Development Discourse with Amos Safo: The case for motivating girls in STEM

Development Discourse with Amos Safo: The case for motivating girls in STEM

Francisca Lamini’s outstanding performance in the just-ended National Science and Maths Quiz (NSMQ) makes a strong case for affirmative action to encourage and empower girls to venture into Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Miss Lamini stated in a profile that she nursed the ambition to study science and had decided that she wanted to enrol at Keta Secondary Technical School (Ketasco) to help the school win the National Science and Maths Quiz in future.  Subsequently, Francisca obtained nine ones in the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE) and kept her promise to school at Ketasco.

As Francisca nursed this ambition to read science, her mother, father or other relatives may have encouraged her to achieve the ambition of becoming a scientist. It is also possible that she achieved this feat through difficulties, hard work and perseverance. Last week, Francisca led her team, including two boys, to reach the finals of the NSMQ – making her the first female finalist in the last eight years.

Though her team placed third, Francisca and her colleagues performed beyond expectations against a background of competing with Presec and Prempeh College, which have an unmatched record in the NSMQ. Francisca emerged as the competition’s most outstanding female participant.

Suddenly, Francisca has become a national icon and quite expectedly been trending across all social media platforms. The response to Francisca’s achievement has been very encouraging and phenomenal. So far, corporate and individual responses by way of awards and rewards have been encouraging. These responses are just the right motivation for Francisca and other girls who want to pursue STEM in future. From now on, every well-meaning Ghanaian will be tracking Francisca to see how she pursues her dreams and what she becomes in future. Her parents should keep a close eye on her to ensure she remains chaste and focused to avoid teenage pregnancy that could ruin her future. Besides, I expect the Girls’ Education Unit of the Ghana Education Service to take keen interest in the development of Francisca; ensuring that no obstacle scuttles her aspirations to become a scientist.

Quite often, brilliant students who meet the necessary requirements to pursue medicine at the public universities are denied admission because they are from poor families who have no record of producing doctors. In some cases, children from poor backgrounds are offered admission as fee-payers to discourage them from aspiring to become doctors or engineers.  Sadly, other candidates with lesser grades are admitted through the national canker called ‘protocol’. This so-called protocol is being applied in deciding who gets admission for medicine – and now even nursing – at public universities across the country.

Since government has recognised the significance of Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) to the country’s industrialisation agenda, and is making the right investments in that regard, I am suggesting a similar quiz should be institutionalised for TVET. A national TVET quiz will raise awareness of TVET’s significance as a strategic intervention to redefine Ghana’s development. Undoubtedly, the combination of STEM and TVET policy direction has the potential to change the country’s future development.

STEM education is an approach to learning that ‘integrates the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics’. Through STEM education, students acquire critical and independent thinking skills, become creative and efficient problem-solvers, and are empowered to succeed and adapt in this changing world.

Increasing girls’ participation

There are indications that girls’ participation in STEM at secondary schools is still lower than that of boys.  One belief influencing the participation of girls in science is that science-related subjects are more suited for boys. This gives cause for worry and calls for a new policy direction. Each year, February 11 is dedicated as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. The Day serves as a reminder that many women and girls continue to be excluded from participating fully in science education and careers. In February 2022, I expect the Girls’ Education Unit of the Ghana Education Service to parade Francisca as a role-model; and through that make a strong case for girls to venture into STEM.

STEM clinic

In December 2016, UNESCO in collaboration with the Girls’ Education Unit of the Ghana Education Service organised the first STEM clinic in the Jasikan district of the Volta Region.  The district is among the lowest-performing districts for girls’ participation in STEM in the country. At the time of the clinic, there were only 29 girls reading pure science (physics, chemistry, biology) out of 855 girls in the three Senior High Schools in the Jasikan district. This grim statistic is perhaps representative of the situation in all deprived districts across the country. The reality is that most deprived districts like Jasikan do not have the qualified teachers to effectively teach STEM subjects.

In fact, STEM clinics have a strong potential for increasing girls’ interest in science as girls are provided the needed platform to interact with young female scientists. Interactions with role-models boost girls’ confidence on participating in STEM-related courses, and help to reverse the negative perceptions they may have about pursuing a career in STEM.

Currently, government is investing a lot to achieve both STEM and TVET goals. The 2022 Budget statement indicates that the Ministry of Education has trained 924 Mathematics and Science Teachers to address the shortage of STEM teachers. Besides, the ministry has distributed digitalised lessons prepared by experienced teachers in core subjects to all SHSs. The ministry has also commenced construction of 20 STEM centres across the country.

