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STEM courses crucial to nation’s technological advancement 

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Daily, groups and individuals continue to reiterate that unless Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education was given the deserved attention, society’s development will not happen at the pace and depth it should. As this call for action gathers steam, contemporary schools are continuously searching for the best solutions to make teaching and learning not only fun, but also impactful on their students, as well as help prepare them for the rigours of higher learning. STEM courses, experts say have proven to be very crucial to the nation’s technological advancement and mathematics, which has historically been seen by students as an unattractive subject is a key component of STEM education. As the scenario continues to unfold, ENO-ABASI SUNDAY reports that while the call for enhanced STEM education is upswing, proprietress of Heyday School, Lagos, Mrs. Susan Amuta, is of the view that knowledge of mathematics remains pivotal in the country’s advancement in science and technology. The educationist, who said simple steps like abacus and speed mathematics among others can help banish mathematics phobia among students, added that this explains the reason the school is paying immense attention to the subject.

SCIENCE, the world over is primarily the bedrock for sustainable development. In a country like Nigeria, where scientific research is hampered by a litany of factors, principal among which are infrastructural development, dearth of funding as well as that of facilities, the situation remains quite pathetic and calls for greater attention by relevant authorities.

  In this direction, calls for greater attention to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education, remains germane because in the final analysis, these courses have the capacity to drive the country forward as has been the case in developed countries, even though some developed countries are yet to achieve their full potential along this line. 

  For instance, according to statistics, in the United States, many high-paying STEM jobs go unfilled as candidates lack necessary technical skills, training or post-secondary degrees. With millions unemployed, this skills gap remains alarming.

  In Illustrating the skills gap in America, the report titled, “The Importance of STEM Education” said, “STEM jobs are projected to grow by 17 per cent and to produce 2.8 million new job openings. In contrast, job growth in other professions is projected to be less than 10 per cent.

  According to McKinsey & Company, a multinational management consulting firm, which conducts qualitative and quantitative analysis in order to evaluate management decisions among others, 64 per cent of companies in America have vacancies for STEM positions due to a lack of qualified applicants.

  It added that by 2020, the United States will demand 123 million highly-skilled workers, but there will only be 50 million qualified people to fill these roles.

In attempting an answer to the reason behind the inadequate supply of manpower for the STEM jobs, the report explained that, “Over one fifth of all students (in America) fail to graduate with their class. 

  In addition to this, the United States is ranked 47th out of 144 countries in the quality of its mathematics and science education, and only eight per cent of American college students major in engineering, while only five per cent major in computer science and mathematics.” 

  With revelations that STEM workers typically earn 26 per cent more than those in non-STEM positions, STEM remains a prominent focus and education policy priority of the public and private sector in both America, Nigeria and the rest of the world.

Conscious of this shortfall, initiatives like the “Educate to Innovate” campaign in America focuses on improving the participation and performance of America’s students in STEM with the hope of increasing American workers’ competitiveness in the next decade. 

  The campaign brings together leading companies, foundations, non-profits, and science and engineering societies, to promote initiatives such as Change the Equation, National Lab Day, and the White House Science Fair.

From the foregoing, mathematics remains a key component in the realisation of STEM education in any given society. That perhaps explain why the Nigerian Educational Research and Development Council (NERDC) in 2013 came up with the lesson planning based on modern teaching approaches for the subject. 

According to NERDC, “The teaching and learning of mathematics in Nigeria is associated with several challenges, such as the high level of deficiency in mathematical knowledge of school students. This calls for resorting to modern approaches to teaching mathematics at the school level. The teaching of mathematics in Nigeria is characterised by the traditional formula-based approach with emphasis on computation and little reference to mathematical reasoning and problem solving. 

  The body added that teaching is done mechanically by the teacher first, presenting a formula or rule or algorithm, then solving some textbook examples, and finally giving some exercises for students to solve. 

