opinionBy Dr Alex O. Awiti
The African Development Bank (AfDB) and the Kenya Government recently signed a $43 million loan agreement. The funds will go towards improving the quality and relevance in engineering education at the university level.
The ultimate goal is to train a critical number of qualified and skilled engineers to drive the key sectors of Kenya's Vision 2030.
This loan agreement is both laudable and critical. However, I am not sure that investing in university engineering faculties is sufficient to stimulate a deep and sustain a culture of scientific and engineering innovation.
I have argued in this column that Kenya's education system, especially the teaching and learning of science and math, is having a catastrophic effect on how and what our children learn.
As a scientist and educator I have been deeply engaged in our education system at all levels. The archetypal approach to science is to "learn about science", rather than to "learn to be scientists".
Hence, science is arduous and excruciating. Science and math are presented as collection of fusty facts or formulae or principles, which students must remember and regurgitate to be memorized and regurgitated for high-stakes standardized national exams.
Our curriculum, especially in science and math promotes superficial comprehensive coverage, affording little opportunity for in-depth learning.
For the most part the curriculum is an inch deep and a mile wide. Consequently, learning is skin-deep and retention is fleeting. The fact-laden school textbooks are an onerous catalogue of out of context and often-outdated stuff.
Science is not about facts. Science, the centerpiece of engineering and innovation is a process of inquiry and investigation. Science is a way of understanding and evaluating the world.
Ultimately science must be applied to solve problems in the real world outside the classroom. Surprisingly, the vast majority of primary and high school teachers only think of science as the collection of facts they have to teach and the set of tricks or rules or relationships students have to master.
The situation is not different at the university. As a young undergraduate the sloppy teaching of some of my professors dejected me.
One of my professors once asked why I was not taking the notes he was dictating. Without hesitation, I told him that I knew the book he had copied his notes from.
To make him feel better, I reassured him that I would write down everything that seemed like his own ideas or reflections on the stuff he had plagiarized.
As an undergraduate I also watched in disbelief as my friends taking technology and engineering courses labored to commit stuff to memory.
I was always mystified by how little time they spent designing or making or dismantling thing. My engineering friends took lots of courses and spent long hours in lectures, not in discussion groups debating engineering solutions to basic societal problems such design principles for low-tech water purification devices.
In Kenya, professors have two primary obligations: to generate odious personal income from consultancies and to educate students.
The incentive system heavily weight efforts toward consultancies at the expense of teaching. Moreover, a majority of professors hardly think of themselves as teachers or educator. Few university professors understand education theory or read education research.
University teaching has not changed in correspondence with advances in science, math and engineering research. Consequently, how students acculturated into science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) is antiquated and undermines curiosity, experimentation, discovery, collaboration and the evidence-based culture of science.
The AfDB investment presents an opportunity to implement systemic changes in the teaching and learning of STEM to improve the quality of undergraduates and enhance their capacity to catalyze the scientific and technology innovation necessary to drive the key sectors of Kenya's vision 2030.
Laboratories and equipment are critical but this is how I would invest part of the $43 million:
Establish a national STEM teaching and learning institute to equip faculty with modern teaching skills that promote active learning and techniques for evaluating student learning and teaching effectiveness.
Engage chairs, deans and vice chancellors in creating a culture that values and promotes excellence in teaching as key requirement for promotion. We need agreement on the broad goals of STEM education and establish a rubric for evaluating how professors meeting these goals. Teaching must be treated as a scholarly activity;
Define and institutionalize the full range of pedagogical skills and strategies that best describe best practices in the evaluation of teaching effectiveness, particularly approaches that encourage inquiry, experimentation, discovery, reflection and peer learning and collaboration;
Develop a lean set of flexible core competencies or standards in the major fields of STEM.
Dr. Awiti is an ecosystems ecologist based at Aga Khan University, Nairobi.