To pique interest in science

Sunday June 3, 2012

CAREERS in science seem to have taken a backseat and are no longer perceived by students as offering recognition and lucrative returns.

One thing is for sure, we are not witnessing an anti-science backlash. Surrounded by such modernity as the i-Pad, DVD, Global Positioning System (GPS) and other multimedia devices, the wonders of science and technology have become routine in daily life.

What then could be the reason? In the present uncertain economic climate, job security, especially in the local context, must loom as an important factor.

Many careers in specific areas of science and technology (S&T) that previously seemed recession-proof have been downsized, outsourced or exported to other countries.

This has impacted the natural student selection of courses in S&T disciplines in relation to other courses that promise greater flexibility and scope for sustained job opportunities.

Student enrolments in universities have increased in most countries in recent years, but against this increase the proportion opting for the science stream is steadily decreasing.

Educationists and policy makers have now to contend with the task of convincing young minds that their perception of S&T as a frightening career choice is fundamentally flawed.

With built-in elements of entrepreneurship, innovation, research exposure and training placements in industrial or clinical settings being increasingly common in current S&T curricula in most institutions, surely job prospects for graduating students can only be regarded as being enhanced.

Traditional methods of teaching may be inadequate to foster student interest in difficult or confusing topics in which they find no immediate relevance. Moreover, if the teaching of science subjects switches erratically from one language to another, it will further expose the limitations of most teachers and put students off.

The recent statement by the Higher Education Ministry that the number of science stream students in secondary and tertiary institutions has dropped to 29% since 2007, is food for serious thought in a country like ours where continuing transition to a more technology-intensive economy requires sustained S&T support.

While the ministry’s proposal to offer new scholarships at the university level through the MyBrainSc programme is commendable, it should be extended to include polytechnics.

Also, more innovative ways of teaching and learning science need to be found.

A paramount consideration in this regard is to connect tertiary educational institutions and industries with schools in a supportive framework of encouragement and experiential learning.

This interactive network needs to be actively cultivated with school teachers to enrich both the teaching and learning experience, and create an environment of curiosity, questioning and problem-solving.

Polytechnics should take the initiative in this effort, preferably in a joint consortium-style arrangement with industry and state departments of education.

Deliverables that can be expected from such interaction include:

* Classroom visits by scientists from academia and industry as part of an educational extension service resulting in direct interaction with students. This can help dispel negative stereotypes about S&T professions;

* Reciprocal visits by teachers and students to laboratories, industrial sites and biological field stations that inject real-life examples of modern and relevant science;

* Support for school science projects through provision of resource materials, wherever feasible, from industry, polytechnics and universities;

* State- and industry-sponsored annual science quiz and essay competition;

* State awards for excellence in science teaching and science promotion; and

* Designer courses for science teachers aimed at improving the quality of their classroom sessions with pupils. Such courses will focus on ways to introduce interesting content that connects to cutting-edge science and applications, preparation of hands-on demonstrations, and use of Information Technology (IT) in instruction, including the use of educational videos on scientific topics.

Emphasis is to be laid on teaching concepts, not mere facts which currently dominate most curricula which are rote-oriented.

Teachers must also be told to encourage teamwork among students, rather than group work. This favours creative brainstorming which is a key contributor to innovation.

Based on the dictum that the student is only as good as the teacher, it is imperative that teachers should continuously strive to update their knowledge. They need to be more widely engaged and indeed, empowered to lead in this matter. And students must be inspired to think big.

Let us strive to promote good and captivating science for the sake of all stakeholders. We have enough blueprints on education; what we really need is to convert mission statements to passionate and coordinated action.

The time to act is now.