Tuesday 17 November 2015

Stemming a worrying high-tech brain drain

New initiatives aim to enhance sector's appeal among youth and help it retain grads
By Amelia Teng and Pearl Lee, The Straits Times, 16 Nov 2015

When Mr Willy Zhang, 32, chose to study mechanical engineering at the National University of Singapore (NUS) years ago, it was almost a natural decision.

He had a few uncles who were engineers, and the job seemed stable.

But it was only in his third year of university, and on an internship at a shipyard, when he realised what he had signed up for.

"It was a very extreme engineering environment. The other interns were doing welding and blasting and everyone was working and working."

It was not long before Mr Zhang decided the engineering route was not for him, and shortly after graduating, he joined the finance sector.

His story is common among those trained in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields who go on to join other sectors.

Ministry of Manpower data released each January shows that eight of the top 10 professional occupations in the last three years with the most vacancies came from the STEM sectors, including jobs such as software, Web and multimedia developer, civil engineer and systems analyst.

This is even though the intake for STEM courses at the polytechnics and universities has stayed steady. Most recent publicly available figures show the five polys took in about 7,600 engineering students in 2013. In the same year, they accepted 1,600 students for science- related courses, and 3,700 for information technology courses.

Last year, Nanyang Technological University accepted 2,800 engineering students, and National University of Singapore took in 1,500. These figures are about the same as in the previous year.

The number trained by local universities will rise with new courses from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) and Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT).

To fix the problem, schools and organisations are piquing students' interest by holding events such as ice cream making contests and visits to chemical plants. They are also offering "tinkering kits" with materials like motors, bolts and wooden parts for students to experiment with. They aim to expose students to STEM jobs and help them decide their study and career routes.

Mr Seto Lok Yin, chairman of the steering committee for Learning Engineering at Polytechnics, an effort by the five polys to promote engineering, said: "Engineers can switch to non-engineering jobs but it is not possible the other way around, due to the specialised skills required for engineering jobs."

Mr Seto said the initiatives are to help students make the link between STEM subjects and real world experiences, like understanding how flight works.

"In the early years, we should develop children's curiosity and their ability to experiment," he said. "In secondary school, we should help students and parents make informed choices about courses and careers."

To this end, The Institution of Engineers, Singapore (IES) started a series of public talks aimed at students this year. A total of 33 such talks have been conducted by its members, who share their experiences of the profession and examples of innovations in engineering.

Its president, Mr Chong Kee Sen, 57, said IES started to raise funds for scholarships earlier this year for needy engineering students in polytechnics and universities.

The scholarships will be given next July. It has so far collected $150,000 and hopes to raise half a million over the next eight months, said Mr Chong.

This month, Science Centre Singapore, the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) and SUTD teamed up to conduct workshops and facility visits for children aged nine to 11 to look at how science can be used to solve real world problems.

The sessions take their cue from a National Geographic series titled Breakthrough, about how innovations can relieve issues such as water shortage and pandemics.

The Science Centre will run workshops where pupils learn about energy conservation. They will then build a windmill and learn about the concept of air resistance.

Science Centre chief executive Lim Tit Meng said the initiative targets young children as they are "brimming with curiosity and are not afraid to observe and ask questions", pointing out that "these are the precursor attributes of becoming a scientist".

He hopes the television series and workshops will spur pupils' interest in science.

Some organisations try to enthuse older students with a taste of research work.

A*Star, for instance, has three programmes for students keen to learn about research. These schemes, including the A*Star Young Research Attachment Programme, take in about 150 upper secondary and junior college students each year.

Education officials said it is not that they lack engineering students, but that they are losing better students to other courses.

Said Mr Seto: "In the past, academically strong students chose engineering. Today they go into business, mass communications, psychology."

To attract the best, polytechnics have started offering diplomas that blend engineering with topics such as business. These have drawn students with better O-level scores compared to the traditional engineering disciplines.

Local universities also offer programmes with overseas partners, such as London's Imperial College, which take in top students.

The problem is so worrying that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke about the brain drain in the STEM sectors in May, during the opening of SUTD.

Mr Lee said because of industry trends, it has become harder to attract people to study and work in the STEM sectors, even though Singapore's education system places strong emphasis on these subjects. This has sent people looking for jobs in fields such as real estate, finance, law and medicine.

