In a bid to promote science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, the NGO Empowering Youth in Cambodia (EYC) recently organised a workshop for children and young people to highlight its importance and benefits.

EYC programme manager Nov Synoeun said these subjects serve as a foundational knowledge base for embracing coding, robotics, computer technology, and artificial intelligence (AI).

The NGO – established in 2006 and currently provides non-formal education to over 700 underprivileged children – invited lecturers of data science, coding educators, international volunteer students and representatives of the US embassy in Phnom Penh who support its projects to share their expertise and the use of the ChatGPT system at its workshop held in the capital last week.

“The programme aimed to increase awareness among Cambodian youth about the advantages of pursuing STEM education. It also provided opportunity for students to ask various questions regarding potential careers in the information technology (IT] field, gain knowledge of labour market demands, and discover quality institutions that offer STEM education,” explained Synoeun, herself an EYC graduate.

“In addition, this programme is specifically designed to encourage and promote women’s participation in the STEM sector,” she added.

As a sponsor of EYC’s STEM education programme, US embassy officer Susan Shultz spoke about STEM education opportunities for today’s youth.

She shared her journey from being a former engineer to becoming an embassy officer, saying she earned an engineering degree and began a career as an engineer, before transitioning to a career in diplomacy.

“It’s the corner stone of the global economy. All innovation is related to STEM education. It’s transformative and it changes the ways we live,” she said.

“STEM skills can translate into so many professions. You can go from STEM to businesses, academia or even diplomacy,” she added.

Chan Sophal, a lecturer of data science at the state-run Institute of Technology of Cambodia (ITC), delivered a presentation on the evolution of AI, from its inception to the present, at the seminar attended by EYC scholarship students.

Sophal delivered a comprehensive presentation on AI technology, including its evolution and relevance in today’s society. He introduced various AI products, covered the history of AI, explained different types of AI, and compared AI with both machine learning and deep learning.

He explained facial recognition as well as driverless automation technology, and also discussed ChatGPT, which is very popular all over the world.

“AI technology is utilised in many sectors, including healthcare, entertainment and agriculture,” he explained.

EYC volunteer teacher Noe Mathieu, a French student studying IT at Epita University in France, also ran a fun interactive demonstration of the potential of ChatGPT, along with instructions on how to use it.

“Chat GPT is a superior virtual assistant that is utilised throughout the world, especially in developed countries,” he said.

EYC launched its STEM education programme in 2020, during the Covid-19 outbreak.

Synoeun explained that they initially requested that the US embassy sponsor five students’ attendance at SabaiCode Education.

“One year later, they showed significant growth and were working on web development. The following year, we asked the embassy to support 50 students. During the 2022-2023 school year, an additional 50 began the classes,” she recalled.

“Our students are pursuing diverse fields of study – including computing, English, music and leadership. About 100 of them are enrolled in coding classes,” she added.

In order to provide STEM education, EYC initially partnered with foreign experts, but by this year is capable of teaching nearly all subjects on its own.

“We try to impart a STEM education to all of our students, regardless of their initial interest. We select those who show the most enthusiasm for the subject. Previously, girls were not as interested, but by providing the opportunity to learn, they have seen an improvement. There are now a significant number of female students involved in STEM subjects,” added Synoeun.

She emphasised the importance of equipping children with the skills and know-how to identify issues within their communities, and seek out solutions.

Leang Ratana, a recent ITC graduate in automation and mechanics who teaches robotics at SabaiCode, said EYC students are working on a number of projects, including a fire alarm system that will alert family members’ mobile phones and also notify the fire department.

Seak Sreypin, a ninth-grader at EYC, has designed a Smart Home system that can control a building’s electrical system through a mobile app.

“I can easily turn the lights on and off using my phone. If we had a larger-scale electrical system, it could certainly manage that as well,” she said.

Tong Mengly, an eighth-grader, leads a team of four. Together, they have designed a robotic boat which can clean the surface of bodies of water. He received training from expert trainers, and spent four coding sessions on this project.

Mengly divided his team into two pairs. Two members worked as coders, while the other two designed the boats and fitted the electronics and sensors.

“I wanted to make the surface of the water clean and free of germs, without harming aquatic animals,” he told The Post.

“We have taught four intakes of EYC students, with each lasting three months. We start with the basics of electronics, wiring and coding, and then get more advanced,” Ratana told The Post.

“While studying, they can complete many amazing projects, although they are limited by the amount of materials our budget can allow,” he said.

Ratana said it is important that children start thinking about STEM as early as possible.

“I only discovered STEM education after I graduated high school. Today’s kids will have a much stronger foundation than I did, and will have incredible ideas by the time they get to university,” he said.