  This type of teaching, it stressed was mechanical and teacher-centered. It is obsolete since in that approach as mathematics is learned instrumentally by rote memorisation, without meaningful understanding of the concept taught. This way, it contended, students become frustrated in the face of apparently meaningless symbols that are manipulated. They regard mathematics as a static subject with a set of algorithms to be applied mechanically to carryout/undertake mathematical exercises/drills.

  In contrast to the traditional approach, the modern teaching approach, NERCD said is learner-centered or child-centered, and activity–based, helping the learner to develop, and construct a meaningful understanding of the mathematical concept taught. 

The outfit, therefore urged participants at its workshop to focus on the constructivist forms of teaching and learning, which leads to revised beliefs about excellence in teaching and learning and about the roles of both teachers and students in the process saying, “In this way, you get your students to learn mathematics with meaning. By so doing, the students’ educational experiences are activated developing new concepts as new knowledge is constructed. Active participation of your students is therefore imperative for learning.”

 VOnly recently, the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in realisation of the importance of this trend, said it would advocate STEM education for women and youth in Africa to drive socio-economic development. 

  In her September 2014 address at the 3rd Annual African First Ladies Discussion on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Dr. Nkosazanna Dlamini Zuma, had in similar vein stated categorically that African development will not happen at the pace and depth it needs to without the empowerment of girls, youth and women, especially in the STEM areas.

  She emphasised that the development of skills in these areas is needed “to modernise agriculture and agro-processing; to build, expand and maintain our infrastructure; to develop manufacturing and add value to our natural resources and to mitigate and adapt to climate change.”

  Proprietress of Heyday School, Lagos, Mrs Suzan Amuta, is bothered that even at this point where global emphasis is shifting to STEM courses, Nigeria is still recording less than 50 per cent pass rate in mathematics in the two major national external examinations for secondary school students- the West African Examination Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) organised by the West African Examination Council (WAEC) and the one organised by the Minna, Niger State-based National Examination Council (NECO). 

  On what this unhealthy development portends for the future of the nation and how to set the country on the right rail, Mrs Amuta said teacher training in the sciences as well as introduction and sustenance of vocational training were of great importance. 

  Her words, “We can fix this by training teachers in the sciences, introduction and sustenance of vocational training, guidance and counselling and by lowering entry requirements for science courses. The last point is particularly interesting to me as I have always wondered why the entry requirements for the sciences were so stringent.

“Take for example the requirement that a student who desires to study the sciences must also possess a credit level pass in English Language. The student has five credits in the core sciences and yet the qualifying authorities insist that without a credit pass in English Language, the student cannot study his/her course of choice in the sciences. You then wonder in which language the student wrote the examinations and got credit level pass in at least five subjects.

  The proprietress continued, “That is just an instance of the dysfunctional nature of Nigeria’s assessment process. Our education system and curriculum need continuous evaluation to bring it up to speed with the changing times. Education should be engaging, interesting and fun so students are able to visualise and indeed live the subjects that they are taught; see how the subjects correlate to everyday living, and there will likely be improvement in the attitude and pass rate in mathematics and the sciences. Without a strong focus on the sciences, Nigeria’s quest to become a developed nation via industrialisation will not be achievable.”

  At a micro level, Amuta said the school was taking some steps to improve students’ performance in mathematics. 

  For instance, “At the pre-school stage, we make the children active in mathematics through the use of real objects and activities that emerge from the children through music, arts and craft, sorting by colour and size, matching pictures to objects and arranging pictures in correct sequence. This is to help the children progress from concrete experiences to more abstract ones and to internalise mathematical concepts naturally in order to eliminate memorisation.  

“At the primary school level, we organise mathematics quizzes and inter-class competitions. Mental mathematics, such as abacus and speed mathematics, are taught for mental alertness and intuitive thinking. We also make mathematics fun for the children through games, mathematical songs and one-to-one teaching.”