Young people who have grown up in a more developed economy take science and technology more for granted, and pursue interests in other areas, he added.

A*Star scientist Ooi Zi En agreed, saying: "When technology is all around us, it's so easy to take it for granted. For instance, everyone has a mobile phone but no one knows how the flat display technology works."

Mr Chong said other options such as the arts, social sciences and music sound more exciting.

"One of our challenges is raising the excitement level of the engineering profession and correcting young people's perception that it is dirty and dangerous."

While it is hard to measure the effectiveness of the outreach initiatives, they have won over some youngsters.

Ms Brenda Ang, 20, chose to study information security at Nanyang Polytechnic after a SIT talk.

"It started with computer games in primary school, and then I got exposed to blogging and learning coding and basic HTML in secondary school," she said. "At the talk I realised I could turn my hobby into something more, and there were many job options."

A*STAR offers extensive outreach programmes and awards to groom and nurture young scientific talent for Singapore. The...
Posted by Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) on Sunday, November 15, 2015

Inspire the young with STEM's power to create
By Lim Tit Meng, Published The Straits Times, 16 Nov 2015

A recent employment survey by recruitment consultancy Kelly Services found that there is growing demand for jobs in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields.

As Singapore advances towards becoming a Smart Nation and strives to develop as a hub for various STEM-related areas - aviation and biomedical sciences, for example - this need for trained professionals will certainly not abate, and demand for cutting-edge innovations will endure.

I have always believed in "STEM: The power to create". This accentuates the idea that when equipped with relevant STEM knowledge, we can create solutions and innovations to address local issues and even global challenges, such as climate change and food security.

But to groom local talents who can innovate to resolve challenges, it is essential to ignite a passion among Singapore's young in these areas and to inspire a lasting interest.

STEM promotion is always high on the agenda at science centre conferences and companies that rely on STEM talent often see science centres as effective platforms for grooming future employees.

The Association of Science-Technology Centres, which has more than 600 members in nearly 50 countries, has formed communities of practice so that members can exchange ideas about how to excite students and share know-how in equipping the young ones with skills necessary for pursuing STEM fields.

Among popular trends around the world, we have witnessed the rise of initiatives that encourage the use of STEM to create impact, stimulate a do-it-yourself culture and shape science education.


One effective platform for spurring young people along the STEM path is science festivals.

These events take and highlight different perspectives of science and technology to the public, allowing us to appreciate the benefits to our society.

There has been a steady increase in science festivals since the 1990s.

Renowned ones include the World Science Festival (United States), Edinburgh Science Festival (Britain) and National Science Festival of Thailand.

China also inaugurated its Science Festival last year, with support from Science Centre Singapore (SCS).

Singapore was among the first countries to have a science festival. The Science and Technology Fair was initiated in 1979.

From 2010, this has evolved into the Singapore Science Festival, a collaborative effort between SCS and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star).

An annual event, the festival celebrates the dynamism of science, engineering, technology and biomedicine.

The 2015 edition allowed more than 177,000 residents to interact with changemakers in the STEM community through more than 50 events and activities, inspiring our young ones to make a positive difference through science.


To effectively make an impact through science, Singapore's young must be able to deliver physical solutions.

The maker movement is gaining momentum around the world.

This drive encourages the man on the street to do-it-themselves, to become independent inventors.

To date, makers have created innovations such as the Arduino microcontroller and personal 3D printing.

As consumers pool resources to empower themselves and find better solutions, the maker movement could drive innovation in manufacturing, education, retail and many other industries.

In 2012, SCS hosted the first Mini Maker Faire to allow Singapore residents to experience what they can create through STEM. We had just 2,000 participants then.

Within three years, this movement accelerated and grew to become a full-feature Maker Faire that welcomed 12,000 participants in July.

One of the celebrated maker-inventors is 33-year-old Kiki Tay, a local magician. With his love for science and technology, he has created laser displays and electronically controlled LED jackets using embedded microprocessors.

I believe more Singaporeans will follow this path to become inventors.

Associate Professor Lim Tit Meng is the co-chair of the Singapore Science Festival 2015 organising committee and chief executive of Science Centre Singapore.

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