2018-08-19 05:00:00 2018-08-20 04:59:00 SPH 2 Nine-year-old Sherrie Chan likes science so much that she had a science-themed birthday party earlier this year.

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Nine-year-old Sherrie Chan likes science so much that she had a science-themed birthday party earlier this year.

One of the party's highlights for her was watching a model volcano "erupt" in a chemical reaction involving baking soda and vinegar.

For the past two years, she has been attending holiday camps and enrichment classes related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem), learning things such as fingerprints and computer programming and making a robot dog using Lego.

Her mother, Ms Sha-en Yeo, 37, recalls how the elder of her two daughters used to like watching her engineer husband fix the television set and electric fans at home.

Ms Yeo, founder of Positive Education, which teaches academic skills and skills to boost well-being, says: "She loves science so much that it was simply a matter of giving her the opportunity to go for Stem courses.

"I used to be a teacher and saw how some kids struggled with science, even though science and maths are all around us. You use these concepts in baking, for instance.

"It's worth thinking about (exposing children to Stem) early."

Some parents are also enrolling their daughters in Stem enrichment programmes in a bid to future-proof their adulthood, which they believe will be dominated by science and technology such as artificial intelligence (AI).

Mr Raymond Lee, 43, an assistant engineer in the IT industry, and his wife have enrolled their only child, eight-year-old Lee Zilin, in a Lego robotics class at WonderWorks enrichment centre since last year.

"We want to prepare her for the future. At the age of seven, it's easier to absorb (knowledge) and Lego is popular with children," he says.

He believes that coding will be an essential skill in the future - when more traditional jobs will become redundant as technology is enmeshed in society in new ways, such as in emergent areas of machine intelligence or biotechnology.

Associate Professor Lim Tit Meng, chief executive of Science Centre Singapore, says: "We need more women in Stem because they represent 50 per cent of the human race.

"They bring diverse perspectives to Stem solutions... (and) Singapore is currently facing an ageing and shrinking workforce."

The Science Centre provides access to Stem education to children from as young as 18 months old - through interactive play, musicals and other activities.

Schools and enrichment providers also offer a wide variety of Stem programmes.

Experts say more girls have to be exposed to Stem from a young age.

A regional study on Stem by Mastercard published in February this year found that 85 per cent of girls, aged 12 to 14, who were surveyed, were interested to pursue a future in Stem.

More than 2,400 girls and young women were involved in the study, which spanned six countries in the Asia-Pacific, including Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

In the most recent figures available from the Ministry of Education, women comprised less than 30 per cent of the 2016 enrolment in Engineering Sciences in the six universities in Singapore.

Ms Georgette Tan, president of the Singapore Committee for UN Women, a self-funded, non-profit organisation working towards women's empowerment and gender equality, says: "Clearly, more needs to be done to translate interest into education and eventually towards entering Stem careers."

In 2014, the committee, together with Mastercard and Standard Chartered, launched the Girls2Pioneers programme, which encourages girls aged 10 to 15 to pursue careers in Stem through activities such as day camps, talks, field trips and mentorship opportunities.

So what is keeping more women from pursuing a Stem education and career?

Assistant Professor Dawn Tan, from the Engineering Product Development department at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, says an early start helps girls feel "comfortable" with Stem, which will help embolden them to pursue further education and careers in Stem.

"Conversely, if parents or educators limit girls' exposure to Stem activities, toys and books from a young age, then the probability that the children would pursue these fields later in life will be low," she says.

Gender stereotypes are another hurdle in discouraging young girls from taking part in Stem activities, says Ms Toh Wei Ping, founder of Kids DiscoveryWorks, whose services include Stem enrichment programmes and holiday camps for pre-schoolers and primary school pupils.

"Since we started in 2016, 70 to 80 per cent of our classes is made up of boys. We feel quite strongly that there's an unconscious gender bias on the part of parents when it comes to Stem for girls," she adds.

Gendered attitudes - such as buying pink clothes for girls and blue for boys, or encouraging girls to do art and ballet while boys "should" be good at science and maths - mean that girls tend to not get as much exposure as boys to Stem, she notes.

This influences their choice of career and workplaces when girls grow up.

Some parents are actively combating such gender stereotyping.

Mrs Yuan Yuan Wheeler, 38, enrolled her five-year-old daughter Niamh, who likes princesses and is wearing a plastic tiara for this interview, in a Lego robotics enrichment class earlier this year.

"When they're young, they have tons of opportunities and options. Gradually, their choices narrow. I want her choices to be open," says Mrs Wheeler, who is married to a 42-year-old American diplomat and works at the United States embassy.

"At a young age, one doesn't face much social pressure (to conform to certain gender stereotypes). Next time, she may internalise such attitudes."

This extends beyond taking Stem classes.

When Niamh wanted to learn ballet like her schoolmates, Mrs Wheeler suggested football instead. Niamh, the older of two sisters, also takes art and swimming lessons.

Societal attitudes towards girls taking Stem classes seem to be shifting.

Ms Chris Lai Meiting, operations manager at enrichment centre Smart Science Lab, which provides Stem programmes, says that parents used to send their daughters to the centre to "pull up" their grades in science.

Now, they want their girls to try different types of enrichment classes, including those related to Stem, she adds.

The Government's Smart Nation drive in recent years has also boosted interest in Stem enrichment classes for girls, says Mr Enzo Tan, director and founder of WondersWork enrichment centre.

Mr Sachin Shridhar, 41, says his job at an IT multinational company, drives home to him how the technology industry, with its hiring shortages and challenges, needs more women.

He and his wife, stay-at-home mother Richa Shridhar, 40, enrol both their daughters, aged 13 and six, in coding and other Stem programmes.

Mr Shridhar says: "For my children, I would differentiate between content consumption - such as the passive consumption of music and videos - and content creation, such as programming a game.

"These days, screen-time for children is inevitable, so you might as well use it creatively."

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