Encouraging the Study of Science in Context

At a Prize Giving Ceremony for the 4th Physics Olympiad 2013 held on Tuesday 17 September 2013 at Gaëtan Raynal State College, in which the winner was Kevin Neetoreea of Royal College, Curepipe, the Minister of Education and Human Resources expressed the wish for more students to go for the study of physics as it had led to important applications in fields such as engineering, health, technology and communications.

This reminded me of two things. The first is a remark that was made by a friend over fifteen years ago, when he was head of the department of physics in a confessional secondary school. He told me that one of the reasons some brilliant students did not do as well or even failed in physics was because of their poor English, attention to which had apparently been drawn by the Cambridge examiners. Science also has to be properly articulated in whatever language one chooses to do so, and in the local public school system this means English.

A related issue was pointed out to me by a niece who has good language ability and interviews aspiring recruits as part of her job: she noted that many an interviewee with excellent results, all A’s in many cases, and in both science and non-science subjects, had difficulty expressing themselves clearly despite their thorough knowledge.

The other is about a laureate who had been offered a position in Canada after his studies in biomedical engineering there, but was forced to return because of his bond – and found himself with no job, not even a trainee position. He had been unemployed for six months when he came to see me with his father, a labourer who still had to support his graduate son.

It was a vicious cycle: he had to be registered to practise autonomously, and to be registered he had to undergo a two-year internship, for which the country did not have any specific scheme. I do not know whether things have changed since that lad saw me about two years ago as regards training for people with such qualifications, although I am given to understand that the issue of the bond has been resolved – and if that be the case, so much the better.

Nobody will dispute that ‘the support of physics education cannot be understated as it is an exciting intellectual adventure that inspires young people and expands the frontiers of our knowledge about Nature. This very special science generates fundamental knowledge needed for the future technological advances that will continue to drive the economic engines of the world.’

And we share the ‘concern that we observe stagnation, if not a decline, in the proportion of students opting for “the sciences” in Mauritius,’ and take note that ‘the Ministry of Education and Human Resources has given its full support and collaboration in making this initiative of the Association (NB: Association of Physics Educators) a reality as, through such activities, we are providing opportunities for talented students not only to use their brains and tap their intelligence and unlock their potential towards higher-order-thinking, but also enhance the development of their self-esteem. In fact, such competitions like the Physics Olympiad stretch the student’s abilities and make learning more meaningful for their holistic development.’

I would hope that a proper study has been made of the reasons for the decline of interest in the sciences, but one that I have heard mentioned is the rush towards subjects which promised more lucrative careers, such as IT, finance, accountancy, law, management, etc., as the country industrialized and people became more materialistic. The development of the new sectors was no doubt to be welcomed as they opened up avenues and opportunities hitherto unknown in career development and personal advancement.

However, given that many of these applications derive from the basic sciences, and the official commitment to support education in the latter, it follows that the country must find ways and means to extend that support at career level by facilitating the development of the enabling conditions and environment – including adequate salaries matching those in other sectors, and incentives – that would allow the pursuit of science for the sake of advancing knowledge and as a fulfilling intellectual adventure. Official pronouncements, in other words, must perforce be matched by concrete and tangible returns.

Another reason for decline may have to do with pedagogy, as well as interest and motivation of students. Because I have been heavily and positively influenced and inspired by my teachers, I have always held that teachers play a much greater role in the overall development and character formation of children than even parents, not to speak of their inspirational role as regards the subject they teach.

They only can arouse and maintain the interest of their students in the respective subjects, not only by going into the details that stimulate the appetite for and increase knowledge, but even more so by showing the relevance of the subject in the larger context of human understanding and progress, by showing its linkages with other fields of study, and by giving sufficient insights into some aspects of the historical and conceptual beginnings that led the pioneers to embark on explorations and research towards newer and wider horizons.

Students also must play their part by being attentive and regular in attendance, both to encourage the teachers and to honour the parents who toil hard for their sake, and respond with curiosity in the form of questions and discussions with their peers and teachers – who must encourage such exchanges.

Tall order perhaps, maybe even idealistic in these times – but any number of us have experienced this learning atmosphere when we were at that stage of our lives, with nostalgia and even fondness for many of our teachers that we looked up to in great admiration and with much gratitude in our adult lives.

The teacher-student relationship, as much as the doctor-patient relationship, is of one of absolute trust and confidence – and for these professions to retain their nobility, the primary responsibility rests upon the practitioners, whose moral and ethical standing must be of the highest standards.

The accent on holistic development of the student is more than welcome, because ‘man does not live by bread alone.’ From what I gather, the study of the humanities – art, history, languages, literature, poetry and others – has been dwindling, and that is very sad if not indeed tragic. They are the essential complements that will give broad context to the study of the more technical subjects which have a necessarily more utilitarian objective, as well as serve as medium for the expression of the sciences (vide the remark of the physics teacher alluded to above). And therefore they too must be helped to redeem their place so as to make the education of our children more complete. They would thus come out of the system more balanced because of a deeper appreciation of, and hopefully continuing interest, in matters that underlie moral order and sanity in society, and which may help them to make or help make decisions later that have critical impacts in different aspects of their lives and even society at large.

We can perceive the importance of such a strong groundwork for living as we see destructive events around the world for which human character, impulses and misunderstandings are directly responsible, which are a daily affair on our TV screens, and we are left to wonder at man’s inhumanity to man. There are no easy solutions, but a good start early in life may put us on the right path and prepare us to be better human beings, in the sense of using our knowledge, skills and competencies in more constructive ways for the common good. Science and technology, and humanities must go hand in hand, otherwise we may derail our common future – and worse, be indifferent as it takes place under our very eyes.

* Published in print edition on 20 September 2013

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