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We can end cycle of students failing sciences

By Ronald Musoke

Prof. Nelson Sewankambo, the President of the Uganda National Academy of Sciences (UNAS) talked to Ronald Musoke about why the way science is taught in secondary school needs to change.

Why do we continue seeing high failure rates in core science subjects 10 years since the government made studying science compulsory for lower secondary level students?

It is one thing to have a policy in place and another for that policy to succeed. You need resources to facilitate the policy. The resources include the syllabus which should be appropriate for the schools, equipment, science books, and capable and competent science teachers who can act as good role models to stimulate students to learn science. You cannot just put a policy in place and expect it to produce miracles.  No wonder failure rates continue to be high. In fact I would expect the failure rate to be increasing. It emphasizes the need for more resources.


Is studying science worth the hype?

Sciences are necessary because the world moves on science. That is not to say that the Arts subjects are not necessary. The two should work hand in hand. The Arts are important because they influence how people use science. Mention anything in life and I will show you an aspect of science. Whether it is music, dance and drama; there is science behind it. Science helps us to improve on the kind of things that we take for granted in daily life. The way the world is moving today, if we neglect science, we will be relegated to a completely backward country.

Besides the poor infrastructure in many schools, why do you think performance in science subjects is particularly dire in rural-based schools?

What they call a science classroom in rural-based schools has only benches, desks, and a not-so-good blackboard and not a single piece of equipment, however, simple. How can you teach science without equipment? We are not teaching the children to think critically and analytically. We are asking them to memorize science. But that is not the way science is taught. Science should be taught in such a manner that generates and supports an inquisitive mind that keeps asking questions of why, how, and what. In today’s world with mobile phones and computer games, three-year old children – without any instructions – begin to figure out how to operate a phone.  Every child is capable of doing science to a certain degree, provided you give them the space to ask questions and try to find answers.

What do you say to some critics who argue that the current school system does not encourage students to see linkages between science and technology on one hand and the learner’s culture and environment on the other?

If I could use the example of Buganda, where traditionally there is use of bark cloth for the dead and so on, we can find a link of how these people were able to make bark cloth out of the bark of a tree. That is science and that is linking science to people’s culture. We can see linkages in our daily lives. A child in a science class writing using a pen may not realise that there is science behind the pen. The pen has a container to hold the ink and whichever way he or she holds the pen, the ink does not flow out. Why? How come if you put water in a tube and hold it upside down, the water flows out? We then can think about this pen and ink and discuss the science in here.  That is linking science to pupils’ daily lives and making it relevant.

What are the main differences that exist between the times you studied science in secondary school and today?

We were a smaller class and so the teacher would know each and every student; their strengths and weaknesses. The teacher could pay more attention to individuals in the class. Today’s large classes, it is difficult. Secondly, we had a greater proportion of science teachers to students than today. The teachers may also not be that good because they have not been trained well. So we need to prepare more teachers of mathematics, chemistry, physics and biology. But also it is important to make the working environment more interesting. I am a doctor and I will tell you; a doctor enjoys what they do when the working environment is reasonably good. If a doctor sees that a patient requires surgery and takes the patient to the theatre, he or she finds this theatre working, it becomes enjoyable and you see results. Similarly, the environment should be enjoyable and stimulating for teacher and student.

You cannot, for instance, teach a student a chemical reaction by just writing that on the blackboard and then expect the student to relate. That is too abstract. A student needs to get sodium bicarbonate, hydrochloric acid, and mix the two, and see the ‘wow effect’ of the reaction. That becomes real. We can apply the metal-expand-when-heated-theory to daily life. People wonder why a metal door in the afternoon does not shut nicely and yet, during the night and in the morning, it fits again. That’s simple; there is science behind it—the door has expanded because of the heat. These are the linkages of science to life—make it real and students will understand.

What is your view on the science and technology component being embedded within the education and sports ministry?

Science and technology should be made a separate ministry because when we look around the continent, Uganda is lagging behind. The Asian countries have managed to advance because they have partly made science and technology ministries or important departments of their own. In order to give science the due attention, you need people who wake up in the morning and are thinking nothing but science and technology the whole day. If you have a full minister of science and technology, he or she will be thinking it is their duty to advance science and technology and push for a budget. It creates focus.

Some experts think career guidance and role modeling which are both essential in helping students see opportunities that exist in future is either lacking or poor in the current education system. What is UNAS doing about this?

We recognise that and the committee that deals with science education has made recommendations to the minister of education. We believe career guidance in schools needs re-awakening. Science can be abstract but also there is a general belief that science is very difficult. This perhaps also explains why the failure rate remains high. Students come in with the attitude that others before them failed science.  This has created a negative attitude towards science.  Career guidance is necessary to break this cycle. It would demonstrate to children that science is important in life irrespective of whether you want to become a scientist or not. We intend to use role models in career guidance. UNAS is getting more women members who have successful science careers. This will demonstrate to students that women can do sciences and also interest students to pursue science careers.

The National Curriculum Development Centre (NCDC) is currently reforming the lower secondary curriculum, where should more focus be put?

Focus more on the inquiry-based approach to science education. We need to make science pro-active. One difference during my time and today that I didn’t mention earlier is that we would do practical sessions. In the new curriculum, we need to create time for practical work so that students learn through doing things. The teaching should also be done in such a way that it links science to people’s daily lives. People can then appreciate what science is.

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