Why are girls still few in science-related courses?

Since 2006, Uganda National Examinations Board has reported a general poor performance of science subjects, but worse by female students

Students of Viva College in Jinja during a science exhibition last year. While below Senior Four candidates sit a Physics practical exam last year. The numbers of girls offering science related courses remains low and their performance poor. FILE PHOTO  

BY Desire Mbabaali

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“By the time I sat my Senior Four examinations in 2008, science subjects had already been made compulsory at O-Level. But I remember that by the time I completed, I did not know the periodic table, neither was I able to balance most chemical equations. In a Physics practical, I could barely connect a light bulb to give off light,” Janat Mugoya, an author, recalls.

This, according to her, was not because she was slow or in a ‘bad’ school, but because her mind just could not grasp the concepts despite her efforts. “Every time I sat in a Sciences class, I would wonder how some students understood those subjects so well! I was even surprised I managed to score a First Grade at O-Level.

So, the moment I joined Senior Five, there was no way I was going to have a science subject combination,” she says. Though she does not necessarily look at sciences as being difficult, Mugoya believes they are not meant for everyone.

“But I think in a more general sense, our nature as females is more leaning on artistic things than males, though there are of course exceptions,” she says in reference to the low number of female students pursuing science-related subjects and courses.

Twelve years ago, the government of Uganda made Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics compulsory at O-Level.

Though in 2015, Prof Mary Okwakol, the Uganda National Examinations Board (UNEB) chairperson, advised government to rethink this policy and later Uganda National Teachers’ Union last year advised government to drop the compulsory policy, according to Daily Monitor. The government has, however, maintained its position.

General failure
Since 2006, Uganda National Examinations Board has reported a general poor performance of science subjects, but worse by female students.

During the release of the 2016 UCE results for example, Dan Odongo, the executive secretary Uneb, noted, “The percentage pass levels for all science subjects remains low, with almost 55 per cent of the candidates unable to exhibit the minimum required competency…” And whereas more girls are enrolling at O-Level, they still perform poorly in comparison to their male counterparts, he further noted.

Last year, female candidates performed marginally better at O-Level in English whereas their male counterparts performed better in all the other large entry subjects.

Males did better in CRE, IRE, History, Geography, Mathematics, Agriculture, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Art and Commerce, according to reports by UNEB. As would be expected, this culminates into meagre numbers of female students that offer sciences at A-Level and consequently at university.

The numbers
Of the 99,982 candidates that sat UACE in 2017, 41,521 were female and 58,461 male. Uneb statistics further indicates that; 99.3 per cent of the females (41,257) passed compared to the 98.6 per cent (58,461) males.

However, performance was better in Literature in English – 80.2 per cent, Islam 80 per cent, GP 78.7 per cent and Art 77.1 per cent. This was attributed to the fact that female entries in Mathematics and the Sciences were much lower than that of the males, the executive secretary, noted.

Of the 8,677 female candidates who sat pure Mathematics for example, only 50.9 per cent scored E or above. When it came to Sub-Mathematics, out of the 15,920 female candidates, 36.1 per cent passed with an E (E is equivalent to two points).

However, the failure of science subjects remains a general problem. In 2016 UACE results for example, one in two A-Level students who sat for science subjects failed. Half of the 75,451 science students failed to obtain a Principal Pass.

But the problem seems to date back to primary school. In Primary Leaving Examination results of 2017, Social Studies was the best done subject with 95 per cent pass rate, Integrated Science at 88.3 per cent, English at 85.6 and Maths at 83.8, in a total of 646,190 pupils who sat the exam with girls still trailing.

Commenting about this performance, Janet Museveni, the Education minister, said “I am really puzzled about this, it is painful to see that girls are doing badly in almost all subjects except English.”

Gov’t solutions
In a move to boost enrollment of sciences at university, the government introduced the students’ loan scheme to avail tuition for students who pass but are financially unstable. Actually, 75 per cent of government univer