Danger: Science illiteracy ahead!

Thursday, 3 May 2012 01:45 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Education had always being in the news in Sri Lanka – for good or bad! The city walls, billboards and others always inform us on the best of classes to be had from internationally-renowned lecturers.

Newspapers are full of advertorials explaining in detail why this course is better and world class even though at times there are gross contradictions between items printed! You may even pass a religious place not really noticing it as a temple as more prominent would be the tuition class list on all subjects hanging from all available places.

Science education

Recently a report indicated that out of the 9,790 schools functioning in Sri Lanka, there are 90 schools with only one teacher and 1,552 schools have fewer than 50 students each. The discourse on science education and the role it should play in national development had been different and much less emphasised.

Some prominent speakers have indicated that more than 93% of Sri Lankan schools have no science programs in the Advanced Level stream. Usually around 200,000 students take Advanced Level examinations in a year. 93% is a scary percentage to be declared over a negative aspect. The value is so close to 100% and that should be really worrying and should be a mandatory action point for educators and planners alike.

We are in the 21st century and those who take this century lightly will be in for a shock. Here we are in this island of ours happily progressing forward with no science Advanced Level programs in majority of our schools. Scientific literacy will be vital for provincial development and one may see that provinces really lack science in schools. Practicals, so important to a student undergoing science education, are not even tested nor pursued with vigour for improvements.

Theodore von Karmen stated that “scientists study the world as it is and engineers create the world that never has been” and there are lot of scientists and engineers working outside creating all sorts of novel developments and we just cannot be oblivious to these developments and nor should we deprive a younger generation of the potential opportunities and the excitement.

Science education may even be a basic student right in today’s context at secondary and tertiary levels. Even in places where we have science programs, how much real science is being done need to be looked into as the practical component through lab work is deficient. A serious national assessment is called for.

Scientific literacy

Science defines our way of living today as its presence and influence is everywhere. Lack of understanding can lead to significant problems as we will be happily taking decisions that will be meaningless and perhaps dangerous as well.

While we may consider literacy, it may well be scientific literacy that we should be more concerned about. No general assessment of scientific literacy has taken place in Sri Lanka. It was shocking to hear recently at Central Environmental Authority that among a 1,000 strong Advanced Level student group from Colombo that more than 90% were not aware of mercury’s toxic effects in an environmental context.

Interest on any area should start at early stages and support mechanisms are really lacking for science. A glaring omission in our landscape is a science centre at least even in the capital. A science centre for students and other visitors to come and understand new developments, communicate on current topics, support science popularisation continuously 365 days a year is a necessity.

A friend of mine mentioned after returning from a short stay in USA to Sri Lanka that his son now knows more about dinosaurs, etc., having been to many museums, etc., and from now on it may just be downhill for him in the absence of such institutes.

Our commercial capital boasts of more test playing grounds than perhaps any other capital in the world (among cricket playing nations), yet a science centre or a science museum is lacking and hardly an interest exists visibly to set up one.

Many a time the idea had surfaced from associations such as the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science (SLAAS) and lately from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Academy of Sciences Sri Lanka (NASSL). It is really hoped that the UDA will consider the need for such along the lines of Singapore’s Science Centre at least.

In Singapore the centre is supported by the Ministry of Education. Many types of programs can be run from such a location, including inculcating recycling habits among children. Observing adults is no good for our children in this area.

The Science Museum in the UK is a favourite destination for many, with current data indicating 2.7 million visitors per year. It is important to understand the long-term support to economy that this type of enterprise brings along and for those who need a return for each and every dollar or rupee spent, this may be a tough call.

Education is an area where investments should be made without looking at immediate returns. Education is not a business proposition, though looking at some developments you begin to wonder. I am sure concerned groups would say an emphatic yes to a Sri Lankan Science Centre.

Compartmentalisation and repercussions

With science education, one cannot compartmentalise mathematics, chemistry, physics and biology. This too had gone a long way in Sri Lanka with serious repercussions. Those who are into mathematics shun biology and do their best to do less of chemistry too. For students in biology, mathematics and physics are major issues.

The triple convergence taking place in the modern world with biotechnology, nanotechnology and information technology will be quite difficult for these students who come up with major flows in fundamentals. Curriculum revisions in Advanced Levels have reduced subjects from four to three and these were not at all helpful for research and development activities in universities.

For example, we just cannot be ignorant about biology as engineers and an ultimate area of biology is ecology, life and its interactions and with environment coming into centre stage, in planning and decision making we can succumb to our ignorance. An emotional attachment to nature will not do when seeking solutions to serious issues that are likely to confront us.

When you have passed through an excellent educational process with a good grounding in values, the product is one which one can be proud of as well as entrust an organisation to be guided and managed into the future. That is the issue that faces us. When scientific decision making and scientific governance is needed, we are having a core set of students moving through a system either lacking or deficient in scientific teaching and experimentation. There will not be any appreciation of the scientific method of problem solving. Remember, they have to don the mantle of leadership someday.

Extra edge through education

We may exude warmth and friendliness in our interactions. Yet on many a discussion table we feel that there is a scientific and technical backwardness in our discussions. Even with a scientific setting, we stay close to the basics and do not venture into detail.

The backwardness is not there when it comes to the ability to drive or handle a high-powered car or even when tackling a mechanical challenge that comes out of one. With illicit alcohol production, we do display an uncanny awareness of the process of fermentation and distillation across a wide national landscape. These are indications of talent existence and, may be with proper direction and guidance, we should be able to go a long way. With raw talent, it is education that gives that extra edge and we prune or starve the system out of resources we may be nullifying our very development Charles Babbage, who is considered to be the father of the computer, writing in 1830 on the Decline of Science in England, wrote: “Scientific knowledge scarcely exists amongst the higher classes of society. The discussions in the Houses of Lords or of Commons, which arise on the occurrence of any subjects connected with science, sufficiently prove this fact…”

Well, the English did survive and perhaps survived quite well and Charles living today may not exactly worry to this extent, but translate his comment to our setting and goose pimples come up!

Today in the UK you find POST (Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology) in place and their briefing papers are instructive. Dr. Sarath Amunugama is on record recently saying that Sri Lanka’s economy needs innovation (The Sunday Observer, 15 April, p12).

Innovation in the true sense is the use of science to make products useful… Now, how are we to carry out innovation in the absence of a science literate and thus naturally inquisitive and creative workforce? It is fine to state the right set of words but it is more important to understand the fundamentals required to deliver expectations and ensure that we just do not slip on the essentials.

(The writer is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is also the Director of UOM-Cargills Food Process Development Incubator at University of Moratuwa. He can be reached via email on ajith@cheng.mrt.ac.lk.)