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Don’t squander the Stem switch-on

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the important role of science and scientific professions in all of our lives. Nurses, doctors, epidemiologists and vaccine researchers have been at the forefront of the pandemic response. 

In some under-resourced countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, the shortages in key professions are being strongly felt, driven in part by the lack of diversity and opportunity in Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering, maths). In 2019, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (Unesco) regional African directorate reported that less than 25% of African students enrolled in higher education are pursuing Stem qualifications and, of those students, only 30% are female.

The 2020 African Development Bank’s African Economic Outlook report also finds that, although a number of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have significantly improved access to basic education (Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Togo, Uganda and Zimbabwe), there is a significant mismatch between African youth skill sets and education compared to labour market needs. The report emphasized the rising need for graduates in technology-related qualifications.  

To be fair, there has been a big “switch-on” to science and technology during lockdowns across the continent, bringing into sharp focus Stem as a key area for education departments.

Starting young is crucial.

The first eight years of a child’s life are critical for their emotional and cognitive development. If children are encouraged to engage with Stem subjects from an early age, they develop problem-solving skills and key competencies that encourage them to pursue science, technology and maths as they get older. Studies show that an early foundation in maths and science benefits other areas of learning as well.

Despite the benefits, in Africa Stem teaching resources are not always available, especially to under-resourced schools with large class sizes and relatively few Stem teachers.

The early learning sector in Africa faces several challenges. Across 54 countries in Africa, the World Bank reports that only an estimated 20% of children aged between three and six are able to access adequate early learning facilities, while globally the average is 50%.  The World Bank further reported that only 2% of national budgets are allocated to early childhood education. 

Covid-19 has been a serious blow to Stem and early learning progress. According to Unesco, in an effort to halt the rapid rate of infection, most African countries closed all schools.  This has caused huge disruption to all childrens’ education but represents an even more significant learning gap for young children, when the precious window for rapid learning is so short.

Other challenges affecting Stem education include language barriers, and a lack of diverse representation in learning material. A South African study has highlighted the lack of Stem learning material available in local African languages, affecting children’s performance.

In response to the pandemic, many countries have stepped up television and radio programming so that children of all ages can continue to learn at home. Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar and South Africa have repurposed television and radio learning, including for young children. 

For example, Ubongo Kids in Kenya and Tanzania uses cartoon characters to present different learning activities, including maths and science, and this educational content can now be accessed in Botswana, Cameroon, Gambia, Malawi and other countries.

In South Africa, educational programming on both radio and TV changed so that children could tune into virtual classrooms for many subjects, including maths and science, while the department of basic education has provided digital learning resources to support teachers during the pandemic.

The availability of this content outside the classroom is a big step forward, but it is also important to say that digital learning for young children needs to be mediated by a parent, caregiver or ideally a trained teacher, and studies generally caution against more than 1 to 2.5 hours of screen time per day for preschool children. Technology can provide a portal to learning resources, but Stem learning activities still need to be based on skills-based learning and interaction.

To foster curiosity, creativity, critical thinking and to build a strong foundation for future learning, young children undoubtedly benefit from Stem education. As some African countries look towards later easing out of the pandemic and seek ways for education to return to a more normal footing, it is clear that we must invest in teachers’ science, maths and technology skills, not only for those teaching older students but also the younger ones.

Prioritisation of technology infrastructure also needs to be a focus for African countries.

Stem education, especially in early learning, will require investments in physical school resources, learning materials and teacher training. The initial cost will be more than repaid as children foster problem-solving and innovation skills and build a foundation for further learning as they grow. And Africa as a whole will benefit as generations of Stem-educated young people come into the labour market, with multiple positive impacts on our economies and societies in future.

We must not squander the big “switch-on” to online learning, and make the most of the fact that Covid-19 has forced us to speed up digital learning and appreciate the importance of Stem education, including in the early years of children’s development.

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Mmaki Jantjies
Professor Mmaki Jantjies is an associate professor in information systems at the University of the Western Cape. She is an NRF-rated researcher and holds a PhD in computer sciences. Her research focuses on ICT for development

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