fest, or featuring a curated art showcase comprising pieces created with science and technology. The point in bringing such diverse parties together is to remind people that without Stem, the world - including Singapore - would be very different from what it is today.

Without the biometric system, information technology infrastructure and engineered baggage retrieval system at Changi Airport, homecoming for Singaporeans would be less sweet and possibly involve nightmarish immigration queues and interminable waits for luggage.

Without world-class scientists and researchers, there would be question marks over whether each mouthful of imported delicacy was sourced safely.

Singapore children also need to learn about local innovations. The next time they flip an e-book, they can take pride that this simple action of digital flipping was first made possible by a Singaporean.

When they enjoy 3D entertainment on their smart mobile devices without unwieldy 3D glasses, they will know the film on the screen that makes it possible is an A*Star and Temasek Polytechnic innovation.

The hardware that keeps Singapore's borders safe include the SAR-21 assault weapon designed by ST Kinetics and adopted by defence forces around the world.

I dream of a day when Singapore's Stem discoveries will be included in the school syllabus, and Stem heroes are celebrated nationally so children aspire to be changemakers like them, and learn to love science again.

•The writer is the co-chair of the Singapore Science Festival 2015 Organising Committee and chief executive of Science Centre Singapore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 08, 2015, with the headline 'Getting young people excited about science'. Print Edition | Subscribe