Why is TASTE needed?

Practical science education in Uganda (and many other African countries) is almost universally inadequate. For a number of students, their first hands-on experience of science is during the O-Level practical exams. As a result, they lose interest and score poorly on exams — chemistry, physics and biology have the lowest pass rates out of all major subjects in O-level examinations. This means Africa loses many potential doctors, engineers and researchers.

“The majority of A-Level students take arts due to poor science teaching. If the project reaches [this school], we expect more numbers for A-Levels… Many students in private schools do not even see a conical flask [before sitting the O-Level practical paper].”

Deputy Headmaster, Mbiriizi

The Ugandan school system is similar to that of the UK: seven years of primary (P1-P7) and six of secondary (S1-S6), with O-levels taken at the end of S4 and A-levels at the end of S6. Results for O-levels (including the compulsory subjects English, mathematics, biology, chemistry and physics) are frequently the only criteria for admission to S5. For many students, failing in science subjects bars them from continuing their studies. Others score highly enough in other subjects to be allowed to progress to A-levels, but due to their previous results they only have the option of studying arts subjects. The ratio of arts to science graduates at the top universities in Uganda is 5:1.

It is hardly surprising that so many students fail science subjects. The old-fashioned teaching styles used in most Ugandan schools consist of the teacher reciting notes or drawing diagrams on the board, and the students copying them down into notebooks. They then learn the notes verbatim to reproduce in exams.

When questioned, students show very low comprehension of the material, even if they ‘know’ it well. But how can students be expected to understand a chemical reaction, for example, if they have never seen any of the chemicals and never watched or carried out a reaction themselves? A report commissioned by the World Bank reported that:

Importantly, active learning approaches that characterize effective modern pedagogy, value the existing knowledge of the learner and stimulate the integration new knowledge with it [sic]. Very little of this is reported to take place at this moment in secondary classrooms in Uganda and yet it is a cornerstone for creating the kind of competencies demanded by the 21st century changing workplace and roles in society.

Clegg, A., Bregman, J.& Ottevanger, W. (2008). Uganda Secondary Education & Training Curriculum, Assessment & Examination (CURASSE) Roadmap for Reform. Washington: World Bank

Many of the concepts students learn are entirely abstract to them. Inevitably they quickly lose interest in scientific subjects. The danger for Uganda is that it enters a spiral of decline in which successive generations produce fewer science graduates to teach the next generation, with the consequence that the country becomes increasingly reliant on importing expensive science skills from overseas.
By giving students the chance to do a wide range of scientific experiments themselves, TASTE will deepen students’ understanding of science and make the concepts real and engaging.

Measuring performance

“We would like to do more practicals. We understand science better when doing practicals.”
S2 student, Kyetume

Practical work makes up 40% of the O-level exam, but many schools do not have any laboratory equipment. Some have a small amount, but it is often broken, out of date, or simply never used because teachers do not know how to use it. The Ugandan National Examinations Board (UNEB) commented in 2010 that “Performance in practical science examinations reflect that the candidates have not been exposed to practical science teaching. They exhibited a lack of skills in handling apparatus, making observations, recording data in tabular forms and plotting graphs from such data.”

The series of experiments offered by TASTE will be designed to allow students to develop all these skills, increasing the number that are able to continue studying sciences at higher levels.

A scientific education is about more than just getting results in exams. Carrying out experiments and investigations encourages critical thinking, creativity and problem solving. These skills will be useful in many careers, as well as preparing students well to become “job creators” in the future - particularly important in Uganda where the population is expected to increase almost four-fold by 2050. The Innovation for Development Report 2010-2011 argues that the “most important” factor in development is “the extent to which societies are able to harness the latent creative capacities of their populations.”

We hope that students who participate in TASTE’s programmes will be able to use all the skills they acquire to contribute to the development of Uganda, moving it up from its current position of 106th out of 130 on the Innovation Capacity rankings. Furthermore, the UN places Uganda 161st out of 187 countries in its Human Development rankings, with 65% of the population living on less than $2 per day. A generation of scientifically literate and enthusiastic school leavers have the potential to transform the country.