October 2012

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The UWI St. Augustine Campus conferred an honorary LLD on Maureen Manchouck, during its graduation ceremonies in October 2012. Mrs Manchouck discussed her ideas on science education with UWI Today.

You have been a strong advocate for popularizing science education through a number of innovative programmes; if you had the resources what else would you do?

For the last 20 years, my big, unfulfilled dream for science popularisation has been to see the building of a world-class, purpose-built national science centre. This should be the physical backbone or platform for all the programmes we offer: a fitting house to invite our people into and make them feel more at home with science and technology…an environment that inspires and showcases the very best of science and scientists – local, regional and international.

And I am pleased to say that it seems that that this dream will finally come true. In March of this year, Cabinet approved a 52-acre plot of land in Couva for the construction of a new national science centre. This centre is envisaged as a complex of facilities (viz. a science city) and will be built in phases. The building itself will be constructed as a giant exhibit and will serve as an exemplar of environmentally sustainable practice in building design. The facilities will include, in addition to the permanent exhibit galleries, an innovation centre purpose built for 14-24 year olds; a green outdoor space of relaxation and educational entertainment with experiments, an amphitheatre, etc. for use by the public; open-ended, safe ‘learn-through-play’ science experiences and programmes geared to young children from toddlers to eight-year-olds; an Ideas Gallery dedicated to blurring the boundaries between science and the arts and exploring the roles and relevance of new technologies; and scientific laboratories.

The Caribbean should have had a network of science centres by now, as was recommended in an IDB report almost 20 years ago by consultant, Prof Errol Miller. Twenty years ago, despite the fact that all around the world developing countries were recognising the important role of science centres, science popularisation here in Trinidad and Tobago was seen, at best, as the soft side of building scientific capability and, at worst, a luxury for only wealthy countries to invest in. NIHERST still managed to create the only science centre in this region. South Africa started off at the same time as we did with science popularisation and now has at least 25 science centres. The same goes for India. It established the NCSM in 1978 and that is today the largest network of science centres/museums under a single administrative umbrella in the world, with 27 facilities across the country and more on the horizon. And now, not coincidentally I think, these are two of the emerging BRICS countries. The establishment of science centres – vital education avenues in themselves – was reflective of a wider policy, which was being adopted in those countries, of embracing and investing in science education and scientific research. They are reaping the fruits of those policies today.

In terms of science education, how do you feel the secondary school curriculum can be refined?

Refinement of the curriculum in science education at the secondary level cannot be taken to mean tinkering primarily with subject matter/content, as important as this is, but it must also occur at the system level. Meaningful curriculum refinement in science, and in many other subject areas, must arise from the understanding that all students can benefit from relevant and appropriate science education experiences. But what is taught should not just be for the purpose of passing an examination. Nor should science subjects be options to drop halfway through secondary school if the student will not be pursuing them at higher levels. Science should be mandatory up to fifth form as is Math, English and Spanish. Every student should be leaving secondary school with a basic solid understanding of science that would be of some value to them later in their lives. This will be a stronger base for shaping a more scientifically literate society to fuel growth and innovation.

The secondary school curriculum is still largely a one-size-fits-all entity. What is clearly needed here is a science curriculum at the secondary level with explicit learning outcomes for all students, including the very able as well as those who are not likely to go to tertiary education. The learning outcomes can be made compatible with CXC requirements as well as providing clear achievement challenges for a range of learners who may not be either interested in or capable of achieving the learning outcomes at CXC level. An important aspect of this approach is the need for the secondary system to establish clearly what secondary school graduation in this country means.

The unsatisfactory performance in science at the secondary level can be attributed to weak teaching as good and experienced science teachers are not to be found in large numbers throughout the school system. The importance of teacher education at UWI and in other tertiary institutions cannot be overstated. It is now widely understood that tertiary education accreditation and quality assurance are key reform elements in this area. A growing sense of professionalism in science education is an important prerequisite.

