STEM vs Non-STEM: How Relevant Are Non-STEM Courses in Malaysia?

By Nur Hafiza Abu Bakar | Last modified 06 Jan 2020
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We have heard parents who only want their children to further their studies in engineering and science courses. Some of us even grew up understanding that only STEM courses can guarantee a ‘good future’ while other art courses are considered less important. 

But first of all, what is a STEM course? STEM is an academic discipline that refers to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. The majors include health sciences, physics, engineering and information technology

On the other hand, courses like Humanities, Arts, Literature and Management are all categorised as non-STEM subjects.

With the rising popularity of STEM courses, are non-STEM courses getting less significant in the educational and industrial sector today? Are they still relevant and carry the worth?

STEM vs Non-STEM

STEM courses typically have higher demands in terms of employment compared to those non-STEM graduates. Even in universities, there were people saying that a STEM course is comparatively harder to complete due to its learning nature and syllabi. While non-STEM students are expected to have an ‘easier’ flow of learning.

This unfair comparison between STEM and non-STEM courses is not going to help high school leavers to determine their major for the degree. There are no such courses as more or less significant than one another. There are even students who were forced by their parents to pursue in a stream they didn’t want.

Both STEM and non-STEM programmes have the same level of difficulty. It is up to the individual to judge and decide whether they are able to carry the course or not. But you should keep in mind that each course is unique and designed to nurture students to do their best in their own way. As competitive as this world can get, course comparison remains an individual opinion. 

There is no course in tertiary education labelled as ‘easy’ and ‘tough’. You may view it based on the terms of subjects, exams and assignments because these factors can be viewed as a medium to portray student’s abilities. Non-academic factors also play their role as challenges to measure the capabilities of students.

Moving forward: No more Science/Art streams in Malaysian schools

In Malaysia, the public secondary schools typically divide Form 4 students according to the stream the students don’t choose on their own. The science stream is often categorised as the ‘the best class’ followed by other streams. This has caused insecurity among students, especially from those who are not in the science class.

In the early phase, students will not feel bothered about what they’re studying, but as time goes by, they will start to realise what their interests are. This is why it is important to encourage flexibility for students to decide what they like to study.

The students are streamed based on their PT3 results. If they earned excellent results, they will be put in a science stream class, while others who got average results, they will be put in an art stream class.

However, our Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik announced schools to go streamless starting 2020, allowing students to decide which subjects they prefer to take. He mentioned that there are students who performed well in PT3, but their interests are not focused on science. Many young talents can go to waste if this continues to happen. 

He also added, “And many science students could have been linguists, Hollywood actors, accountants or good musicians, but they end up as doctors, spending most of their lives wasting time doing what they’re not really talented in”.

In university, students are given the chance to choose either to pursue a STEM or non-STEM course. It is agreed by the conditions that only science stream students are allowed to pursue STEM majors for their undergraduate studies. 

Why is that so? It is because of the knowledge they learned in advance at schools. But for science students who want to get into a non-STEM course, it can be done without needing to follow any conditions. 

What worth do non-STEM majors hold today?

If you are planning to pursue your studies in a non-STEM course, you need to prepare yourself for what the future will hold for you. You have probably heard people saying the job prospects or employment opportunities for non-STEM graduates are more challenging. Generally, yes it’s true.

But this doesn’t mean it is not possible for non-STEM students to secure a good job offer upon graduation. There are several important points you need to keep in mind being a non-STEM major. You have to make sure you have deep interests in the course you’re doing and the passion will directly drive you towards a better future.

Besides in-class learning, you also have to be active outside of the classroom setting. For example, you can join social and curriculum activities to improve your soft skills.

Graduates from STEM courses often only have a fixed career option. A computer engineering graduate is only allowed to pursue a career related to what they took during their undergraduate studies. Non-STEM major like humanities, they can get into a diverse range of career opportunities where the skills and knowledge are made applicable.

Some people argue that non-STEM courses do not have a promising career, while STEM majors, on the other hand, always increase in demands. There is no competition when it comes to education. Every knowledge carries the same level of degree, what makes it different is the type of knowledge we gain and how valuable it is for us to apply it in the future.

Liberal art courses are very broad and general. Unlike STEM courses, they do not have specific technicalities that need to be followed. STEM is highly objective and has fixed criteria for its learning outcome. In a simpler way to describe: STEM focuses on detail-oriented results while non-STEM emphasises on human thinking and patterns.

How to excel well as a non-STEM student?

The reality of non-STEM students in Malaysia is not as bad as we thought it would be. However, there are several considerations you have to get yourself prepared beforehand so that you can display yourself better after you graduated. 

1. Build soft and technical skills
Not everyone enjoys maths and science. Memorising scientific terms and mathematical formula can trouble some of us. If you are majoring in any of the art courses, good news you don’t have to apply any of these practices. Sounds fun? But it’s too early to get excited.

Let’s say you’re majoring in Psychology. What you will learn in the course is commonly the study of discipline which consists of applied science subjects, but not all of them can be applied in your future workplace.

What can you do is to participate in activities that can help improve your soft and technical skills. In Malaysian universities, there are student bodies, societies and clubs that offer students to get involved in doing fun and beneficial activities.

Find which club or society that carries your values or interests, and try to be active with the projects they are doing. You will be able to produce new communication and management skills; these are the skills that are usually sought by employers.

2. Always be prepared
With the current condition of the economy today, you need to always be ready on what to come. Students should be able to study whatever they want and explore freely without any restrictions. 

However, not all students are aware of what is happening to the economy until they grow older. Hence, take an early measure to understand the realities of the economy if you want to beat out the competition. You have to know what skills and qualities are in demand to make yourself more attractive to potential employers as a non-STEM graduate.

3. Design your own story
Graduating as a non-STEM major does not come with comprehensive tangible skills for you to show. With the skills and interests that you have, you need to build your own story. The story must have qualities that portray your passion, work ethics and goals you want to achieve.

This can be used when you’re attending an interview. It takes time to build your story, it goes all the way from your first educational experience up to what you gathered after spending years studying. 

The competition for non-STEM graduates is higher so you have to work hard and prioritise on what you want to develop for your long-term growth.

 

Non-STEM courses still and will forever matter in the industry, in fact, many companies are starting to hire more art graduates. You need to highlight your worth in order to land your dream job after graduation. 

Don’t be afraid to study what you like. It is important for you to enjoy your university life by learning the subjects that interest you. 

Posted on 27 Dec 2019
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