Harnessing African science and technology: Part Eight…linking theory to practice

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IN the previous episode of this series on science and technology, I related two experiences that demonstrated that for high school students and their teachers, science is just an academic exercise with no links to key areas of our economy such as agriculture.
In one instance, hundreds of students attending a careers day for school-leavers denied any connection between agriculture and what they were studying at school, be it sciences (STEM), the humanities or commercial subjects such as business and accounting.
If education is meant to prepare our young generation for tomorrow, one must wonder how the backbone of our economy, agriculture, will survive if our schooled youth disown it!
Today I will relate another personal experience that illustrates what can happen when adult scientific illiteracy clashes with applied schoolboy science. The consequences can be life-changing.
I was teaching science at a local boys’ high school just over 40 years ago when I got kicked out of the school for ‘undermining the authority of the school principal through my teaching of Science’.
This real life experience illustrates the devastating consequences of scientific illiteracy.
The school’s water supply was pumped from a dam into a huge tank. It was then treated with water-purifying chemicals that contained chlorine and piped to the dormitories, staff houses and school laboratories.
Some of the senior boys at the boarding school noticed tiny little animals swimming around in what was meant to be ‘treated water’ coming from the taps in their dormitories.
In their Science lessons, they had already covered the topic on chlorine and its applications that included water purification.
With schoolboy enthusiasm and keen to demonstrate their knowledge of science, the students collected samples of the water coming from the taps which they took to the school principal.
They lodged the complaint that the water was not properly treated. The principal maintained that the water was regularly treated and that the treatment was adequate.
The students then produced water samples that they claimed were from the tap.
The water samples contained tiny organisms swimming in them which the boys said was proof that the school authorities were not treating the water properly, thereby exposing students to waterborne diseases.
The principal argued that the school’s water treatment was effective. The principal accused the boys of collecting raw water from the nearby dam and presenting it as samples from the dormitory taps.
He threatened to expel the four ring leaders of the student group. But the boys stood their ground accusing the principal of gross incompetence for failing to protect them from water-borne diseases. All this was science.
“What do you boys know about water treatment anyway?” the school principal fumed.
He was a Humanities graduate from the then University of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).
The boys faced expulsion if it was proved they had collected water from the dam and lied that it came from the dormitory taps.
They told the school head that there was a scientific method to test and prove if the water had received chlorine-containing treatment chemicals.
The boys told him that from their Science lessons they had learnt that if colourless silver nitrate solution was mixed with water containing even small amounts of chlorine, the water would turn cloudy or whitish due to the formation of white silver chloride particles which do not dissolve in water (a precipitate).
The white precipitate would be proof that the water contained chlorine and therefore was from the tap and not a sample drawn directly from the dam.
The saga took a nasty turn when the principal demanded to know where the school boys had gotten all this information about water treatment!
“From our Science lessons,” responded the students.
They explained that in their Science lessons they had been taught about the chemistry of chlorine and its uses, including water treatment to kill disease-causing germs. The principal demanded to know which teacher had put ‘this nonsense’ into the boys’ heads.
“The Science teacher, Mr Mpepereki taught us all this science,” the boys replied.
That sealed my fate. I was immediately summoned to the Principal’s office. I found the man literally shaking with rage.
“Young man,” he shouted, “you are undermining my authority teaching those boys a lot of rubbish that you call science. Uri kundifamba ngepasi mfana,” he fumed.
“I do not want you to teach in my school anymore!”
Yes at 25 I was young, but I had received very thorough training as a secondary school Science teacher at the then Gwelo Teachers’ College. I had been trained to teach the sciences Biology, Chemistry and Physics and to always acquaint pupils with practical everyday applications of the science concepts in every syllabus topic.
I was consistently getting excellent pass rates at both Junior Certificate and Cambridge Ordinary Level Certificate science examinations. And on a negative-positive note, the students at the school were pilfering mostly science books from the school library. Science was arguably the most popular subject for students.
Yes, I was teaching science, not rubbish!
But I was in real trouble for it, with the principal!
I was shocked at the principal’s outburst. This was my fourth year teaching at this school. I could not imagine what crime I had committed but judging by his huffing and puffing, I was in serious trouble.
“But sir, what is my crime?” I asked, rather shaken.
“The boys are on strike accusing me of not treating the water! And you are the trouble causer! They say you taught them some science nonsense about chlorine and water treatment! You are undermining my authority!” the headmaster raged.
A meeting of all teaching staff was called at which the matter was deliberated.
The principal accused the boys of collecting untreated dam water to use it to accuse him of incompetence and endangering students’ health.
If the fact was proved, the students were to be expelled!
I, the Science teacher, was accused of fomenting trouble by teaching the ‘heresy’ of water treatment chemistry.
The principal declared that I would be dismissed at the end of the year for this crime. The scientific test for chlorine was done on the water samples that had been brought by the students.
If the test showed there was no chlorine in the samples, the water samples would not be from the taps but straight from the dam.
The boys would be expelled for making serious false accusations against the principal. The test was done in front of all staff and the accused students.
The water turned whitish or milky (white precipitate of insoluble silver nitrate). I felt a sigh of relief! It was short-lived!
The principal shouted: “You see, there is no change in colour! I told you the boys were lying!”
But everyone could see the water had turned milky!
I then remarked: “But sir, the water is now whitish; the result is positive. The samples are from the tap. Only that the chlorine is at low concentrations.”
But the non-scientist principal said there was no colour change and his word was final. Can you believe it?
The other teachers including one scientist were too intimidated and scared of the furious principal. They kept silent even though they later confirmed the water looked ‘whitish’ after addition of colourless silver nitrate solution!
The die was cast. Forces other than scientific truth were ruling!
The boys were expelled from school residences but fortunately allowed to return to write their Ordinary Level examinations.
They all passed their science papers with flying colours!
I, the science teacher, was put on notice despite my protests and left the school at the end of that year.
It was a blessing in disguise. I got a lecturer’s post at United College of Education in Bulawayo and so began my career of science teaching in tertiary institutions, later moving to the University of Zimbabwe.
This experience demonstrates the consequences of scientific illiteracy.
We shall return to the debate on science teaching and explore its implications for economic development.

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