How science education can unlock Africa’s potential

Celebrate with us the World Science Day for Peace and Development
Students engaged in a robotics session during an education tour to CEMASTEA. CREDIT: CEMASTEA, 2018

This is the 12th blog post published in 2018 as part of the collaborative effort launched in 2017 between the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) and the Global Partnership for Education (GPE).

The first World Science Day for Peace and Development was celebrated worldwide on November 10, 2002, under UNESCO auspices to ensure that citizens are kept informed of developments in science. This day highlights the significant role of science in our daily lives and the need to engage the wider public in debates on emerging scientific issues.

The theme for 2018 is “Science, a Human Right”, in celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (art. 27), and of the Declaration on Science and the Use of Scientific Research. Recalling that everyone has a right to participate in and benefit from science, it will serve to spark a global discussion on ways to improve access to science and to the benefits of science for sustainable development.

Africa’s current inability to fill position in science fields

A workforce with the ability to apply critical thinking, creativity and innovation to create applications that can be commercialized and create jobs is indeed a desire for all countries globally.

Concerns have been raised by prominent institutions on Africa’s inability to fill most science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs within industries. The shortage of such workforce is linked to classroom teaching and learning practices that are pre-dominantly geared towards passing examinations, and not towards applying knowledge acquired to solve real life problems affecting societies.

Future aspirations and the role of STEM

In the Aspiration 1 of Agenda 2063, African Union’s leaders envision a prosperous Africa based on inclusive growth and sustainable development. This dream is possible but requires concerted efforts to reform African countries’ curricula and related implementation practices at classroom level.

What is the point of teaching learners mathematics and science subjects in a way that they do not find immediate applicability other than for passing a two and half hour examination? Today’s students require skills such as collaboration, communication, self-efficacy, citizenship, creativity, and tech-innovation in order to scale the heights of achieving the sustainable development goals.

STEM components

STEM education is concerned with educating students on the four specific subjects in an interdisciplinary and applied approach. The teaching process endeavors to equip learners with knowledge and skills to solve real-life problems through gathering information, synthesizing it and making sense of it and passing value judgement.

STEM education begins with proposing real-life situations that are open-ended and related to the concept taught. Learners are given time to analyze, engage and provide solutions to the problems individually and in groups.

Science in STEM comprises three related subjects: biology, chemistry and physics. For instance when making bottled water, we use chemistry to decide chemical requirements during purification, biology to decide human nutritional requirement from water, and physics to decide package material taking into consideration heat and conduction properties.

Technology in the context of STEM is the application of knowledge and skills to make goods or services to meet a need. The bottling of water in a convenient container meets a human need. Engineering in this case is the application of science and mathematics to solve problems. Bottling water through purification process, determining nutritional value and packaged in the right type of bottle is the process of engineering. Application of mathematics processes of measuring quantities in the water composition and deciding the right capacity of the bottled water concludes the STEM components.

Role of teachers and other stakeholders in STEM education

STEM education is about learning by doing! It is an innovative way of making learning a practical process that connects to real life through application of science, technology, engineering and mathematics by students with guidance from teachers.

Classrooms need to offer teaching and learning processes that provide the search for understanding and real impact of these disciplines in daily life and specifically in Africa. Implementation of STEM education will transform the way learners understand the world environment; giving them a more sensible outlook of everything and a practical approach to real-life experiences as well as problems and solutions.

This approach of teaching STEM subjects is realizable if teachers are trained and supported to achieve behavior changes. Curriculum reform needs to go hand-in-hand with continuous teacher professional development. These kind of curriculum reforms require support by all stakeholders including the parents.

STEM education is not confined in classrooms or laboratories; it is more effective and efficient when nurtured all the way from home, where learners together with their parents are able to identify activities within the environment that will encourage the children to think more deeply about daily activities. For example, they are able to explain rust on roofing iron-sheets, or growing of mold on unwashed and dirty dishes..

In Kenya, the ministry of Education launched in 2016 the creation of STEM model secondary schools in every county. The Centre for Mathematics, Science and Technology Education in Africa (CEMASTEA) is the lead agency in STEM education and is carrying out continuous capacity development on STEM activities through various programs, strategies and partnerships.

CEMASTEA introduced the STEM education model schools program to create a culture that inspires learners to excel and pursue careers related to science and mathematics and to enhance their creativity and innovativeness. To systematically roll-out the program, 102 schools have been identified in Kenya.

Sensitization workshops and related training has been successfully implemented for Board of Management (BOM) members, school managers and teachers. In 2016, 329 teachers from the 102 schools were trained in 8 regions. The training focused on interdisciplinary approach, education for sustainability, creativity, makerspace and introduction to robotics science. In August, about 350 teachers from the model schools gathered to delve further into robotics science.

Successful implementation of STEM greatly depends on various education and economic policies adopted by single country. That is why it key policies and investment are necessary to unlock Africa’s potential!