Enrichment centers stoke children's interest in Stem

Enrichment centers stoke children's interest in Stem
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Build your own robot. Create a computer game on your own. Design something and print it with a 3D printer.

Enrichment centres here have recently begun offering such courses to interest young ones in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem), reflecting a trend in mainstream schools, which have been working to expose students to these disciplines.

At the centres, students dabble in robotics, coding or programming. These classes usually adopt a hands-on focus and most are conducted in small groups to ensure that the trainers are able to give the participants ample attention as they go about making their own robots, or creating their own games.

Demand for such enrichment courses has been growing.

In3Labs in Upper Thomson Road focused mainly on conducting workshops in primary and secondary schools when it started in 2011.

Last year, founder Yama Min, 32, a permanent resident who hails from Myanmar, decided to open a centre when he noticed a growing interest among parents and students, especially after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke about the need to expose children to IT and programming at the launch of the Smart Nation initiative in November last year.

Mr Min, an engineer by training, said: "People started asking if we had a centre and ran our own programmes. Our numbers really went up after that speech."

The centre, which runs afterschool programmes on robotics or coding on Thursdays, now also offers holiday workshops in Lego robotics and coding for children aged six to 14. Each class is kept at six to eight students.

Mr Min said: "We wanted to organise something fun that students can do during the holidays. At the same time, it can spur their interest in these areas."

While robotics has been offered via co-curricular clubs in schools for years, there has been a renewed push for it in recent years, as Singapore pursues its "smart nation" aim.

In the primary and secondary schools, the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) collaborated with the Ministry of Education to organise the Code For Fun Enrichment Programme in April last year.

This aims to increase the students' exposure to coding and computational thinking through learning programming language, robotic kits and microcontrollers.

The IDA said in April this year that about 2,800 students in 24 schools have participated in the initiative. It aims to reach 32,000 students in total by next year.

Most who go for Mr Min's workshops have no prior experience in robotics or coding.

"We teach them the basics when they come. For example, in robotics, they will first build a base bot, and then add other parts to it and programme it to make it move like a car."

The participants learn how to add motors and ultrasonic sensors to their robots, and how to write programs on their laptops that they use to animate their creations.

Holy Innocents' Primary School pupil Marissa Koh, 11, who attended a Lego robotics holiday workshop at In3Labs last week, said she enjoyed the building process the most. "It's fun because you get to experiment and try which parts fit. Even if you got the measurements or the programming wrong and you need to redo it, it's still fun," she said.

Another participant, Christian Ong, five, used Lego pieces to build and programme a robot launch pad for a space shuttle.

His mother, Madam Desley Khew, 39, a consultant, said: "He's always been interested in the mechanics of things. He loves trains, too, and he would be on the floor looking at the way the wheels move. I sent him for this class because he has an interest in such things and programming is also a useful skill to have."

With more enrichment centres focusing on Stem, each is using different approaches to attract students.

Wonderswork at Liang Court has taken its regular Lego robotics holiday workshop to the next level by having its participants, aged five to 13, construct robots related to popular science fiction movie Star Wars and video game Minecraft.

Founder Enzo Tan, 35, said: "The participants use a computer to programme the robots to perform various tasks. They will be engaged in mini challenges or gameplay between their robots."

The workshop takes only 16 participants, but got over 120 sign-ups. To meet the demand, Mr Tan has conducted seven runs, with two more to go before the year ends.

The seven-month-old Rock3D at Funan DigitaLife Mall runs 3D printing and robotics classes in small groups of two to three students at a time. Some parents also attend the classes with their children.

One of the three co-founders, Mr Tim Loh, 37, said: "When you create something with a 3D printer, that is a shell. But you can programme it to make it move - that's robotics. It is the brain of the shell."

Ms Ayesha Khanna, who founded The Keys Academy in North Bridge Road, said apart from learning technical skills, the hands-on applied learning approach such activities adopt "mimics the way concepts are applied in real life".

Mr Tushar Mohan, 22, who conducts a 3D printing and product design workshop at the centre, said participants go through concepts of physics, trigonometry and unit conversion, and how these can be applied in product design.

