In July 2020, we spoke to members of the Shell Singapore team to find out about this year’s Shell STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Competition, and how NXplorers has made the switch to virtual delivery. We interviewed Nicole Pauh, Social Investment Advisor at Shell Singapore; Yvonne Wang, youth mentor for the NXplorers programme; and Chester Ong and Patrick Thavaseelan, representatives from the programme delivery partner, Science Centre Singapore, about their experiences.

What has been your greatest highlight of Shell Singapore’s STEM Competition so far?

Chester:One of my greatest achievements is watching the students evolve during this particular programme. I’ve had the privilege of running STEM programmes with Shell over many years, and before NXplorers, when we first asked students to imagine energy solutions for the world in 2050, most of the ideas that came through were about energy generation.

When we introduced NXplorers, we saw the quality of solutions improve.

We no longer receive ideas related to the generation of energy alone - we see students displaying an understanding of issues relating to the food-water-energy nexus - and we see students adopt whole new perspectives. It’s really been a heartening experience, and when I hear students speak at the finals each year it gives me goosebumps - our efforts always pay off when we see them grow.'

Yvonne:I feel the same as Chester, my greatest joy is to see how students evolve. The most important thing is that they are enjoying the process, and not just doing it for the sake of winning the competition. They are filled with joy when they can present and share their ideas and impact with others! When my students did their final presentation, they had so much confidence and happiness in their presentation and I was so proud they made it into the final team.'

Watch the highlights from last year’s Shell Singapore STEM competition here.

How have you had to adapt your delivery in light of Covid-19?

Chester:We had just delivered our first NXplorers workshop of the year in February when Covid-19 started to spread in Singapore. To minimise the risk of exposure to students, we decided to train teachers directly instead, so they could in turn teach and guide the students about the NXtools and NXthinking. We are very thankful that we have close relationships with the schools, so the changed delivery mode was coordinated and carried out quickly.'

Nicole:One of the greatest strengths of our programme in Singapore is that we have a pool of highly committed and passionate mentors! Despite the change from physical mentorship to fully virtual mentoring, none of the mentors dropped off from the programme and all of them continued their steadfast commitment to the students. They tried different ways to keep the students motivated and engaged, such as coordinating with the teachers beforehand, ensuring they set expectations with the students. The mentors also asked students about their personal interests to find out why they joined the competition and what keeps them going. Some of them even went out of their way to have mentoring sessions after work hours and during weekends, and also shared insights into what it’s like to work in the STEM field.'

As a mentor, what has your role been in this programme?

Yvonne:I’ve always been an active advocate for females in STEM and, with a background in consulting and engineering, I decided to join this programme about a year and a half ago to give back to a cause close to my heart. I was lucky enough to be matched to a team from the secondary school I attended, and my objective for these girls was to guide them when they needed it - but I also made sure to ask them what they wanted to get out of me as well. I didn't want to influence their thinking, instead, I wanted to help them structure and frame their thinking so they can put out impactful arguments.'

What were the challenges faced when connecting with teams virtually?

Yvonne: 'Initially it was hard to build a rapport with the team virtually. Since we had never met face-to-face, the girls were a bit shy to speak freely and also unfamiliar with using virtual ways to meet. It took some time for us to warm up but I think what really helped was building some personal connections and trust with the students first. I got to know why they joined the programme, what their favourite subjects were, and I shared with them what I did in life, school, university and in engineering to give them a sense of my background. Then I had a mutual discussion on what do all of us want to get out of this programme. Due to exam timings and other barriers, it became difficult to find timeslots that suited everyone. To overcome this and still have a fruitful mentorship before the semi-finals, the girls decided to send me recorded sessions of them presenting so I can watch and share my feedback with them.'

What do you think other NXplorers country teams could learn from your experiences?

Nicole: ‘I feel that by making the whole programme virtual this year, it has interestingly created stronger and more personal connections between teachers, programme facilitators, students and mentors. The mentors had to try different ways to engage the students, and they learnt from each other as well as from the students. Although they are separated by a screen, I saw that if the mentors put in their hearts and personal interest into knowing these students a bit more - it really encouraged the students and helped with their learning in the long run. I also think constant communication has been key for us, whether it’s between Shell and Science Centre, or the mentors with the teachers. Discussing the potential challenges, ideas openly together helped us to continue enriching the students’ learning even in these tough times.'

Yvonne:I totally agree with what Nicole said about engaging the students. I just wanted to encourage the students to have fun in this process and worry less. Before their final pitching, my team was so worried about pitching via online platforms as they’d never done it before and worried something might not work. It's a very legitimate worry I think we can all relate with, but I reminded them that every other team is on the same page - and that’s what was important for them to realise and learn. All the challenges they were facing - were all being faced by others too.'

Patrick: ‘I think this process has actually been a blessing in disguise as it allowed the students to have a much closer and more meaningful relationship with their mentors. Last year we organised one session for the mentors to meet all their students - from there they would organise subsequent sessions on their own, sometimes via email and sometimes face-to-face. This year when we shifted to virtual mentoring, we noticed that the number of mentor sessions per student team drastically increased. We think this is as mentors had more flexible schedules now that they were all working from home, and logging on to have a discussion or chat was easy too. Based on past the student surveys, we can see students really valued this portion of the programme.'

What’s next?

Chester:Our five finalists are now out! They will showcase their final projects in October. We are preparing for two options for the final event. The first will be to have a fully virtual event, with possibility of live streaming the entire event on social media. This is so a wider audience can take part. If the situation improves, the second option is to organise a face-to-face gathering – where we can allow the students to present their projects in real life and also showcase the other community initiatives that Shell Singapore has been driving over the years. Fingers crossed for the latter!’

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