I also believe that in science education, as in many other curricular areas, a major refinement would be to put the curriculum on a credit basis including minimum credit requirements in science education and mathematics, which all students are required to meet. Of course, a number of students will exceed these requirements but we are concerned here with the education system being better able to enable all students to achieve their full potential and, in the process, provide the right type of output required for business, industry and responsible citizenship in a global context. Additionally, students of all subjects but especially science should work on projects and in teams to better prepare them for the world of work generally and of scientific research or innovative activity especially.

There is increasing understanding of these new imperatives as evidenced by the growing interest in the development of a seamless system of education and training from the preschool to the tertiary level, informed by a long-term perspective on the whole teaching/learning process, and characterised by fresh and innovative approaches to teaching, learning and curriculum development at all levels of the system. There is an urgent need for us to wean ourselves from rote learning in curriculum design and instruction. This reform cannot be confined to the secondary level and has to be complemented by reform throughout the system and, in particular, at the elementary and preschool levels. From the earliest ages, students need to learn to work in ways that will better prepare them for real life situations, especially as scientists. These are basic skills for future scientists: working on projects and in teams; exploring solutions to problems in the community; the application of abstract concepts; as well as design and engineering principles.

It is clear to most educators globally that in science education there is a need to move beyond the traditional approach. I believe that considerably more resources need to be devoted to fine-tuning the science curriculum, conceptualised and operationalized in seamless system terms.

Would you say that at 50, Trinidad and Tobago has earned an international reputation for innovation?

No, I would not. Certainly not in terms of the understanding or context of innovation as a key driver of the global economy, i.e. innovation as knowledge, products and services that the world will want to buy from us. But to be fair, that is a relatively recent phenomenon of the past three decades or so, following the accelerated pace of technological development, and the birth and growth of knowledge economies. All countries, industries and businesses are striving to win at the innovation game, including giants like the United States, which from several indicators, is losing ground to other economic powers in terms of leading innovation.

So I would say that, at 50, we are at an awakening or turning point to reposition our economy, which is of course, what the current diversification thrust is all about: shifting the national mindset and attitudes away from the traditional economic and employment staples, towards wealth generation and finding solutions to our particular socio-economic and environmental problems, through greater innovation as well as entrepreneurship. Many things need to be in place for this to occur. The education I spoke about is key. But there also needs to be the development of a national innovation system, as well as, or rather including, much greater investment in scientific research and development (both basic and applied) in identified priority areas and sectors.

But we also need to remember, as we move forward, that we gave the world the steelpan. And we also need to remind the world that we did! The basis of any strong internal and international reputation for innovation that we develop in the future can certainly start there. We have such a salient example or icon to show us that we can do it. We can and should believe in ourselves and we must align our resources and efforts with a new vision of who we are and what we are capable of doing, individually and collectively. If we don’t understand the precious value of that instrument we created, then we cannot understand our future, what our particular path or patch in the global marketplace should be. We should not only be teaching our children how to play pan but we should ensure they understand the marvellous ‘home-grown’ science, technology and innovation that went into its creation and evolution, which continued with the more formal research into the G-pan. If we can do it with pan, we can do it with other things. This is not just about national pride and heritage. This is about the creative process, and the discipline required to take new ideas to the commercialisation stage. We have failed to really capitalise on the true economic potential of the steelpan and to turn into a more viable national industry with already existing markets all over the world.

So we have to have the collective understanding that greater innovation is what is needed for our survival and sustainable development down the road and we have to have the will to create the infrastructure for it.

How do you feel about the conferral of this honorary degree?

It is certainly a great personal honour and I am very grateful to the University for this recognition coming at the end of a 35-year career that has been devoted to building national capacity in science and technology. What is really good about awards of a certain distinction, particularly for people whose work or field is not well known or fully appreciated by the wider public, is that in drawing attention to the recipient, it draws attention to the arena in which that person has achieved. So by honouring me, UWI is also honouring science and technology. It is making a statement to our population of what it considers to be valuable to society. It raises the profile, however momentarily, of the importance of science popularisation, and of the persons and agencies that have been working alongside the formal education system to lay our country’s science and technology foundation and framework for the future.