Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs
December 17, 2008
Science and Math Education for Development
The basis of a knowledge-based economy
In an age of globalization and knowledge-based economies, improvements in science education to hands-on, inquiry-based approaches provide problem-solving and analytical skills that create a productive workforce. Such a labor force can tackle the needs of developing countries through domestic-based innovation, which will make them less dependent on developed nations. These investments in science and math education, in turn, pay for themselves in economic gain, but the pipeline that supplies a nation’s innovators must be fed at the training end.
Parallels to good governance
A science classroom grounded in interaction and experiential learning can represent a micro-society in which the principles of the conduct of science such as critical inquiry, meritocracy, transparency, objectivity, individual speculation, access to information and innovation reinforce the key values of good governance. Science education also offers unique opportunities for individual and community empowerment when focused on relevant issues for learners (such as health or environmental issues that can affect quality of life in developing countries). Even students that do not enter the scientific workforce after receiving the training will have developed scientific literacy, and will likely demand and spur investment in these areas. Political decisions, whether related to economic, environment or socio-cultural issues, are based increasingly on science and technology. This points to the importance of creating a scientifically and technologically literate citizenry in developing countries.
Developing and supporting networks of science educators and promoting the exchange of science education information and innovative teaching/learning approaches has public and private returns at international, national and local levels.
We need more than general education
Development assistance focused on general education assumes that a portion of this aid will fall to the sciences by default, and, therefore it is covered, but this is not always the case. It is through the deliberate inclusion of education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) that countries, communities and individuals will derive multiple benefits.
With science and mathematics clearly identified as among the seven competencies to be identified in countries in which the U.S. Government is strongly supporting Basic Education, established expectations of measurable attainment at each grade level, early grades (first, second, third) exposure and achievement should be assured. As developing countries progress in educational achievement, and U.S. Government assistance supports efforts beyond grade 3, a targeted strategy that capitalizes on the multiple benefits derived from concentration in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics should be encouraged.
Investments to improve science, technology, engineering and math education (curricula and textbooks, teacher capacities, facilities, etc.) are essential at all levels of formal education. Among the many benefits at the basic and secondary level, students who receive inquiry-based science instruction dramatically improve not only analytical skills, but their writing and reading scores as well. A critical need in developing countries is to improve student access to classroom materials in math and science, and to train teachers in the effective use of these materials.
Recently, there has been a dramatic increase in requests for engagement and guidance towards developing and implementing university level curricula because of the explosion of universities in developing countries. In general, education, and science and technology ministries in developing countries recognize that sustained investment in tertiary education has lagged behind investment in education at other levels. Student demand has been significant in educational expansion at the tertiary level, especially in response to new economic activities that are global in scope. Higher-level curricula and training are essential for developing countries to capitalize on global economic activities in the short-term.
The profiles of science/technology workforces in many developing countries reveal a dearth of well-trained, middle-level technicians and engineers, with the result that human resources are imported to fill the gaps. Down the road, stable economies will need to increase their global participation in science, technology and engineering; enhanced international science cooperation will only be feasible if developed countries find highly educated partners in the developing world. Supporting educational institutions in their basic needs at all levels will allow science, technology, engineering, medicine and math to act as catalysts for economic development.
Non-formal adult education in many cases encompasses science and technology skills that improve individual livelihoods, but also have important social or public returns (for example, training farmers for sustainable agricultural productivity that protects natural resources).
Education goals in science, technology, health and math should be developed locally, with an understanding of a country’s respective strengths and weaknesses, and to improve conditions conducive to retaining scientific talent. The “brain drain” of scientists and engineers away from developing countries reflect that many economies are still grappling with the utilization and retention of their science-based workforce. Supporting educational goals that recognize the need to develop lifelong career tracks will support global, national and local development outcomes.
Scientific capacity-building is a prime example of transformational diplomacy in which assistance recipients are empowered to step up to the plate of responsibility for their own development. It should be noted that the outcomes of scientific training cannot be measured in the short term, as it can take many years for a community to reap the economic benefits of new human capital, but the advantages of this strategy over fast fixes are clear.
That science and math education be considered as essential in our education and development strategies.