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Building a national network of STEM centres

Monday, January 11, 2016

What do good economies and houses have in common? Yep, sound and strong foundations, comprised of well-designed interlocking elements. It is well known and universally accepted that a good education is one such element, for it provides the relevant knowledge and tools to drive innovation. Innovation is integral to science and technology and hence STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education is vital for the progress of any society or country.

Many countries have added Arts and Design to their STEM programmes to create STEAM programmes which are now in vogue. Here, to date, we have not yet developed an adequate head of steam to power an effective national STEM programme and it might therefore be more prudent to focus on getting that right first. 

The tendency to jump on the latest fad and buzzword has not served us well. STEAM builds on the STEM infrastructure. So we need to develop that first. We do have a reasonably vibrant arts culture and this could be incorporated later on.

A home is significantly more than a house. So too, programmes need not only buildings and equipment but also trained and skilled manpower. 

The latter is lot more difficult to achieve but is absolutely essential for any successful and sustainable programme. So, if as a country, we really want to implement innovation and entrepreneurship, focus must be placed on science education, ideally starting at the pre-school level, but certainly from the primary level.

Some may argue that now is not the time as we experiencing a drastic reduction in revenue. But if we do not invest in future sources of earning now, when will we? In any event, the cost of this will be puny compared to other more immediate high profile expenditures that might be under consideration and the returns will vastly outweigh the initial investments. 

It is being proposed that these centres be set up, in the first instance, in existing schools. 

Not every school but in at least one or two for every district where the space is available. 

At the primary level, because of shifting demographics, there are several schools in which the school population has significantly decreased. 

They are not being closed or shifted because the boards and or parents, for a variety of reasons, vehemently oppose any such move. 

These schools should be looked at, in the first instance, for there will be no or minimal infrastructure costs and under-utilised teachers can be deployed. Further, such a facility would help to rejuvenate the school. 

In the case of secondary schools, of which there are less, every school should have a STEM lab which could comprise part of its science lab facilities. 

At this level, science and mathematics, particularly in Forms One to three, must be lab-based to facilitate learning and discovery. 

The use of chalk and talk is not producing the requisite output resulting in severe problems at the vocational and university levels. 

How much space would be needed? Any unused classroom with adequate lighting, ventilation and power outlets would suffice. The furniture required would be standard school issue: tables and chairs. 

These can be found either at the school or easily sourced. 

The strategy suggested for usage involves the other schools within the area arranging to have their students visit the centre on a regular basis to do discovery and leaning projects in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. 

These projects can be developed by individual schools or they may be produced by the Ministry of Education. The latter would be more effective if it is done in collaboration with NIHERST, the universities and industry. 

Such an approach would avoid unnecessary duplication and would allow for far more effective use of equipment and manpower. In fact, NIHERST has an excellent track record in this area and thus would be the natural choice to co-ordinate such a project.
n To be continued.


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