In one week, we have heard basically the same message from two important visitors to the island: Jamaica must address weaknesses in science and technology if it is to move forward.
First, we heard it from astrophysicist Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson, who challenged Jamaicans to develop a culture of science. "Science drives economies," he declared on Wednesday.
Then prominent American educator Freeman Hrabowski, after explaining how he transformed the University of Maryland Baltimore County into an extraordinary institution by focusing on science and mathematics education, was asked how does one fix the problem? His reply: double the salaries of teachers and triple the salaries of mathematics and science teachers.
It sounded like an easy answer to what has certainly been a long-standing issue. For many years, educators, assessors, policymakers and science teachers have pointed to the need for better integration of the teaching and learning of science, technology and mathematics. But even though there has been a national consensus around the need to improve the scope and nature of science education, no strategy has been developed to achieve these goals.
Mr Hrabowski's response puts the ball firmly in the Government's court. The resources must be found to woo competent teachers into the classrooms. They also need to have the right working conditions and appropriate tools to guarantee high performance. If students continue to find sciences irrelevant and boring, we will continue to fail to graduate science-savvy students who will enter the workforce with desirable skills. So the teachers ought to be given the benefit of all available research on the best methodologies on how to teach the subjects.
development doesn't happen by accident
How has a country like India managed to build such a huge scientific workforce? It should also be noted that India, China, Iran and Brazil are the only developing countries among the 31 nations with 97.5 per cent of the world's scientific production.
We submit that it did not happen by accident. It began with a commitment to education by their governments and is demonstrated by the fact that education is free and compulsory up to age 14. Then there was a national drive to promote higher education in these subjects, along with the development of top-notch technical institutions.
A sad commentary on science education is eloquently told by happenings in Jamaica. As the Government redraws national priorities in favour of elementary education and lessens its contribution to tertiary training, institutions like the University of Technology and University of the West Indies have decided to follow the money and concentrate on subjects that have the widest money-earning appeal.
The sciences are capital-intensive subjects that require a huge outlay to equip laboratories, acquire chemicals and pay technicians. The return on investment in science and technology will not be realised overnight. It took India decades to develop the world's second-largest pool of scientists and technologists. But the commitment has to be there. And an agreed framework for science education has to be vigorously pursued.
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