Energy & Environment

Sunday, 24 July 2011 22:27

Maths, science and the skills gap: why the figures still dont add up

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Did you love maths at school? Science, maybe… but maths? It seems South Africa conforms to cliché by continuing to avoid and, still worse, flunk Maths at higher grade. Yet one needs maths to get into most scientific and engineering courses at the tertiary level. This sorry state of affairs is endorsed by none other than the State President, who told us in his 2007 State of the Nation address (Feb 7) that “…the number of Matric students who pass Mathematics at the higher grade is only slightly better than in 1995.”
Not much progress has been made, then, in the last twelve years, to build a scientific nation with a head for figures. And we desperately need one -- witness the recent response to Western Cape Transport MEC Marius Fransman’s misunderstood comments on skills shortages and affirmative action in the engineering sector. Chillingly, he reminds us of one of the reasons affirmative action exists: as a valid response to Hendrik Verwoed’s presumably rhetorical question: “What is the use of teaching a Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice?”

This is perhaps the main reason for the failure of science and maths promotion in this country and it reminds us that the problems are systemic – and will continue to be so for some time. That is why companies like Shell have been supporting initiatives to redress the balance for over 20 years, funding innovative initiatives like the Centre for the Advancement of Science and Mathematics Education (CASME). But it is neither a simple nor an overnight task – as Shell and CASME know better than most. The fact that South Africa, in the third and most recent Trends in International Maths and Science Study (TIMMS 2003), scored lowest of the 50 countries surveyed, is sorry evidence of this.

Solutions? Myriad initiatives pop up when you google “science and maths promotion in South Africa.” National Science Weeks, Scifests, the MTN Sciencentre, Science Olympiads, a cornucopia of acronyms committed to the advancement of Science and Maths and even a week, running right now, from March 5th to 9th, called Science Unlimited. The Department of Science and Technology feature as well. With so many organizations working on so many initiatives to address the problem, it makes one wonder what exactly is going wrong…

CASME, set up in 1985 with Shell, at that time already concerned about the skills gap it foresaw in the future, offers some perspective. A small but extremely experienced NGO based in KZN, its longevity brings with it a particular view on the crisis – together with a modicum of hope.

CASME’s mission is to contribute to the advancement of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education – and the development of Educators. CASME believes that the reasons for the continuing skills gap, and the lamentable maths and science scores in our schools, are, indeed, largely systemic – and particularly so in the rural areas of KZN where they mainly operate.

There is a shortage of qualified maths and science teachers nationally and this is worse in rural areas: pickings are generally richer in urban, commercial and government department positions. The emphasis on matric pass rates encourages the taking of Standard Grade rather than Higher Grade subjects – thus boosting the rate but reducing the ability to study those subjects further. That emphasis means that maths and science teaching at younger ages, where key concepts can be founded and grounded, is neglected. In addition, science-based careers are not being sufficiently promoted. Finally, the limited number of new maths and science teachers is simply not being produced fast enough, though apparently incentives to change this are being introduced.

In this context, CASME’s focus is on the professional development of maths and science teachers. This, they believe, is the crucial first step towards the gradual elevation of the subject for both teachers and learners. The problem is in the gradual. But education is an incremental process, much as nation-buildilng is, and perhaps we expect too much too soon of our sadly neglected education system.

Still, CASME is convinced that their approach takes maths and science teaching in the right direction. According to Tsepiso Khalema, CASME Director: “CASME certainly does see evidence of improved teacher competence and capacity. For example, many teachers who have been through CASME programmes have moved on to careers as education managers and our evaluations do reflect an improvement in content knowledge and teaching ability, particularly over the long term.”

All eyes, then, on the Fourth TIMMS study, due this very year…

NOTE: CASME, the Centre for the Advancement of Science and Mathematics Education (see www.casme.org.za), was formerly the Shell Science and Mathematics Resource Centre and is still strongly supported by Shell Energy SA. Shell’s total contribution to CASME’s vital work has amounted to some R35 million over the 22 years of its existence, contributing significantly to the continuing need to promote science and maths education in South Africa.

Read more http://www.mediaweb.co.za/journalist/mnews_j_.asp?id=3302

Published in Energy and Environment

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