The Experience Gap in Science Education

Today is World Science Day for Peace and Development.

By Meg Carter, ChildFund Sponsorship Communication Specialist

I remember teaching at Guinea’s national polytechnic university a few years ago. Most of my first-year students had never seen a computer. They’d earned the highest marks in the country in science and math on their Baccalauréat (Guinea’s high-school leaving exam), yet had never examined water under a microscope, created a chemical volcano or even stuck balloons to the wall with static electricity.

But they could list waterborne illnesses, recite the periodic table of elements, and define induction. My students had learned theory without practical experience because Guinea, like many low-income countries, lacks the resources for proper science education. Scientific research there usually consists of literature review and retrospective study, not original experiments.

students in Guinea

Students in Guinea are interested in learning, but they often must do so without necessary resources.

Imagine MIT, Caltech or Virginia Tech without electricity, running water, refrigeration or internet access — and no books, maps, posters, calculators, CDs or DVDs on campus. Guinea’s only bookstore was located five hours away. Lab materials and scientific instruments are expensive and hard to come by. You barely have enough chalk.

“Why,” my students asked when I introduced myself on their first day of class, “did you leave your comfortable life in America for us?”

I’d come to teach technical English but ended up team-teaching introductory information technology classes, too. Each semester, my Guinean counterpart covered IT basics, while I observed and assisted with computer labs. Then we traded: I taught the advanced content and he ran interference.

I believe all children, regardless of where they are born, deserve as good an education as my daughter received in the United States. And the experience gap prevents these children and youth from solving new problems or thinking as creatively and critically as they could. Like DNA, a lack of practical experience passes down to subsequent generations.

I remember the moment I realized my students knew nothing about non-decimal number systems, including binary codes, on which information technology is based. While I reviewed my Energy Technology students’ course evaluations, one young man wrote that he hadn’t known you could generate electricity without pollution. Another wrote that the class wanted to learn more: “Show us photographs and diagrams of solar, wind, biomass, fuel cell, geothermal,” he wrote, “all these energy sources you told us of. And explain in French, please.”

The enthusiasm is there. I remember the sea of faces greeting me each semester. More than 100 students sat four to a desk. Although three in 10 scientists worldwide are women, fewer than one in 10 students at Guinea’s national polytechnic university were female when I taught there. Nearly all were already married with children.

Imagine the difference in the Ebola outbreak if the quality of science education in West Africa were equal to our own.

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