Science and STEM-led economic development: Part Eight…don’t limit medium of instruction to English

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Form Three pupils doing some experiment at the Science Laboratory while the teacher observes.

WHEN the Wright brothers, credited for inventing the aeroplane, were testing their first prototype flying machines on the North Carolina coast in the US, nobody questioned their academic credentials.
The focus was on whether their contraptions could take off and fly – and they did!
Today we have aeroplanes all over the world.
How much formal science did the Wright brothers have?
Probably very little or none; they had common sense and inquisitive minds!
Academic institutions can be very conservative to a point of stifling innovation.
I want to relate the tussle between a prominent university with an engineering mandate and Kwekwe Polytechnic Principal Museyamwa Joyce Mbudzi, who recently passed on (may his soil rest in peace).
The polytechnic wanted to launch a Bachelor of Technology degree programme under the auspices of the said university. Trade-tested, highly skilled, technically qualified candidates would be required to undertake a supervised degree programme where they were required to design, develop, fabricate, test and deploy to stakeholder institutions prototype functional industrial units like hospital refrigeration systems.
Upon successful installation and testing, the candidates would qualify to be awarded Bachelor of Technology degrees by the university.
The university was most reluctant to award such degrees to Kwekwe Polytechnic students, arguing the said students had first to pass relevant academic science subjects such as physics, mechanics and mathematics at university level.
This conservative academic culture works against rapid industrialisation through mobilising of available relevant skills.
It comes back to the obsession with traditional academics which, unfortunately, are not necessarily practical-oriented; witness the thousands of graduates full of theory and woefully few practical skills.
Another example from my high school teaching experience is informative.
I received a call a few years back from one of my former ‘O’-Level science students who wanted information on how to grow soya bean.
I asked what he was up to these days.
“Oh!, I own a factory where I manufacture irrigation fittings,” he said.
“What?” I asked in disbelief!
He was my ‘worst’ science student and was the last person I could associate with a manufacturing concern.
He outlined the science behind his manufacturing processes; sophisticated stuff, but I suspect he did not pass science at ‘O’-Level.
The lesson is that we may throw away so much talent by using English language-based school examination criteria.
If English language is the bath water, then we are throwing away a lot of ‘healthy’ babies with the bath water!
Recently I undertook a class visitation to my Grade Two niece’s class to review her school work.
I noticed she had poor marks in heritage and science subjects. Closer scrutiny revealed that the problem was one of language. My niece has difficulty with the English language vocabulary. When I asked for the answers to some of the class exercises in Shona, she got all of them right.
This implies that if Shona is the medium of instruction, my niece should be having few problems with science and heritage subjects.
We need a thorough review of our language policies in the academic curricula as well as in business and Government so as to open the doors more widely for Zimbabweans to access science and technology and to participate in the economic development of Zimbabwe.
The time is now!

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