YSEALI STEM Education Conference

The YSEALI STEM Education Conference brings together young Asian leaders from throughout Southeast Asia to learn about STEM education and consider ways to improve access to STEM careers for rural students and women.

One of the aspects of my job is to present at conferences on Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. Most of the time, these conferences are attended by teachers, education policy-makers and researchers – old people like me. It’s rewarding to meet others focused on addressing issues I’m passionate about.

A few months ago I was invited to participate in this year’s YSEALI STEM education conference. President Obama started YSEALI, Young South East Asian Leadership Initiative, to foster leadership in Southeast Asians aged 18-35. This program builds a lot of goodwill towards America so fortunately it continues to foster leadership in South East Asia.

The conference location rotates every year and this year it was held in Phnom Penh. The US Embassy foots the bill for the conference including all expenses for the 50 participants from 10 countries. The Asia Foundation handled logistics and had the daunting task of selecting the 50 participants from over 800 applications.

When the US Embassy Cultural Affairs Officer, Monica Davis, invited me to present a short talk on effective STEM teaching, the Asia Foundation team had already drafted the program. I met with the team who showed me the draft schedule and then asked why I should be included. Sadly, the draft schedule had nothing about STEM education other than the Cambodian minister of Youth Education and Sport’s welcoming remarks.

I pointed this out to the team and asked what the theme of the conference was. STEM education, after all, is a BROAD topic. They had no theme and they indicated that their education partner had quit. Two of the team members were noticeably annoyed that the embassy had asked for changes to their program. One pointed out that most attendees would not be teachers so why bother with a session on effective teaching. …At..a..STEM…Education… conference….. Seriously?

I made my pitch that STEM Education matters for society as a whole, parents, STEM professionals who hope to further their fields, and companies that need STEM professionals. They then agreed that I could have 30 minutes.

We talked about a contest for participants. The participants would be divided into 8 groups who would come up with solutions to STEM education challenges in their countries. The Asia Foundation would award $2000 seed money to each of three winning proposals. They had already opted for a challenge to include more women in STEM. I suggested that there is a rural-urban divide in access to STEM education and there is also a misperception that STEM education must be expensive. So they added two new challenges – Mind the gap (rural – urban divide) and Inexpensive STEM education solutions.

Between the time I met with the organizers and the conference, a Fulbright student, Sophie Nop, also had some input into the program. Sophie is a U Washington graduate in computer science with an interest in computing education. Somehow she got the organizers to add a session on makers and they extended my session to 45 minutes. She also helped them recruit and set up a webinar with an African American woman NASA scientist who uses satellite imagery to inform land use policies in developing countries.

In addition to speaking, I volunteered as a mentor for one of the groups. I love working with young people and I really couldn’t pass up an opportunity to interact with youth from all over Southeast Asia. My group had 1 Cambodian, 1 Thai, 1 Vietnamese, 1 Malaysian, 1 Indonesian, and 2 Burmese.

They were all so bright, enthusiastic, and talented that they had a tough time narrowing down their ideas. So they were behind when it came time to craft their proposal into a presentation. They didn’t win the prize but they came up with a great project.

The agenda was packed and still policy heavy. All the speakers but 3 just talked at the attendees – kinda sad for an “education” conference. By the second day, it was clear that being talked at for hours was taking a toll but participants were upbeat.

There were some breaks. We had a lovely dinner cruise on the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers. This wasn’t on one of the cheap boats I normally take, it was a catered affair on a large, well equipped boat. The participants also went to Tuol Sleng, visited a New Generation STEM High School located in the oldest school building in Cambodia, and visited The Cambodian STEM fair.

The gala dinner on the last night of the YSEALI STEM education conference was a lot of fun. Participants wore traditional dress from their countries. After dinner each country presented some form of entertainment from their country and the winners of the contest were announced.

Here is the traditional Dance from Brunei.

Cambodia had two contributions. How to greet others properly. Leang, on the right was one of my team members.

And a fun dance and song about how great Cambodia is.

The Indonesian team recited a traditional poem that parents often tell their children as a bed time story.

They then sang a song and did some traditional dances. Sadly my iPhone video was blurry for most of one of them. Traditionally, the clapping dance is only done by men. The woman with the red headscarf is one of my mentees, Mugni.

The group from Myanmar also did a short traditional dance. May on the far left and Thiri in the center were on my team.

There are three major cultures in Malaysia: Malay, Chinese, and Indian. So the Malaysian participants performed a dance medley representing all three. Amir (front center) was one of my mentees.

The Philippino group went all out with a song (maybe their national anthem?) and several short dances that represent the culture of their islands.

The team from Thailand taught us a dance so I don’t have us actually dancing because I was too busy trying not to trip over my own two left feet. Opal (2nd from the left) was on my team.


The Vietnamese team showed a tourism video (not included here) and performed a dance for us.

There were only two participants from Laos so they recruited some Vietnamese students and taught us one of their dances.

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