Connexion: Why science studies must be core subjects in all schools

By Joachim Ng

Perak has great prospects of becoming the leading state in Malaysia if it can get all students hooked on applied science and skills learning. Two latest developments are: the planned upgrading of Politeknik Ungku Omar to a technology institute offering more advanced programmes up to degree level, and the signing of three agreements to develop an Automotive High-Tech Valley in Tanjung Malim.

The first development: It is hoped that the planned upgrading will be accompanied by a strong emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) as well as technical education and vocational training (TVET) in all schools to open up a viable alternative pathway to academic pursuits.

It has all along been wrong to create three streams — science, arts, vocational — and push students into them from an early age. The non-performers usually end up with vocational.  Treating STEM as fields reserved for the over-achievers and TVET as a dump has so tarnished the image of science that a mere 19% of Malaysian students have opted for science-related subjects since 2020.

It has greatly impeded creation of a skilled workforce, and the dire consequences are reflected in our need to import millions of foreign workers for scores of vital industries.

This is particularly true of the construction industry that involves dozens of technical and manual skills. To this day, if you want to do household repairs or renovation, fix the lights, retile the flooring, or replace leaking pipes, the work is done by foreigners. Enterprising Bangladeshis are now running small construction businesses, and in some cases are hiring locals to do admin and marketing work.

A better approach is to make applied science compulsory for all students, as this will stir popular interest in technical qualifications to ensure a huge pool of local talent for all industries requiring technology. Which industry doesn’t?

If the educational system remains focused on academic pursuits, Malaysia will fall behind in scientific innovation and green technology despite strong governmental interest in carbon neutrality. Without a keen and involved public, the pace of climate change mitigation will be too slow.

For instance, in May 2023 Perak Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Saarani Mohamad announced plans to install 1,000 smart solar street lights across the state. The absence of follow-up publicity over the next seven months reveals a lack of public excitement.

With the price of solar panels 50% lower than they were 13 years ago, installation cost down by 70% and lifespan shooting up from 12 years to 25 years, we should be seeing all LED streetlights, fishing boats, cargo and cruise ships, government buildings, schools, and factories run on photovoltaic-generated electricity.

Furthermore the expenditure on rooftop cells will circulate within the economy, as Malaysia is the world’s third largest manufacturer of solar panels. Although 25% of our electricity supply is now from renewable energy (RE), we can reach 40% easily with more public interest. We have sunlight 12 hours daily, and even during the monsoon season the sun breaks through on many days.

The country is also dotted with disused mining pools and huge lakes that can provide flat open surfaces for massively wide spreads of floating solar panels.

A glaring lack of interest is the home front. Visit any housing estate and you won’t see more than one house in ten flaunting a glistening display of rooftop solar panels, unless it is a new RE-oriented development featuring solar-ready homes.

The big impediment is capital expenditure. It’s a minimum of RM16,000. If your electricity bill is RM150 monthly, it will take nine years to break even. You will go for it only if you are science-inclined.

From the economic viewpoint, you will only consider solar if you have a large well-to-do family running up an electricity bill of RM1,000 monthly. To cope with such heavy consumption requires perhaps 12kWp generating capacity. The capex could then reach RM46,000. Four years to break even. Worth it. But it also means that solar power is for the rich only.

The RE programme can move into fast gear only if our schools are re-orientated away from their excessive focus on traditional academic subjects. The Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) 2022 scores indicate declines on all three measures — maths, science, and reading. They show drops of 7% for maths, 5% for science, and 7% for reading, compared with 2018 scores.

Only 1.2% of our students reached proficiency level for maths and 0.5% for science. Less than half (42%) met the minimum level for reading, 50% for science, and 41% for maths. Just 1% of students reached the highest performance levels in all three domains.

Will there be immediate benefits to society if students are moved towards science and technology? Yes, students can instill science interest in their parents. One easy way for them to bring home a science lesson is for all schools to present every student with a sponsored mobile solar power lighting set, with instructions that the student must set it up with parents helping.

When parents get hands-on in seeing a number of small light bulbs turned on by solar power, they will begin showing interest in rooftop solar panels. Installers must also do their part by offering lease schemes as an option. Either the house-owner leases the panels from the installer, or the installer leases the roof to generate electricity supply for the national grid. This way, the house-owners don’t have to incur capex.

The second development: Technological systems that the Automotive High-Tech Valley  at Proton City will be using can expedite the deployment of innovative solutions across many sectors. But technical training must begin in all schools, as young people need to be science-literate in order to become innovative.

