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Transforming science education

Published:Sunday | August 16, 2015 | 12:00 AMMarvadeen Singh-Wilmot

News that Jamaican students have declined in their performance in science subjects in the 2015 Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) examinations came on Thursday: integrated science down by 7.7 per cent, biology by 9 per cent, human and social biology by 17.5 per cent, physics by 15.5 per cent and chemistry by 13.5 per cent.

While this is disappointing news, it is by no means unexpected, as the declining state of science and science education in our country has been known for some time now.

Earlier this year, a report from the World Economic Forum placed Jamaica at position 101 out of a total of 143 countries in terms of the quality of science and mathematics education. With our students performing poorly in science at all levels, how does Jamaica position itself to reap the benefits of a scientifically literate society?

The Ministry of Education has already launched its response with the announcement of 100 scholarships and bursaries for qualified persons to pursue a BSc in secondary education, specialising in science. There is also talk of furnishing the science laboratories in secondary schools so that science can begin to be taught the way it was meant to be. Indeed, there have been numerous interventions at this level, including student workshops, as well as teacher-training workshops in various STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) topics organised by various departments in the Faculty of Science and Technology at the University of the West Indies.

However, STEM is unfortunately neglected at the primary and early childhood levels, despite the numerous benefits of exposing younger children to science and the scientific method during the fundamental years. It is at this stage that their curiosities and desires for discovery are at their peak and when literacy skills are easiest to cultivate.

Perhaps it is the common misconception that science is too difficult and abstract for young children and even their teachers to grasp that has led to the neglect at this level. Whatever the reason, we have misled our children into believing that science is the learning of a large body of facts as it is:

- taught rigorously in anticipation of the dreaded GSAT exams;

- considered an isolated subject with no practical connections; unrelated to other subject areas;

- promoted largely as theory without the necessary and supporting hands-on activities.


Little interest


As a result, there is a lack of motivation to study and excel in science at the secondary and tertiary levels. Research supports that by the age of seven, most children have formed their opinions of science. Therefore, the only way for us to see any meaningful change in interest, approach and performance at the higher levels is to encourage and establish an understanding of the fundamentals of science through active participation in the early years.

For it to have a meaningful impact, science must be introduced to children as "the having of wonderful ideas", a way of thinking and reasoning, an approach which involves the variety of fun things they enjoy doing; from poking and pinching to exploring and expressing. We must teach children that science enhances their understanding of themselves and their world, is able to create, to solve problems and, most of all, SCIENCE IS FUN!

There is a central role for teachers in building this culture of science and achieving science literacy in any country. Indeed a supply of passionate, confident and well-informed teachers at the early childhood and primary levels is critical to building any effective and sustainable science education programme.

One single teacher can impact hundreds of students and transform the way science is learnt. We must equip teachers to create experiences that will lead to a more scientifically literate population that will be capable of producing and sharing more informed opinions about global issues.

Last month, five secondary-level teachers participated in a one-week STEM course at Loma Lindo University in California. This was made possible by cooperation among the Jamaican diaspora in the United States, several government ministries, and the Jamaica Teachers' Association (JTA). Next year approximately 100 teachers are slated to benefit from this programme.

STEM training is also critical for teachers at the early childhood and primary levels, some of whom have had no previous experience with the content and method of science. In addition, while the international exposure is advantageous, locally accessible seminars, courses and professional development STEM workshops could involve a larger number of teachers and afford a wider impact to this capacity building exercise.

- Dr Marvadeen Singh-Wilmot is a research scientist and lecturer in inorganic chemistry at the University of the West Indies, and creator and coordinator of the LabRats Science Programme at Fundaciones Centers in Jamaica.