A STEM Classroom Is Creating Cambodia’s Future Scientists

A forward-thinking academy is aiming to fill Cambodia’s engineering and technology skills gap by delivering hands-on STEM education in the classroom. Kiripost’s Tharum visits Neeson Cripps Academy to find out more.
Hands-on STEM education in the classroom at Neeson Cripps Academy. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Hands-on STEM education in the classroom at Neeson Cripps Academy. Kiripost/Siv Channa

One afternoon last week, as the warm glow of golden hour arrived, about two dozen students could be seen working away in a science laboratory carrying out their duties of the day.

At Neeson Cripps Academy (NCA), which focuses on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), one thing stands out: the innovation of these young scientists. In the laboratory, Grade 9 students can be seen huddled together as they attempt to complete their latest project, creating their own perfume.

NCA's grade 9 students can be seen huddled together creating their own perfume. Kiripost/Siv Channa
NCA's grade 9 students can be seen huddled together creating their own perfume. Kiripost/Siv Channa

With Cambodia short of engineers and technology workers, NCA is aiming to fill the skills gap.

“I believe they will have a good career and be in a position to help drive Cambodia forward,” Andrew Roberts, a STEM coordinator at NCA, told Kiripost in a recent interview.

“Our aim is to have an increasing number of students choose STEM degrees and undertake STEM careers,” he added.

“What fragrance have you got?” a female student asks her classmate, adding hers has captured the fragrance of lemongrass after mixing a variety of flowers. The scent of jasmine, vanilla, and other essential oils waft through the science lab, which is equipped with safety equipment and has emergency measures in place.

Andrew explained, “They have to research and, then if making a perfume, use scientific methods to plan their experiment. To make a product the engineering design process is used. Both methods strengthen the critical thinking skills of our students. They also get to make a product. This is used whether making a perfume or the small aquaculture (fish farm) project at our rooftop garden.”

Before this, they came up with other essentials to make as part of their STEM studies during the school year.

Thong Boran, a STEM teacher at NCA. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Thong Boran, a STEM teacher at NCA. Kiripost/Siv Channa

Thong Boran has been teaching STEM at NCA for more than three years. In the lab, she offers help to students by answering any questions. She roams the classroom, stopping at each group to monitor their progress and help out when needed.

Coconut oils, soaps, and lipstick are among what the teenage students have learned to make. As part of their assignments, they had to follow the entire production process, from the start until the end.

A STEM classroom at Neeson Cripps Academy of Cambodian Children's Fund (CCF). Kiripost/Siv Channa
A STEM classroom at Neeson Cripps Academy of Cambodian Children's Fund (CCF). Kiripost/Siv Channa

Boran said instead of telling her students what to do, the class gets together to discuss it first, with students actively encouraged to come up with the project idea. At first, students refined oil from coconuts. She asked her students to think of which products are made from coconut oil. Some made coconut oil-based hair products, while other female students chose lipstick.

“At school, all STEM subjects exist as silos and students rarely see where they come together as they do in any STEM career. Students also have to understand their subject matter, not just memorise what is written on the board by the teacher. Greater understanding then helps with remembering,” said the STEM coordinator.

Armed with HP Chromebook laptops, the NCA high schoolers spend time researching, proposing how to experiment, testing, and presenting their results. Each project typically takes a few weeks to complete.

“As a teacher, I only guide students. They can be more creative when having space and time in this science lab. They can create something they’re interested in. They discover and make use of their own talent,” she added.

With this approach to learning, “I motivate my students to love themselves. At the end of the day, they encounter the roadblocks of obstacles, failure, and success. They learn much more with this result-oriented approach,” Boran told Kiripost during a short break from the science students.

Hean Kim Eng, a STEM officer at the academy, said the afternoon session is an experimental class. Glancing around the lab, this is clear as students can be seen mixing together ingredients for their perfume. The previous week, they conducted presentations proposing the perfume-making process.

Cambodian Children's Fund was founded in 2004 by Scott Neeson. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Cambodian Children's Fund was founded in 2004 by Scott Neeson. Kiripost/Siv Channa

When working on projects like this, Kim Eng said students expect the end result to be a success. However, successful or not, students are still expected to present their findings and factors in the classroom.

She said, “Students can gain a deeper level of understanding with each project they embark on. More than just theories, but the hands-on experience of creating the products are necessary for everyday life.”

Having opened its door in early 2017, the academy, of non-profit organisation Cambodian Children’s Fund, for secondary education is instilling disadvantaged kids aged 13 to 18 with confidence in their own unique ways.

STEM students sniff the fruits of their labour – the signature scent. Kiripost/Siv Channa
STEM students sniff the fruits of their labour – the signature scent. Kiripost/Siv Channa

“The ‘making by learning’ simplifies what was taking place. We teach using project-based learning. Students are encouraged to solve a real-world "problem" and bring in all their knowledge from the different sciences,” NCA’s Andrew told Kiripost when asked about this approach to learning, which is not yet standard at most public and private schools across Cambodia.

As the afternoon session of experimenting draws to an end, the students start to witness the final results of their perfume. As the sun starts to set, a mix of fragrances cling to the air in the lab as students sniff the fruits of their labour – the signature scent they have created.

Neeson Cripps Academy (NCA) was designed by world-class architects, COOKFOX. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Neeson Cripps Academy (NCA) was designed by world-class architects, COOKFOX. Kiripost/Siv Channa