As promised, a post about the workshop I was at during the end of February and beginning of March is here. This seems like a good place to leap back into STEMposting anyways, so here we go.
Before I left for the workshop, I did not have much idea of what to expect from the workshop itself, as is reflected from my last post about it. The pre-orientation Skype session covered logistics more than anything else, so even though I had a broad general idea that we would be discussing aspects of STEM education across ASEAN, I did not know much more about what to expect. The only other deliverables were that country teams would have to create a presentation on ‘Why I chose STEM’ for a high school Cambodian class as well as prepare some sort of cultural performance, while there would be a separate project pitch of some sort by day 3. Checking out the YSEALI STEM website helped a little bit, but browsing a set of web pages was certainly a different and much less fulfilling experience than what was in store from the 3 days of the workshop itself. After nonchalantly looking through some research papers and online articles on STEM education in ASEAN provided as resources on the site, as well as browsing through the list of participants and speakers, I signed off and told myself it was probably more like a symposium and a skills conference workshop combined than anything else. I would fly in, do my job while exploring as much of the city as possible, and walk away.
As the whirlwind of media right after the workshop itself conclusively demonstrated, I got much more than what I bargained for. I think as participants most of us, if not all, did.
The first hint that this workshop would be much more than expected started from the airport departure in Yangon, where I physically met my country team for the first time. I was pleasantly surprised by how fast we started becoming friends in a matter of hours despite our vastly different backgrounds (this was a common pattern I observed throughout the duration of the workshop). After rushing through the short transit in Bangkok and making it to Pnom Penh, Team Myanmar was greeted by representatatives from the Asia Foundation for YSEALI as shown below along with Team Thailand. Shortly afterwards, we got our first glimpse of Pnom Penh through the windows of our van while chatting with our volunteer student organizer, and once we got to our hotel and conference venue (Himawari hotel) we quickly completed check-in after getting our individual conference packets.
It wasn’t nearly as quick as I would have liked though. I was hoping to rush to the Cambodian royal palace after figuring out that it was within walking distance of our hotel, but I waited too long for most of team Myanmar and by the time I ran off with the one guy that showed up and made it to the tourist entrance it was 4:40 pm and the doors at closed. I had to make do with walking around in the nearby area and taking in a few views of the Mekong on my way back. For dinner, team Myanmar (consisting of Zaw Win Htet, Zaw Htut Aung, Thae Ma Ma Zin, May Thu Soe, Thiri Aung Kyaw, and yours truly) decided to stick together and go to Aeon Mall with one of May’s Cambodian friends, Kanikar. Hanging out at the mall and observing Pnom Penh closely while traveling to and from the mall by tuk-tuk gave me a feel for the city that I don’t think I would have gotten otherwise, especially given the very limited time we would have throughout the workshop to explore the city.
Day 1 of the workshop was chock-full of speeches and presentations for most of the morning after the inevitable icebreaker activity, but we did get to introducing ourselves to our project teams (not country teams) and discussing which one of three given topics we would tackle. The highlights for me were in the afternoon, where I got to meet some great speakers at the Innovation and Collaboration skill labs, and in the evening with the Mekong river cruise dinner. At the skill labs, I had a great time interacting with the speakers because they had gone through many of the obstacles regarding innovation and talent collaboration in southeast Asia that I was currently dealing with (such as getting patents while intellectual property legislation was still weak etc.), and I was able to fruitfully discuss my progress and concerns with them one-on-one. The river cruise was just fun in general and my first real opportunity to mingle with workshop participants outside of my project and country teams and enjoy the ride while discussing all sorts of things and making friends. After the cruise the day was not done though–I did a really quick rehearsal run of the team Myanmar high school presentation with the squad and our mentor Ms. Elita Ouk.