"The students may find it difficult at first, but once they see how the concepts work in real life, and understand more of it, they find it interesting," said the final-year student at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

But the participants do not just stop after they create a prototype. They are taught to do market analysis and think of ways to sell the product to their target audience.

Ms Khanna said: "When you design something in the real world, you don't just stop there. You have to learn to market it and sell it."

Transport firm GrabTaxi Singapore has also started a pilot programme called GrabSchool to encourage entrepreneurship and innovation in its drivers' children through free workshops.

Last Tuesday, about 80 children of GrabTaxi and GrabCar drivers gathered at *Scape in Orchard Link for a one-day workshop where they imagined a car in the year 2064 and built it using scrap materials.

GrabTaxi Singapore head Jerry Lim, 36, said the company hopes to get children thinking about innovating from a young age through GrabSchool. "We also want them to appreciate what the start-up process is like. After the children build their car, they need to pitch it to venture capitalists to get funding," he said.

South View Primary School pupil Nikhail D. Naidu, 11, and five teammates built a car that runs on solar panels. He said: "The process of making the car was the most fun. I like making things a lot."

His father, cabby Daren Naidu, 44, said: "He is very hands-on. He's always drawing or building things with Lego pieces. So it's good to encourage that."

KNOWLEDGE BUILDING

We teach them the basics when they come. For example, in robotics, they will first build a base bot, and then add other parts to it and programme it to make it move like a car. ''

MR YAMA MIN, 32, founder of In3Labs. Most who go for his workshops have no prior experience in robotics or coding.

FUELLING INTEREST

He's always been interested in the mechanics of things. I sent him for this class because he has an interest in such things, and programming is also a useful skill to have. ''

MADAM DESLEY KHEW, 39, mother of five-year-old Christian Ong, who participated in a Lego robotics holiday workshop at In3Labs

HANDS-ON APPLICATION

The students may find it difficult at first, but once they see how the concepts work in real life, and understand more of it, they find it interesting. ''

Out of the classroom to the crime lab

In line with the Ministry of Education's emphasis on holistic development and character education, enrichment providers are offering programmes to nurture students in non-academic ways, too.

The Keys Academy, for instance, said it offers courses that are multi-disciplinary in approach.

At one of its offerings, a holiday workshop titled CSI: Murder Mystery, children aged 10 to 12 enter a mock crime scene and hunt for clues to help them solve a murder.

A diamond dealer has been murdered and the gems have been stolen. Participants have to work out which of five suspects is the culprit.

They learn about fingerprint dusting, chromatography and footprint casting, and how to calculate a person's height based on his stride length.

They then present their findings in a mock court and explain how they identified the murderer.

To complete the experience, they visit the Supreme Court and watch a trial. A former lieutenant- colonel from the army with expertise in forensics and investigation also addresses the children.

One of the trainers, Mr Justin Olby, 46, said: "It's an inter-disciplinary approach. You learn maths, physics, chemistry and communications. You learn to think critically and solve problems. There are no right answers, but there is a better one. The children are taught to make decisions for themselves and develop persuasive arguments."

Other programmes aim to equip children with skills to improve their emotional health.

Earlier this month, a mental health clinic in Novena Medical Centre organised its inaugural camp on developing resilience for children aged six to 10.

Dr Thomas Lee, who started The Resilienz Clinic in 2011, decided to run the camp as he felt it would be good "to give children some learning points on resilience".

The 17 children at the three-day camp learnt breathing techniques which can calm them and ways to change negative thoughts to positive ones, among other things.

Dr Lee got them to blow bubbles into their milkshake or apple juice to regulate their breathing. He said: "We taught them to breathe in for three seconds and breathe out for three seconds. When children throw a tantrum, it is quite common for them to hyperventilate.

"Often when we see an adult and trace back their history, we often find that they already had problems as a kid. They may lack coping or management skills and learn unhealthy ways of managing stress.

"What we are trying to do is preventive. We hope to introduce to the children certain skills to help them manage their emotions."

leepearl@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on December 14, 2015.
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