Alarmed by the declining numbers of pupils opting forscience subjects in secondary schools, the Malaysian ministry of education has introduced American teaching methods into nine technical and 69 vocational schools.
If the Tech Prep pilot project produces the expected upturn in interest and results, it will be introduced into all secondary schools in the hope it will significantly alter parental and student attitudes to science, technology and vocational education.
Tech Prep emphasises the need for hands-on experience in Malaysian schools, whose approach to these subjects has traditionally been abstract and theoretical. It represents a significant shift in methodology.
Syllabus content remains largely unaltered, but the move to a contextualised approach is seen as a way of making learning more relevant to the real world and as a means of attracting greater numbers of pupils.
Education minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak said last year that government targets for science and technology were not being met. Over the past decade, only 20 per cent of students have chosen these subjects - just one-third of the 60 to 40 ratio of science to arts target set by the government. Malaysia is keenly aware of the need for skilled workers to support high-tech industries.
This shortfall is compounded by an apparent lack of parental support for specialist vocational and technical schools, which are still some 10 per cent below their target number of pupils, despite a slight improvement over the past few years.
"The perception still exists that vocational and technical schools are meant for weaker students and many are reluctant to send their children there," Datuk Dr Abdul Shukor Abdullah, the country's deputy director-general of education, told a conference last year.
Vocational schools have also tended to teach specific skills, such as furniture making, without the support of technical and theoretical subjects such as physics. It is being increasingly recognised that this approach will not produce the skilled technicians that are required.
"The industrial worker of the 21st century...needs creative, mathematical, communication and social skills, and the ability to adapt to changes in technology," said Dr Abdullah, who argued that the current vocationalcurriculum could not meetthese needs.
Tech Prep's integration ofacademic work and skills through a contextualised approach is seen as a promising solution. So far around 300 teachers have been trained in Tech Prep methodology and the number is expected to grow rapidly.