By Esther Nakkazi
Many African children excelling at school dream of becoming poets, historians, musicians, after all it would be a double bonus, they would be following their passions and earning better than most African scientists peanuts pay.
But once parents and teachers gauge their potential, they influence their decisions and encourage them to become scientists.
So, some African scientists, it is argued, excelled academically at school at an early age but rather than choose their own careers, their parents and teachers made a choice for them to learn science to get into prestigious careers that would make the parents proud.
At the science festival organized by the BBC at Makerere University, in Kampala, Uganda, from Sunday 24 to Thursday 28th March 2013 one of the memory lanes we walked was back to the science classes at school.
After Uganda’s own Allan Kasujja’s Newsday programme, in the morning, later on a Monday afternoon we had the ‘World Have your say’ live programme by Ros Atkins to explore the perceptions of science at school and the audience views differed.
The audience had prominent scientists, Africa’s role model scientists like Professor Tejinder Verdee, a physicist from CERN. Dr. Ashitey Trebi-Ollennu, a Ghanaian working with NASA, Professor Justin Jonas, from The Square Kilometre Array and other prominent scientists from Uganda. Also school children studying science were at hand to give an account of science at school today.
Most girls and women in the audience described science classes as boring, male dominated and not getting enough support from science teachers.
“When I applied for sciences, they told me girls are not capable of doing sciences well. They asked me if I have the capacity to learn it but I stuck to my choice,” said Esther Namaganda, a student from Kiira primary school at the BBC science festival.
“Right from day one, I did not understand anything in science and I tried to explain to my guardian who retorted that my parents (dead) both doctors were good at science and so must I. My consistent bad grades eventually made her leave me alone,” said a lady attending the BBC Science festival at Makerere University.
Other students attending the BBC festival held in a big tent erected in freedom square at Makerere, cited lack of enough time to study science, which is very practical as well as schools lacking the equipment, which de-motivates them.
Teachers defended their advice to students saying many students already have a biased mind that science is difficult, so once they detect such attitudes they discourage the students and advise them to study the arts.
But there is also another problem, which is exaggerated by the media. In Uganda, and some Africa countries, once the national examinations are released, the media rushes to publicize the schools and students that have excelled.
The academic fete in the media is closely followed by the public and influences the choice of schools by students, but also these learning institutions get better bargaining power, sometimes increasing fees with popularity.
“The pressure for schools to perform makes teachers persuade only students that excel to study science, “ said Gideon, a science teacher from Kabaale. “If you let the poor performing students in too, the overall school performance is affected and the media dwells on it.”
The scientists encouraged a shift of perception of science in schools and to refer to role Africa science models to change the tide.