On the TVET front, the 2022 Budget stated that the ministry granted vouchers to 2,794 Master Craft Persons and Apprentices to access formal training. This training led to the award of a National TVET Qualification Framework (NTVETQF) under the Ghana TVET Voucher Project (GTVP). In addition, 2,446 Competency-Based Training learners received NTVETQF certification.

Unfortunately, while STEM is gaining policy recognition, there is often a lack of concrete links between the daily lives of students and STEM subjects. Not only does this lead to lower performance in these subjects, it also demotivates students from pursuing promising careers in STEM. STEM is one critical strategy for creatively developing the solutions and innovations Ghana and Africa need to support critical fields like health, food production, basic infrastructure, environment, manufacturing etc. But some experts suggest paying equal attention to arts and humanities as a way of expanding our scope of new knowledge-fields and new technologies, which are opening many opportunities for the youth.

Untapped knowledge

The youth of Ghana have so much untapped human knowledge, but many of them may not be aware of their talents unless there is extensive career guidance.  I believe with more education, information and awareness, we will be able to identify and help unearth the youths’ hidden talents. Henceforth, public education on STEM and TVET should aim at encouraging the youth to accept that STEM is not difficult and it is the basis of our very existence. They should be encouraged to embrace STEM and TVET, and be ready to apply the knowledge gained to offer solutions to their communities and country.

Ghana/Malaysia irony

The G8 members and other emerging economies have maintained their dominance over the world through scientific and technological innovations. Ghana needs a STEM-based education because we are lagging behind in economic growth and development relative to other countries with equal opportunities. Malaysia, for example, had similar economic indicators to Ghana at the time of their independence (on August 31, 1957).

Sadly, our current economic status is far from similar. The World Bank attributes Malaysia’s success story to their ability to transform their agrarian (low skill, low tech) economy into a manufacturing hub that has become a ‘leading exporter of electrical appliances, electrical parts and components’. This transformation stems from their National Science and Technology initiative in 1986 (and subsequent policies) to promote research and innovation.

Benefits of STEM education

The Pew Research Centre, for example, found that those in STEM careers have higher-paying jobs compared to their counterparts in the liberal arts and humanities. More so, individuals in STEM careers are more likely to become entrepreneurs. Currently, Ghana’s economy is largely service-oriented, partly agrarian, with a small industrial sector.  Thus, investing in a STEM-focused education system will benefit our younger population and our country in general. Promoting STEM education will increase STEM graduates who will benefit from the opportunities created by the ever-growing STEM-related jobs across the world, a trend that will positively benefit our economy.

People in STEM careers are more likely to succeed in Ghana because our current problems (including but not limited to poor roads, housing deficiencies, crumbling bridges and other infrastructures, dilapidated healthcare system and shortages of medical supplies) require the expertise of STEM and TVET professionals.

Where is our vision?

While addressing what was the Legislative Assembly (now the Parliament of Ghana) of Gold Coast on the eve of our independence on March 6, 1957, Dr. Nkrumah (Ghana’s first President), outlined his vision for a new country with a lot of promises and challenges.  Dr. Nkrumah, while noting the challenges ahead, assured his fellow citizens that the challenges we faced as a young nation were not insurmountable if our education system was reinvented to “produce scientifically minded people” through “a higher standard of technical education”.

In his famous speech, titled ‘Government Policy Statement’, Dr. Nkrumah stated that Ghana’s vision of development could be realised if we established universities and research institutions for “agriculture, biology, and the physical and chemical sciences”. This initiative, he argued, would not only enhance our prospects as a country but also be a great service to Africa.

Earlier, in his ‘Education and African Nationalism’ (while a student at the University of Pennsylvania), Dr. Nkrumah contended that education should provide and enhance the “economic and technical progress of the people it purports to serve”; and that any educational system which doesn’t provide these services “has completely failed in its purpose and has become a fraud”.

The purpose of education – especially for the youth of Africa – Dr. Nkrumah concluded, was to prepare the African youth to “meet any definite situations of the changing community”; but not to train them for “clerical activities and occupations of foreign commercial and mercantile concerns”.

Unfortunately, after 64 years of independence, our education system has largely not served its purpose of educating people to meet the challenges of the day; instead, it has become a manufacturer of graduates equipped only for “clerical activities and occupations of foreign commercial and mercantile concerns” to confirm Nkrumah’s fears. The current state of Ghana’s education is not just its extreme westernisation, but also the grave underinvestment in STEM education by previous governments.

Recently, when the Finance Minister honestly suggested that the youth should enedeavour to create their own enterprises because the public sector was choked, some people put his head on the chopping block.  But that is the reality, and the solution is STEM and TVET.

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