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Cultivating Rural Makerspaces

Students learn coding at Tenom Innovation Centre under the guidance of an instructor (Photo: Facebook/Tenom Innovation Centre)

Teaching STEM subjects in a rural setting can be daunting, but some educators go above and beyond in cultivating their students’ interest in technical subjects.

For some teachers, out-of-the-box thinking has led to the creation of makerspaces and after-school resource centres to help sustain students’ interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

These efforts have even led to one teacher, Anuthra Srisena Sinnyore, winning the inaugural Malaysia Teacher Prize last October.

Breakthrough Press was able to interview Ms Anuthra and Japlee Bakok, who both founded makerspaces and STEM resource centres in their respective districts.

The two were part of a team of rural STEM teacher-ambassadors visiting the UK, to learn about STEM education here.

Mr Japlee and a colleague from Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, visiting the University of Strathclyde Motorsport (USM) student workshop at the university’s Engineering facility. (Photo courtesy of Viviantie Sarjuni)


Miss Anuthra’s inspiration to co-found the Tenom Innovation Centre (TIC) with fellow teachers Leona Candia and Izzah Aziemah Zulkifli, came when the three attended a “Train the Teacher '' programme on the Internet of Things concept in 2017.

All three teachers come from Tenom District, a hilly region in Sabah, bordering Indonesia’s Kalimantan.
The trio, Anuthra said, realised the immense advantages a student would possess with skills and knowledge in programming and robotics.

Primary and secondary school students learn about topics such as robotics and building microcontroller kits after school at the Tenom Innovation Centre (Photo: Facebook/Tenom Innovation Centre)

“When we were preparing our students for the first time for a robotics competition, we saw a spark in the kids we had never seen before,” she said, describing the children’s enthusiasm in learning to code and building the robots.

For Mr Japlee, who teaches maths at the lower secondary level, the challenge was maintaining his students’ interest:
“People say it's very boring, and when we try to deliver a topic, students will not be able to grasp the concepts in a short time. “

“That is why I am on this trip here to search for ideas on how to get them to be more interested in the subject and understand it, not just learn it better,” Japlee said.

Funding TIC did not come easy. The centre received one-off donations from a local conglomerate and MaGIC, the government-linked company in charge of innovation and creativity in the country.

“Starter kits cost between RM6,000 to RM7,000 (£1,100 to £1,285) apiece, we knew we had to make sure operational costs were taken care-off to make this space sustainable,” Anuthra said.

For items like laptops to learn coding, Anuthra and her co-founders reached out to schools to see if they could loan spare machines.
Even Tenom’s district officer (the highest civil administrator appointed by the state locally) chipped in his own money, while TIC even ran some paid workshops to raise funds.

Mr Japlee (in black indigenous costume) explaining his school’s “STEM In Library” concept to visitors at a STEM fair organised by Malaysia’s national oil and gas company in Kuala Lumpur (Photo: Facebook/Ihsan Ismail)

In the mountainous Ranau District, Mr Japlee’s school officially launched the STEM resource centre on Aug 30 last year.

The school’s library and Mr Japlee, a participant in a “STEM Teacher-Ambassador” programme under the country’s education ministry, collaborated with the school to carry out the “STEM In Library” programme.

“We converted one corner into a STEM space, and stocked it not only with reference books, but also materials for hands-on activities such as constructing simple robots,” Mr Japlee said.

One way to make-up for the limited funds and materials the STEM corner faced, he added that the was to reuse discarded materials for the corner’s activities.

An instructor from Malaysian Research Accelerator for Technology & Innovation (MRANTI) explaining soldering work to students at Tenom Innovation Centre (Photo: Facebook/Tenom Innovation Centre)


In another interview, Ms Anuthra explained how one challenge in getting students interested in STEM was contending with ingrained mindsets, in both students and parents, to look beyond traditional careers in law, medicine or the civil service.

To that end, she said, TIC also carried out programmes with parents’ involvement.

“We also made sure to hold an annual makers’ fair, which is now known as Tenom Makers Fair to showcase the potential and skills that the kids in the rural areas have gained, and applied,” she explained.

Since then, TIC has expanded from its three teachers and four student mentors in 2017, to 13 teachers and instructors, and over 40 student mentors.

Since starting in 2017, Tenom Innovation Centre has expanded its outreach to all schools in the district, with plans to help seed similar makerspaces in three other districts in the state. (Photo: Facebook/Tenom Innovation Centre)

Additionally, the centre had managed to reach all schools in Tenom, Ms Anuthra said, with plans to set up makerspaces in three neighbouring districts with similar rural demographics.

Ms Anuthra, who’s 2022 award included RM70,000 in prize money, said the cash would go towards seeding these makerspaces and building up their capacities.

“This way we can ensure all 4 districts in the interior region of Sabah are able to run workshops and training on robotics and coding to their students.”

“As a community builder and a passionate STEM educator, it is my greatest hope that every child would be given an opportunity to learn to code and create simple robots,” Ms Anuthra said.


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