Harnessing African science and technology: Part Seven…are schools doing enough?

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THERE is a general but erroneous perception that STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects are very difficult especially for black school pupils, few of whom then take up these study areas at college and university.
Gender bias further alienates the girl child from taking up science subjects at school.
Although the number of schools and the enrolment have increased since independence in 1980, most of the schools have few or no facilities for teaching science subjects.
Many schools have prided themselves in opening ‘Advanced Level’ tuition but the curriculum in these institutions focuses on so-called ‘commercial’ subjects such as Commerce, Accounting and Management of Business.
The ‘Humanities’ or ‘Arts’ subjects continue to accommodate the overwhelming majority of students. Numerous colleges providing training in commercial subjects have set up shop all over Zimbabwe, in cities and even rural service centres.
The perception is that these are the areas where one can readily find a job. In all this rush for more education, sciences have literally been abandoned. The new dispensation calls for ‘Opening up Zimbabwe for business’.
Our President, Cde E.D. Mnangagwa has clearly defined the nation’s vision to be a middle income country by 2030. He has also clearly articulated the role that our youth must play in spearheading this economic growth trajectory.
In this article we shall interrogate the role of science in fulfilling the President’s vision.
The place to start is the school, where we arm our young generation with the requisite skills to meaningfully participate in growing the economy, our economy. Let us start by sharing some startling experiences.
In an earlier article, I shared with readers my experience as a special guest of honour at a careers day for schools in Harare East. Soon-to-be school leavers and their teachers were gathered at a Zengeza high school for the occasion.
I was introduced as a Professor of Agriculture at the University of Zimbabwe.
Taking advantage of that introduction, I opened my address by asking the gathering: “Do any of the studies you are undertaking have anything to do with agriculture?”
The answer shocked me to the core. First I asked the arts students as a group, if the subjects (English, Shona, Geography, History and Divinity, among others) they were studying had anything to do with agriculture.
They unanimously shouted: “No!”
I then turned to the tent and asked the teachers. They echoed their charges’ response by shouting: “No connection!”
I repeated the question for the students taking commercial subjects. A quick count by show of hands showed they were the largest group among the school leavers.
They emphatically responded: “No connection between Commercial subjects and agriculture.”
Their teachers sitting in the tent also re-affirmed their students belief that agriculture has no connection with commercial subject areas in the school curriculum.
I was still hopeful that the science students who identified Biology, Chemistry and Physics among the subjects they were studying, would confirm a link between their area of study and agriculture.
I was mistaken.
All the students taking ‘science’ subjects, at Ordinary and Advanced levels, a much smaller group compared to arts and commercial subjects, also roared back ‘no’ connection between their subjects and agriculture!
The teachers expressed the same sentiments.
I was shocked that despite the general hype that agriculture is the backbone of Zimbabwe’s economy, schools, that is teachers and their students, saw no connection between the backbone of the economy and the subjects they were studying.
I began to appreciate why agriculture seemed to be struggling and why food insecurity had become endemic in Zimbabwe in recent times. The young generation was being prepared for an economy that excluded agriculture.
This is disturbing to say the least!
Let me add another experience that again shows the disconnect between our school curriculum and the economy. Two Advance Level students from a highly reputable school asked for a lift into town a few years back. They were in Form Six studying Biology, Physics, Mathematics and Chemistry, the traditional science subjects. They were hoping to be admitted for degree studies at the University of Zimbabwe.
When they learnt that I was a Professor of Agriculture at the same institution, they politely told me they would not meet me on campus as they would be studying the ‘sciences’.
But Agriculture is part of the sciences I responded.
“Oh, really? We were not aware of that,” they responded.
We spent the rest of our travel time to Harare discussing how agriculture is linked to all the various science subjects like Biology, Physics and Chemistry.
The above experiences strongly suggest the need to strengthen the teaching of science and for teachers to link science to all the spheres of human endeavour. If school students finish their education with no clue as to the link of their studies with agriculture or other areas of the economy, then Zimbabwe has a major problem.
Who will develop our economy to meet President Mnangagwa’s vision of a middle income economy by 2030?
It is not only the ‘sciences’ that link to agriculture. All commercial subjects relate to the proper management of financial resources including the millions that Zimbabwe generates from tobacco sales and mineral commodities for example. All businesses require humanities graduates to administer various corporations including agricultural-related ones.
The scientists use their scientific knowledge to find the best ways of extracting wealth from the soil, the crops, including all the technologies for processing and value addition.
But it is left to the ‘commercial’ expert marketers, procurement specialists, accountants to channel the goods to market and to ‘look’ after the wealth generated.
All subject areas (science, commercial and arts) have their roles to play.
The scientists are at the cutting edge of the system, generating goods and services.
The humanities and commercial experts administer and properly account for the wealth of the nation.
Currently, Zimbabweans seem to think science is not so important; the commercial fields are the most lucrative. But see the challenges of earning foreign exchange! Experts say we need to export more goods to earn foreign exchange. That means we must deploy science and technology to do that.
Are the schools and colleges addressing that pressing need for technical manpower?
Is it science to the rescue?
We shall discuss that issue in the next episode.

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