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Where are the future scientists?

By | August 26th 2009

By Wachira Kigotho

One of the most worrying trends in reporting KCSE results is lack of improvement in sciences.

The number of students who study pure sciences and mathematics at university reflect lack of progress in science and mathematics.

During a recent graduation at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (Jkuat), only 11 students were awarded a Bachelor of Science in physics, 15 were awarded BSc in chemistry and 10 BSc in mathematics.

Taking into account that Jkuat is a science-oriented university, the number of students who graduated in pure sciences wer few compared to those who were awarded degrees in business courses. Almost 700 students were awarded bachelor’s degrees in assorted business courses, including accounting, finance and marketing personnel, office, purchasing and supplies management.

Keen to study

The university awarded 206 students master’s degrees in business administration compared to 70 who graduated with master of science degrees in pure sciences, engineering, mathematics, biotechnology, public health and agriculture.

University student are not keen to study science, mathematics and technology. When they do, they go for soft options like information technology (IT). Very few students register for computer science, a course that focuses on engineering and software development aspects of electronic and telecommunications sciences. Where in the recent graduation Jkuat awarded 584 students with a BSc in IT degree, only 32 graduated with a BSc in computer science. A further 595 students were awarded a diploma in IT.

Statistics from other public universities indicate the number of students studying science and mathematics has dropped. Most self-sponsored students are enrolled in business and humanities courses. The situation is worse in private universities most of which have no significant science programmes. According to Unesco, most countries are facing the biggest lack of student interest in science over the last 30 years. Blame has been put down on shortcomings of school science curriculum and textbooks, which often lead to rote learning and limited understanding of concepts.

The situation is worse in Sub-Saharan Africa where limited interest in science education is rooted in how these subjects are taught. Most secondary schools have no adequate laboratories and the classroom approach to teaching science is authoritarian and entirely based on lecture method and note taking.

Classroom approach

"In most countries many schools are not equipped to promote effective teaching and learning of science," says Dr Beatrice Njenga, Director, Division of Human Resources, Science and Technology at the African Union. Because of the way science and mathematics are taught, most students perceive the subjects as dull, theoretical and abstract.

In most schools the development of a scientific way of thinking has been abandoned and science is taught without performing experiments. Unfortunately, the ‘chalk and talk’ teaching technique is supported by the Kenya Institute of Education, especially in the lower end secondary schools.

The idea of teaching science without performing experiments is erroneously embedded in the belief that ‘real science’ can only be taught in laboratories equipped with expensive equipment. But Unesco maintains, secondary school science could be effectively taught using simple, ordinary, and everyday things of life.

Learning science can be a challenge even for the brightest students, as many of them do not know how to write notes from complex science textbooks.

According to researchers, few teachers show students how to write science notes, especially in situations where students share textbooks. "Most teachers do not know how to make science and mathematics interesting," says Aicha Bah Diallo, Unesco Assistant Director-General for Education.

In a study involving over 10,000 pupils in 21 countries, Unesco researchers found falling enrolment in science and technology is not an indication of students disinterest in scientific matters but a result of how they are presented to them. "The study showed that children are interested in learning about nearly everything, probably because they perceive education as a luxury and a privilege," says Unesco.

Poorly motivated

Nevertheless, poorly motivated and unprepared teachers impact teaching of science and mathematics. Quite often, especially in urban areas, teachers are faced with students who frequently have more skills in information and communication technology than they have, even though their understanding of the underlying physical principles may be lacking.

However, lack of interest in science and mathematics in Sub-Saharan Africa are mirrored at the policy level. Many education ministries have no specific policies on teaching of science and mathematics.

Locally, huge sums of money are used to buy buses or building of multi-purpose halls, when schools have no laboratories.

Data show many secondary schools use more money on office stationary than laboratory equipment and other facilities. Lacking are basic essentials such test tubes. Chemicals are rarely bought and when they are available some schools use ordinary charcoal stoves instead of Bunsen burners.

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