kenya advanced institute of science and technology-DR
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Education: STEM education increasingly popular on the continent

Highlighted during the health crisis, due to the many medical innovations in the pandemic period, scientific disciplines are on the rise on the continent. This drive is largely fueled by African governments, which are increasingly aware of the stakes related to science and technology. 

By Ange Iliza 

In East Africa, as elsewhere on the continent, there has always been a lively debate about the comparative usefulness of the main academic disciplines: do societies need more scientific knowledge, the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), or on the contrary more knowledge in the social sciences (sociology, psychology, anthropology, etc.) and in the humanities (literature, history, philosophy, arts)?  The COVID-19 crisis (temporarily) put an end to this lively debate by highlighting the decisive role of research and innovation in the fight against the pandemic, including the development of effective vaccines in record time.  African leaders then took to Twitter to take a stand on the issue. “We should not debate this; arts have a role but for a society to survive, it must not lag behind in science and technology. Do not waste our time with off-the-point arguments,” Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni tweeted on October 13. 

Indeed, this newfound attraction to science subjects comes after many East African countries have introduced competence-based curricula over the past five years. While these training schemes have had their challenges, including lack of resources, the policy is beginning to bear fruit.

Of the top 20 countries performing above expectation on innovation relative to their level of economic development, six are from Eastern and Southern Africa

The Global Innovation Index, published by Cornell University, INSEAD Business School and the World Intellectual Property Organization, notes that of the “top 20 countries “performing above expectation” relative to their level of economic development, six are from Eastern and Southern Africa, namely Kenya, Mozambique, Rwanda, Madagascar, South Africa and Malawi. What do these countries have in common? Their governments have all made science a national priority.

To further improve these results, the Rwandan Ministry of Education introduced a weekly after-school professional development program for teachers in these subjects in early October, just as the school year began. Every Wednesday afternoon, teachers meet and choose a topic of interest for which they can request personalized training. This new arrangement is in addition to the fact that more than 80 percent of Rwanda’s secondary schools have access to at least 50 connected computers through the Smart Classroom program that allows teachers and students to use the digital tools available to them to research and learn about science. 

A proactive policy to promote STEM

That proactive policy is applauded by Herine Otieno, the director of teacher education programs at the elite African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in Kigali. “Rwanda has deliberately invested in promoting STEM courses in schools, not only in the cities but throughout the country. [Smart Classrooms], trained teachers, and facilitated study environments through programs such as school feeding programs, among others, have made it easier for students and teachers to take STEM courses that are usually resource intensive,” the education officer boasts. 

Better still, the number of girls taking STEM courses has increased significantly in recent years, so much so that when the results of this year’s national exam, which is very science-oriented, were announced, most of the country’s top ten students were girls. For Herine Otieno, “this is a strong indicator that STEM disciplines are taking root,” even though “there are still areas for improvement, especially in terms of resources, such as the student/course manuals ratio and labs for science classes.”  

Momentum building up across the continent

Far from being confined to the Land of a Thousand Hills, this momentum aimed at strengthening the science sector is building up in several other nations on the continent. In West Africa, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Burkina Faso have joined the Science Granting Councils Initiative in Sub-Saharan Africa(SGCI), which aims to boost scientific research on a pan-African scale. This is the same for Kenya, another East African country that has also adopted a competence-based education program, and where renowned facilities such as the Fablab Winam Innovation Center have become places for scientists, engineers and designers to think and practice. “We design and make tools needed for everyday life, such as furniture, machines and custom tools. The community around our workshop is the target market,” says Martin Oloo, the project’s initiator, who reminds us at the same time that the Fablab Winam is just “one of 1,700 labs in more than 100 countries that help advance STEM knowledge and inspire young people.” Its innovative formula has since been replicated in Rwanda, where it serves the same purpose as the country’s increasingly popular technical and vocational training institutions (366 counted as of the end of July 2021 for a total enrollment of 91,440 students): all of which provide a platform for STEM learning and practice. 

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