  Seeing how important mathematics is in laying a solid foundation that would facilitate excelling in the sciences, Amuta said, “Mathematics should be made real to the children through concrete experiences, basic concepts such as one-to-one correspondence and classification equivalence. In addition, we introduced a reward system for mathematics skills and scholarship for students who excel in mathematics.”

  She continued, “It is not a single-incentive package; a mix of incentives help to engage the interest of students from different angles and levels. What may appeal to one student, another student may not find it as engaging. However, having a potpourri of incentives help to ensure that all the students are engaged and also boost teachers ability to engender and retain the interest of the students in mathematics.”

  Commenting on which method or device among the mixed bag of incentives was particularly helpful in improving pupils’ mathematics skills at this level of education, she said, “A remarkable method that we have been using and which has made mathematics easier for the children is the abacus training programme. It has removed the fear of mathematics from the students and empowered them to calculate large numbers without the aid of an electronic calculator. Indeed, adopting abacus solutions in our bid to enhance our students’ love and appreciation for mathematics, has been very effective as a tool. 

 “The introduction of abacus training programme has brought about a remarkable growth in the interest and ability of our students in mathematics. This has rubbed off on other subjects since a strong interest in one subject naturally helps students maintain interest in other subjects.  

  “Abacus mathematics has improved the logical and analytical minds of the children. It has also improved and sharpened other skills like vigilance, spatial relation, listening skills, creativity, memory power, patience and precision. It has made them resilient, confident and has given them the ‘I can’ attitude. As I mentioned earlier, it rubs off on other subjects because if you are very good in one subject, there is a tendency to transfer that ability to other subjects. What we are seeing is that the strong interest in mathematics has naturally enhanced their interest in other subjects. 

  She revealed that, “One of abacus’ most important qualities is enhancing the pace at which students can reason logically. Imagine empowering a student with the ability to calculate numbers and solve equations at a speed faster than electronic calculators. Though that ability will be more noticeable and indeed useful in mathematics, it is naturally transferred to other subjects; the students can think faster and are able to find solutions to problems in other subjects at a faster rate than they were used to.”

  Questioned abacus should be made part of the education system by concerned bodies, she retorted, “I would encourage schools to embrace the idea of abacus programme and recommend it to others. At Heyday School, we have benefited immensely from the method in the sense that it has helped to remove the chore and fear our children had for the subject. The children now look forward to mathematics classes with enthusiasm because abacus makes the learning of mathematics fun, easy and enjoyable.”

  Drawing from her personal experience, Amuta said growing up, “There was a general phobia for mathematics, which precluded students who would have developed a keen interest in the subject from following through. I must say that I did not love mathematics because of that general apathy towards it at the time. We recognised that there was apathy towards mathematics at the very early stage, even before our school was founded. This is why our vision is to make sure we remove the fear of mathematics from our students and equip them with the knowledge, skills and principles that would make the subject interesting and fun.

  Asked to enumerate the challenges of administering a school in Nigeria from her prism, she said, “There were several challenges in schools administration in Nigeria. Chief among them are inadequate funding, which impedes the ability of schools to provide the infrastructure and services that they would ideally like to provide in order to give students the best environment to enhance their scholarly abilities. 

“Another is in keeping pace with the ever changing needs of information and communication technology, (ICT), which as you know changes at a rapid pace. ICT has become an integral part of education, helping to make teaching-learning not only fun and interesting, but also ensuring that the vast amount of knowledge that students and teachers can possibly tap into is limitless. 

“The third challenge is inadequate number of teachers ,and when they are available, their skills set is not up to date. When teachers graduate from their various institutions, they no longer go straight to the classrooms to start teaching. You’d have to invest resources in terms of time and funds to train them, scale up their skills in order for them to be fit for purpose. I could go on and on. But in spite of these challenges, the education system is not a lost cause, particularly with the intervention of private sector education providers. Some schools have done particularly well in providing the required facilities and trained instructors, and it shows in the quality of the students that they produce.”



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