Sunday, April 21, 2024

IN THE CANDID CORNER: Still behind in science, technology


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“Technology fuels our ability to make and do things faster, better and for longer.”  – Dr Colin Depradine, Dean of the Faculty of Science and Technolgy.

In my last column published a fortnight ago I sought to capture the vision of Sir Hilary Beckles as the Cave Hill Campus of the University launched a book that catalogues amazing research done right here in Barbados. The launch of this book provided the backdrop for a four-member panel discussion which I had the distinct pleasure of moderating.

The topic was Science and Technology Education: A Future Driver for Social and Economic Development in the Region. The distinguished panellists were Mrs Rhonda Blackman, president of the National Council of Parent Teachers’ Association; Mr Charles Cyrus, acting director of National Council for Science and Technology; Mr Ralph “Bizzy”  Williams, founder and chairman of Williams Solar Inc. and Professor Leonard O’Garro, professor of plant pathology and director of the Centre for Food Security and Entrepreneurship.

In the late 1990s, Professor Winston King did some research that looked at the level of mathematics and science education across the region which found that many of the teachers of mathematics and science did not have the requisite qualification to teach the subject effectively. In other words many teachers did not have degrees in the subject areas. As a consequence of the lack of content knowledge, students were developing warped notions of many of the basic concepts of mathematics and science.

In preparation for this panel discussion, I perused CXC reports on chemistry, physics and mathematics and while they speak to many areas of strength and competency, there were areas of concern that suggest that science teaching continues to be plagued with a range of problems that relate to pedagogy. For example, the 2013 chemistry report speaks about some of the factors contributing to unsatisfactory performance in the subject.

The report lists superficial and vague responses, students’ knowledge of chemistry not being fully developed, limited understanding of concepts and students struggling with understanding certain equations. At the level of CAPE, the report speaks to candidates’ dependency on rote learning and the consequent inability to respond to instances that require the application of knowledge.

With respect to physics, the report describes the level of exposure to activities of an experimental nature as undesirably low. It speaks to other areas of weak performance which include candidates having difficulty using scale diagrams and the need for more practice in drawing graphs. The report identifies limited mathematical skills in what could be considered to be simple operations and candidates exhibiting incomplete mastery and comprehension of relevant concepts. It would be interesting to read the report coming out the 2009 memorandum of understanding between the Caribbean Examinations Council and the Institute of Critical Thinking at UWI St Augustine.

Ms Blackman called for the redesigning of the educational system and a retooling of all stakeholders in order to make the system more relevant to the 21st century citizen. She advocated changes in teaching methods and a focus on problem-solving skills. She stressed the need to develop a love for science and technology and opined that children run from science because of the way it is taught. She endorsed the integration of technology. While she acknowledged the power of social media, she queried how much time the youth spend in productive activities.

Cyrus observed that the world was moving out a knowledge-based society based on the application of science and technology. He linked GDP rates to the sci-tech platform. He advocated a focus on inquiry-based learning, and suggested that the private sector had a key role to play.

Williams noted that the Asian countries’ economic growth was linked to their emphasis on science and technology. He lamented our lack of discipline and our poor work ethic while conceding that a focus on science and technology can impact our food import bill which now peaks at over $700 million annually.

O’Garro observed that most developed countries have an emphasis on science and technology. He said the transactional value of science and technology was not recognised and spoke to our failure to apply science and technology for which there must be a multidisciplinary approach.

In conclusion, not only did the topic imply that we are far from the stage of using science and technology as a driver of social and economic development, but the overall perspective conveyed by the panel was that we have some distance to go before this could be a reality.

Having been in the system for over four decades both in pedagogy and in administration, I am painfully aware of a disconnect which exists between what little is happening at the primary and secondary levels and the plethora of research at UWI as catalogued by the recently launched book.

Matthew Farley is a retired secondary school principal, chairman of the National Forum on Education and a social commentator.Email


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