Although the Automotive High-Tech Valley is intended to turn Malaysia into an electric vehicle (EV) powerhouse in Southeast Asia, it may be a slow crawl to our destination as we are daily staring at boundless resources with no idea what to do with them.

As an example, Malaysia has one of the largest piles of used tyres in the world on a per capita basis, as we are a nation of drivers and riders. It has not struck us that one of the main components of tyres is carbon black, a soot-like form of carbon that changes into graphite if heated at 3,000 degrees C.

Graphite is used in lithium-ion batteries as it helps improve electrical conductivity. Malaysia is not listed as a graphite producer. If we become a leading graphite producer, the cost of lithium-powered EVs can be substantially offset and they can be priced affordably for middle-income Malaysians. Instead of only 12,000 EVs, we can have 120,000 EVs on the road or roughly one in five cars.

How can we get everyone, including the poor, keen on electric vehicles? The Automotive High-Tech Valley (AHTV) can implement a two-pronged approach.

First prong: In addition to lithium-ion batteries, manufacture small-capacity sodium-ion batteries for electric bicycles and motorcycles. Sodium and lithium are closely related alkali metals, and sodium’s chemical properties are very similar to those of lithium. When students, delivery boys, and farmers get hooked on EVs, everybody will follow. Before aiming to replace all petrol-powered cars, start with motorcycles.

As Malaysia has long coastlines, we can harvest the salt in seawater to extract sodium and make cheap sodium-ion batteries. Sodium-ion batteries are much larger and heavier than lithium-ion batteries for the same capacity, and hence are not suitable for cars. But the much faster charging time for a small sodium-ion battery makes it suitable for electric bicycles and motorcycles.

Second prong: Manufacture larger-capacity sodium-ion batteries at AHTV to power mini-buses as a fast track to slash traffic congestion. Ipoh Old Town is notorious for its saturated traffic and so is every other city in Malaysia, so much so that the Mayor of Johor Baru Datuk Mohd Noorazam Osman said last October it was timely to have an efficient public transport system network.

The reason our diesel buses, especially the MRT shuttle buses in Klang Valley, are hardly used is that bus drivers wait for a satisfactory passenger load before they get behind the wheel. This means the buses are always off-schedule. Who wants to take a bus anywhere if the timing is unreliable?

The routes are also user-unfriendly as the majority of roads are left out including many that carry a steady traffic stream. This is particularly true of the MRT buses as their limited road coverage severely constricts the first-and-last-mile connectivity.

Nevertheless, it is vital that we cut down the number of cars on the road by half without slowing down the rate of car population growth. Driving in a long traffic jam is emotionally taxing and results in employee burnout, productivity loss, and road rage that may cause death.

With an aging population, you can hear more ambulance sirens and also see them frustratingly weaving through sticky Klang Valley traffic. This bad scene will soon be replicated in Johor Baru and Penang. Let’s not see it happen in Ipoh.

It will be a novelty for the public to ride on sodium-powered EV mini-buses, and these smaller buses will be packed if the routes are planned for saturation coverage. The Government should organise a massive campaign encouraging commuters to use their cars half the week only, and ride the EV bus for the other half.

It is possible to keep ticket prices low and run strictly according to the schedule, as sodium-powered mini-buses produce huge operational savings by cutting out fuel costs. They are almost maintenance-free as engine oil and transmission fluid are not required.

If petrol subsidies are removed from non-commercial private cars, motorists will be pushed into riding the buses half the week to maintain their petrol expenditure at the same level.

At the same time, all diesel buses must be scrapped because they are highly polluting and one of the largest vehicular contributors to asthma, respiratory, and cardiovascular diseases in cities. The other large contributor to air pollution are private cars.

It has been estimated that if 100,000 cars are crawling slowly along city roads at the same time, and 50% of them are replaced by 2,500 EV minibusses, there will be a 6% decrease in asthma and heart attacks. This is not a call to reduce car population but to reduce the frequency of car usage.

A generally unknown fact is that heavy vehicular traffic is a major reason why 32,000 Malaysians die every year from ambient air pollution. Tyres in use on the road emit carcinogenic particles that get lodged in our lungs and other internal organs. Rains wash contaminants stuck on the road surfaces into drains, rivers, and seas where they poison the fishes that we eat.

EV car tyres wear out 50% faster than petrol-fuelled ones because EV vehicles are much heavier. Hence, the AHTV must also focus on producing green tyres. But where are the scientists and technologists to undertake this and other forms of research unless science studies are made the core subjects in all schools?


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Ipoh Echo


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