Collaboration, education key to Singapore’s ‘Smart Nation’ future

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FROM the humble thumb drive to an automated wearable artificial kidney, Singapore is not only home to some of the world’s most innovative products and ideas, but has consistently taken innovation to the next level, seeking to solve national problems from food waste to transportation. Speaking at the 50th anniversary celebration of Singapore’s Institution of Engineers, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted that engineering has helped to transform Singapore into a modern state, and will continue to play a key role as the country strives to be a smart nation.

The rapid technological advancements witnessed in the last decade drives home the importance for Singapore to be at the forefront of innovation and modernisation. A continued focus on the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) will be critical to staying competitive on the global stage.

Both industry giants and startups are benefiting from this renewed focus as we see an increase in research investments, patents generated and technology challengers.

While their growing presence provides great potential, there are many challenges ahead – and building up our Stem talent will be key. A recent study by the International Labour Organisation reported that about 40 per cent of Singaporean companies name a lack of highly skilled Stem workers as one of the biggest threats facing their company up to 2025.

To continue supporting Stem industries, we need to cultivate a society that understands and embraces new technologies, involve Stem businesses and organisations in the education process, and encourage an approach to learning that supports diversity of talent.

SOCIETY OF CHALLENGERS AND EARLY ADOPTERS

The good news is that there is a growing understanding of science and technology among the new generation. A recent study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development reported that younger Singaporeans have an above-average proficiency in technology-rich environments. Almost 8 per cent displayed the highest proficiency level, one of the highest percentages across all participating economies.

Nonetheless, more can be done by the scientific community to improve dialogue with the public. To make science more accessible, students at the recent International Science Youth Forum suggested that scientists should keep their explanations short, accurate and relevant. Journalists also have a role to play, by developing skills to interpret and communicate science concepts simply.

It is important to cultivate a society that appreciates Singapore’s smart technologies and scientific innovations as ultimately, consumer demand – be it for self-driving cars or 3D printers – drives research, development and investment.

As these industries continue to grow, fuelled by rising consumer needs, business leaders should invest in creating a strong Stem talent pool for their workforce. This hinges on a collaborative approach between industry, government and educators to groom the next generations of workers for Stem and Stem-related careers.

But they have to act fast – a recent report by the Ministry of Manpower revealed that engineering roles are one of the hardest to fill by Singaporeans, and have the highest number of vacancies.

GETTING INVOLVED IN EDUCATION

Studies have shown that children can truly develop a lifelong passion for science by the age of 10, which is why organisations are investing in Stem education in the early years to help create a strong pipeline of diverse talent for the future. In the US, the top technology giants have already invested significant funding in mathematics and science education for children.

Currently, we have scholarship programmes and study awards from organisations such as the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) and recently, the Energy Market Authority (EMA). These aim to consistently build a steady pipeline of local talent to supplement growing industries. Businesses have also been collaborating with the SkillsFuture programme to encourage broad, lifelong learning and prepare for the jobs of the future.

However, companies here need to play a larger role and get more involved in supporting education. This could be through internships and scholarships, or even helping to develop school curricula, and providing other valuable educational opportunities and resources. In addition to supporting education, it is also key to stimulate kids’ interest and engage them actively in Stem – which are often perceived as subjects which are not intuitive or easy.

LEARNING DIFFERENTLY

It is vital that our science education makes Stem relevant for our youngest citizens, to help dispel the misconception that Stem subjects are intimidating. Both the public and private sectors have been working towards showing a different side of Stem that is relatable and appealing to the younger generation.

Scientists at A*Star have said that students are more open to Stem careers if they know that the knowledge acquired in science and maths classes can be applied to solve real-life problems, and not just to pass examinations. A great example is chemistry teacher Low Wei Chuan, a recent recipient of an Outstanding Youth In Education Award, who brings science to life for his students through collaborations with the Singapore Police Force’s Forensic Science Division and the Health Sciences Authority.

Events such as the Singapore Science Festival, the nation’s largest and longest-running annual science event, also support this goal through its line-up of workshops, talks and fairs. Through these efforts and collaboration between government, scientists and industry, we hope to ignite scientific curiosity and encourage innovation, keeping Singapore’s Stem movement on track to drive our Smart Nation plans.

  • The writer is chief executive of Science Centre Singapore and co-chairman of the Singapore Science Festival (SSF) 2016 Organising Committee.
  • SSF 2016 – themed “Build Your Smart Future” – runs from July 15 to Aug 5. Find out more at http://www.sciencefest.sg/

Source – The Business Times