I was not able to take a lot of pictures for day 2 (and in fact some of the pictures are from the official Flickr album) because there was so much going on–project team discussions and work (after finally deciding on a topic and starting to fill out the topic worksheet and starting on the pitch presentation), initial discussions on what to do for the cultural presentation (because team Myanmar was not able to rehearse before the workshop as we all lived far away from each other), a few presentations and a panel discussion to sit through, a small maker show with some basic electronics, and of course the mandatory field trip to the Tuol Sieng genocide museum. Needless to say, although I persevered till the barbeque dinner and networking event the last time I was this tired and spent was when I pulled several all-nighters for a midterms and exams back in the day. The end of the day was fun though; it was interesting to hear about the challenges faced by several Cambodian startups as well as their value propositions as they tried to bring their social enterprise visions to manifest.
Day 3 was the culmination of all our efforts. From the morning of the visit to the New Generations Cambodian high school to the project pitches in the afternoon to the cultural performances in the evening, this was where everything came to a head. Before all that, though, the highlight of my day 3 morning was the Skype conference with Dr. Danielle Wood from MIT, whose inspiring work in satellite engineering for development purposes gave most (if not all) of us food for thought. I was also grateful to her for generously fielding my question (and of course, all our questions) and providing me with leads and resources with which to pursue my interests in the field.
The visit to the New Generations school went well, I think; team Myanmar opened with an activity I picked up back in ME 2110 (spaghetti tower challenge) and although the presentation (file attached) delivery was a bit rushed I think we mostly got our points across. The project pitch also went fairly well (the full context of the pitch is not in the PPT file itself and the pitch was not recorded as video though, sadly), and although I think we did a great job despite all the challenges we faced as a team (so did our mentor, apparently) we ultimately did not receive a $2000 seed funding prize for our ‘social enterprise’ idea. That is perfectly fine though, especially in hindsight with all that ended up on my plate throughout March–there was no way I could have devoted my full attention to a new international startup! I barely survived the cultural performance in the evening, however. That is a story for another day.
After the dinner and cultural performance, there was a nice little dance party with whoever was left standing and not half-asleep. Afterwards, with some time to kill, a bunch of us headed off to the Pnom Penh night market to buy souvenirs, and team Myanmar stayed up all the way until 2am, livin’ it up with instant noodles and just hanging out in general (still no regrets about that). On the morning of 3 March, we joined team Thailand in getting transported to the airport, and finally split up at Suvarnabhumi airport where team Myanmar continued home.
Overall conclusions about the workshop and trip itself:
- The participants: what a fascinating group of characters you are! The last time I saw this much energy and purpose from a group of youths, I was at Georgia Tech. I was also blown away by how easily a group of young adults with a common goal could genuinely make friends with each other despite having very different backgrounds and thought paradigms. I’m glad that I’ll likely get the chance to meet some of you again in the near future.
- ASEAN events like this seem to be jam-packed with stuff (trying to get everything on the agenda done in an impossibly short amount of time), and very policy-heavy. I was proud, however, that all of us persevered despite the work stress and late hours and produced great project pitches that were similar enough in calibre to give the judges a hard time. Seriously, I’ve seen some hackathons where the teams had more time than us to work on their ideas and project pitches.
- Cambodia is a very different place from what I anticipated it to be, and Pnom Penh seemed to be a great place to hang out (at least from my limited first impression here). I hope I get to visit again at some point in the future.
- I learned for a fact that there are many more youths within ASEAN working towards the promotion of STEM education than I had anticipated. Before witnessing the events of the workshop and the participants’ work firsthand, sometimes I felt like I was the only person my age (at least in my community) working towards training and development of existing human capital in my community within Myanmar. I consistently worried about the enormous skillset gap between the current assets available locally and their counterparts outside of southeast Asia, but it turns out that this problem is not unique to Myanmar within ASEAN. Although there are definitely differences in the issues each ASEAN nation faces, I saw enough similarity and patterns to understand that a common general solution may be feasible with close collaboration in the future regarding STEM between ASEAN members.
Wow. This is definitely the longest blog post I’ve written, and probably will be the longest for quite a while. But as promised, this is my own little debriefing for the YSEALI STEM 2018 Workshop. If you have any thoughts regarding all this, please let me know!