This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which promotes multilateral cooperation, economic growth, and social progress. Now entering its second half century, the economic bloc is looking to cement its status as a key player in the global marketplace. To help achieve this goal, ASEAN is actively cultivating STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education alongside regional leaders in Southeast Asia, recognizing the central role STEM plays in today’s economy.
A strong and able STEM workforce takes time to develop, and ASEAN leaders are cultivating students’ interest through innovative means. For example, the Singapore government has an initiative to integrate technology and connectivity into everyday life. One part of that program introduces children to robotics as a teaching tool as early as preschool, with the goal of giving them a head start in developing an interest in technology. It also provides the children with a glimpse of what learning using technology may look like in the future.
In this pilot program, Nanyang Technology University and government agency Infocomm Development Authority recently placed humanoid robots in two pre-schools for six months to engage students in interactive storytelling and collaborative play. Pepper, a robot with a touchscreen on its chest, reads stories selected by students while NAO, Pepper’s smaller counterpart, can dance for students. Similar programs have now been started in other pre-schools.
Future STEM field professionals need to be well-versed in the language of the digital economy. This is why courses on programming and coding are becoming increasingly popular. In fact, leaders in Malaysia have taken this a step further and are planning to incorporate coding into the formal syllabuses of national schools so that all students have a basic level of digital knowledge and competence.
Aptly called the Digital Maker Movement, leaders hope that students can participate in the future economy as creators instead of just as users of technology. For those who are gifted or wish to further pursue coding, the Malaysian government has also created programs such as Coding@Schools, which trains students armed with basic computer programming languages to create websites and develop apps.
Although the majority of the population in ASEAN now has access to formal education, a qualified teacher with a comprehensive understanding of STEM subjects may not always be readily available to those who are interested in learning about these areas. In such cases, self-learning can be another channel for empowering the region’s young, digitally engaged, and tech-savvy population.
A wide range of educational technology – or EdTech – startups in ASEAN have been established to bridge the knowledge gap. They offer a diverse selection of online education programs in STEM subjects that cater to all types of learners. For example, in Indonesia, startup HarukaEdu now offers education programs in collaboration with private higher education institutions, while startup KelasKita emphasizes teaching practical skills such as learning basic HTML and WordPress.
ASEAN’s ability to meet the challenges of the future economy in the next 50 years will require developing a STEM workforce in the next generation. With government support of STEM and a growing semiconductor industry in the region, the future for Southeast Asia looks bright.
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