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Rethinking science teaching at O’level

By Ronald Musoke

Poor grades shine spotlight on compulsory sciences policy

Peter Okello has been teaching physics for the last 16 years in many secondary schools in northern Uganda. He is now at Sir Samuel Baker School in Gulu District where he tells stories of the shocks and surprises he has seen over the years to explain why science subjects are performed badly during national exams.

In one of the stories, he recalls how towards the end of last year, official duty compelled him to visit 11 secondary schools in Moyo District, in West Nile region, during the examination period. He says what he saw shocked him.

As you might know, one of the most famous science laboratory equipment is the Bunsen burner.

Named after its founder, the German chemist Robert Bunsen, this burner gives a very hot, single, clean, non-luminous flame suitable for most experiments requiring heating.

In Moyo, however, Okello says he was surprised to find only one school out of the 11 he visited using a Bunsen burner. Okello had seen schools where students used Kerosene stoves during experiments. But in Moyo it got worse.

“They improvised with charcoal stoves,” says Okello, “That is how far the country was prepared to do science as compulsory subjects.”  The scene Okello paints is in fact common in many schools in the countryside. But Okello also recalls another incident eight years ago.

In 2008, he tried to test how interested his candidate class of 160 students was in doing science.  He designed a form indicating possible grades from the best grade ‘A’ up to the worst ‘F’ and asked each student to do a self-assessment of what they would score in science subjects in their final examinations. He says 69 students signed ‘confidently’ that they would score F9.

When he asked them why they awarded themselves the worst grade, the students said they had been forced to take science by the school.  So when students fail science year after year, Okello is not surprised.

“The Uganda education system was not prepared for compulsory science education,” he says, “The implementation was done politically and as a result it forced many schools to implement it even without the necessary resources.”

The 2015 UCE results released on Feb. 03 were not any different. Prof. Mary Okwakol, the Uganda National Examination Board (UNEB) Chairperson who oversaw the release has a doctorate in zoology. Despite her science expertise, on 45% of students scored the barest minimum grades in mathematics and sciences. Up to 60% failed physics and chemistry.

Mathew Bukenya, the outgoing UNEB executive secretary said the results showed lack of evidence of practical teaching in science and that candidates still find it difficult to handle laboratory equipment and drawing conclusions from those observations during practical tests.

Students also find difficulties with questions requiring explanations, description of experimental procedure, use of chemical symbols and formulae, writing of units and dealing with tasks that require practical experience. Many teachers are teaching science theoretically yet every lesson in science is a practical lesson, right from Senior One. A few begin practical lessons in Senior Three.

In Mathematics, students are poor at construction of graphs, solving of simultaneous equations, skills of geometrical construction, vectors, the set theory, fraction expressions and computation of compound interests, among others.

Government determined

Despite the setbacks, the government is determined not to reverse a 2005 policy that made studying biology, chemistry and physics compulsory for all secondary school students.

A similar policy was adopted at the tertiary level where half of the students on government scholarships must study science and technology.  The policy was aimed at fast-tracking Uganda’s mission of achieving middle-income status spelt out in its Vision 2040 blue print. To push this objective, the government has been attempting to equip schools with laboratories.

Yusuf Nsubuga, the director of Basic and Secondary education at the Ministry of Education, Science, Technology and Sports says despite the ongoing challenges, it is not right to say the policy has failed.

“We will not give up on the policy and we are hoping the situation will improve,” he told The Independent.

According to him, the inputs which the policy demands should first be in place before the policy is judged. He says the technocrats assumed there would be a reasonable number of science teachers, gradual growth in number of laboratories, and provision of textbooks. All have not been met.

Nsubuga says the science policy was prompted by a concern that every other year, there had been a marked decline in uptake of science-related courses. As a result, the labour market; both the government and private sector, was failing to find workers.

In 2005, according to Nsubuga, the participation rate in both universities and other tertiary institutions were as low as 14%.

“There was need to re-invigorate the participation rate in science education.”

Nsubuga says although many Ugandans have a negative attitude towards sciences; the subjects help young people in the areas of critical thinking and being innovative.

He says he is happy the private schools that initially tended to go for Arts subjects considering that they require minimal investment, are now taking on science subjects because of the policy by the education ministry not to give an examination centre number to Arts only schools.

“In terms of enrollment, we have more children in private schools than the government schools. So they had no choice but to invest in the construction of these laboratories and textbooks,” he says.

“Whereas the performance is yet to improve, I would say we have registered in beefing up the numbers in these institutions.”

“Even if the students are not registering As, Bs and Cs, and you have people with Ds and Es, these people should be able to support the critical sectors in the economy.”

“As an example, technical institutions that may want to train plumbers, they may be comfortable with someone with a pass of ‘E’—someone with minimum grounding in Mathematics and Physics.”

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