01 December 2016

The IMDA Lab on Wheels team managed to grab hold of Yen Siow, the Founder of Discovering Without Borders – a non-profit association that works with underprivileged children to teach Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) – to talk about the STEM scene in Singapore and how coding is like a second language.

Yen Siow - Innovating STEM Learning for Kids

Lab on Wheels: Tell us a bit more about yourself and background – how did your passion for technology come about?

Yen: During my time in Melbourne Australia, I was the Digital Frontiers Coordinator for Swinburne University of Technology. My role involved coordinating all the university workshops that focused on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) subjects using fun hands-on methods for children who did not have much knowledge or exposure to STEM.
Ever since I was young I was not afraid to try new things. Today I believe that curiosity has served me well in the area of STEM education and innovating new workshops for children. I want all children to know that it is perfectly fine to make mistakes because it is in their mistakes that new ideas and problem solving are taken to a new level.

Lab on Wheels: Seems like you have come a long way! How did all that transform into Discovering Without Borders (DWB)?

Yen: Discovering without Borders is a Social Enterprise I founded based on the need I saw in society that not all children were given an equal opportunity to learn and access STEM education. There were children from low-income families, children with special needs and children from home shelters who were not exposed to STEM learning due to the circumstances they were in. I wanted to create ways to reach these children and provide meaningful learning opportunities to help them reach their full potential through the pro-bono work I do for them. The workshops conducted are less worksheet-based and instead take on a makerthon hands-on approach. This allows children to discover without borders, to think outside the box and to create as their imagination allows them to. One example is through the “Scratch” workshops that I run for children. I always start with a theme in mind, encourage sharing of ideas and then make space for the children to create using Scratch programming. Also, I work closely with organisations and advisors, both in the academic and industry sector, bringing in the very best speakers to inspire the children with innovative and up-to-date topics.

Lab on Wheels: That sounds really different from the conventional way of teaching! In that case, why do you think children should pick up programming?

Yen: I strongly view programming as a vital skill for children to learn, just like picking up a second language. In the next couple of years, everything in Singapore will require some level of digital literacy. Just like a sponge, kids learn quickly when they are exposed to new languages and experiences (in a positive way). With programming at such a young age, they pick up the building blocks of computational thinking. Most children learn through experience and with movement – programming can provide both styles of learning using assistive sensory touch technology to help promote computational learning, be it through visual images or the keyboard mouse maneuvering to build blocks of code.

Lab on Wheels: We could not agree more! How would you then suggest to students on taking their first steps in programming?

Yen: Join the Infocomm club in their school! All the Core Curriculum Activities (CCAs) that the Infocomm clubs offer after school hours, sign up for them, be exposed. During the holidays, take part in technology camps! Schools play a really big role in allowing students to get closer to technology. This is furthermore so with the subsidies made possible from schools and government agencies, not to mention the possibility of tapping onto each student’s Edusave account to gain the most out of all these enriching opportunities.

Lab on Wheels: Educating adults and children can be two very different ball games, so how do you exactly make learning STEM enjoyable and relevant for them?

Yen: As soon as you give a child a project to do, an achievable problem-solving project that is, they become very focused. It has to be achievable, with some level of interest and an outlet for them to show-off their skills and invention. Take the conduct of a Scratch workshop for example, students simply copying the programming blocks from the teacher’s screen can be difficult for young children and at times boring. However, if self-design, creativity and personalisation were introduced, the entire exercise becomes so much more interesting. It is good to show them examples of really exciting Scratch programming to set the guidelines and direction for these projects. When teaching becomes too focused on the goal and task-oriented, it loses the joy, the freedom, and the creativity. When that happens, children tend to switch off and the whole process loses its joy. Another method I like to use is to bring in friendly inspiring guest speakers from the industry to help children get a vision of what a STEM career might look like. At times I encourage parents to accompany their children so that both parent and child are learning the relevance and importance of STEM together. I have engaged a heart surgeon, a cardiologist and a neuro-technologist to share on how they have integrated technology into their work in a productive and meaningful way.

Lab on Wheels: That is simply incredible! Nonetheless, 2016 has been a really fruitful year for both DWB and Lab on Wheels. Having worked with Lab on Wheels, what are your thoughts on our initiative?

Yen: Lab on Wheels should be in every country! Lab on Wheels has set the best practice methodology in reaching such a vast array of students through their many hands-on technological based workshops – all done on the bus! I strongly believe that Singapore is on the right track in helping children love and enjoy STEM subjects. The progression of the Lab on Wheels has been extremely rapid, impacting students and the community by giving them a taste of what technology is about.