Without competence in science, technology, Uganda is cooked

Sunday March 4 2012

By Bernard Tabaire

There is the odd electronic car and some spotty work in HIV/Aids and agriculture. No one, therefore, can accuse Uganda of being a place of hot and sustained scientific and technological research and innovation. Yet research and innovation make societies competitive. With competitiveness comes real growth that lifts people out of poverty.

The recently released Senior Six results are a good measure showing that Uganda has no serious intention to compete globally. We have conceded the fight too early too easily.

Primary and high school science is a key starting point on the road to scientific, technological and economic advancement. You would think then that Ugandan kids would be outdoing each other to study science. They are not, possibly because they do not know any better.

Just under 20 per cent of students who sat for the Senior Six exams last year studied science subjects. I have no idea what the ideal number should be but 20 per cent is low. According to national examiner UNEB, the numbers have been declining over the years.

Even those doing the sciences, their performance is below par. They are not equipped enough to competently “interpret data and manipulate apparatus” as UNEB Executive Secretary Matthew Bukenya said.

What to do then?
The starting point is to gain a good appreciation of what training in science means for the future prosperity of this country. This is not to underestimate the contributions of non-science subjects, but rather to give a nod to the centrality of science in human progress.

The next step is to decide how to teach science in a creative and meaningful way. It is not enough to tell a four-year-old that 1+1=2. The child needs to know why that is, what its meaning is. More important, the child needs to use physical things – in my rural school way back we used sticks – to do the math, to bring to life that basic but crucial formula. Everything should flow from there.

With large UPE classes and clueless but dogmatic teachers, the children simply cannot get the attention they deserve. A 2010 report by the Uwezo East African regional initiative found, for example, that “98 per cent children among all P3 children sampled, could not read and understand a ‘story’ text of P2 level difficulty, and 80 per cent could not solve at least two numerical written division sums of P2 level difficulty correctly.”

So Mr Bukenya and his Minister Jessica Alupo need not show surprise that Senior Six students are incapable of interpreting data. The seeds of failure are being planted right at the start of the children’s education. Addressing quality at UPE is not something to pay lip service to anymore.

Paying science teachers more as the government does in fits and starts is not a bad idea, but what is the quality of those teachers?

It is also time the government insisted on all secondary schools, public and private, having functioning laboratories so the students get familiar with manipulating Bunsen burners and titrators and cathode ray oscilloscopes.

With labs and all in place, high school science could get sexier with the holding of annual district and regional and national science fairs. Let the geeky and nerdy kids show off stuff they can make and unmake.

Mathematics competitions organised along similar lines would also go a long way. Uganda should also actively participate in international mathematics competitions. We would get trounced but we would know at least where we stand. Probably we would try to do more and better.

Efforts like that being pioneered by Mr Tom Ilube through his African Gifted Foundation to promote mathematics and computing amongst talented African teenagers could come in to supplement things. With Tullow as sponsor and partner, Mr Ilube’s foundation brought 25 kids from Nigeria, Botswana and Uganda together to do some amazing things at Makerere in January (http://www.africangifted.org/). A friend who tagged along, and she is very clever too, said she was impressed. It is sad that our present education system lets so many talented children fall through the desks.

If the present situation turns into a trend, which I fear it already is, we are cooked even within the region. The UWEZO report, for example, shows Kenyan kids to be performing better generally. And someone should remind us that a key factor that got South Asian countries galloping ahead was a thoughtful approach to overall education – but particularly science.

To get a leg up in science education is to get a leg up in the intense game of progress amongst nations.

Mr Tabaire is a media consultant with the African Centre for Media Excellence.
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