Universities urged to change models for teaching STEM

The current models for teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in African universities need a revamp if the continent is to produce higher numbers of graduates who are also top-quality scientists and researchers.

A number of constraints, including low funding and poor capacity in universities, have hampered STEM teaching across Africa, speakers at the Second Biennial Conference of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) that took place in Nairobi, Kenya, from 18-20 November observed.

The conference, under the theme “Africa and the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Defining a role for research universities”, drew participants from the continent and the diaspora and from all 16 ARUA member universities.

Universities need to find workable solutions to help them produce top quality graduates who are well-equipped to prepare and take Africa through the next phase of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). One way of doing so is by strengthening research in universities, which is key to effective teaching, especially in STEM, Ashiwel Undieh of the City College of New York, United States, told delegates at the event.

“A strong research programme is very important for effective teaching especially in STEM; effective teaching of STEM involves strengthening scientific research,” he noted.

Undieh said a good research programme benefited not only the teacher but students as well, while at the same time producing knowledge and answering important questions about various issues.

‘Poor funding is not always to blame’

While scientific research requires financial investment, Undieh noted, lack of cash was not the only obstacle to research, and inadequate funds should not always be used as an excuse for failure to produce knowledge.

He said universities sometimes failed to conduct research due to lack of skills, human resources and organisational capacity even when money was available, showing that more than money was at stake in research.

“There are times when money is available to conduct research but you find that the money has not been spent or it is spent but there are no results. Sometimes this is due to lack of personnel and organisational skills to utilise the cash to achieve results,” the associate provost for research said.

Cross-disciplinary research

He hinted that one way of attracting research money was to draft proposals for cross-disciplinary research incorporating social sciences and humanities in scientific research.

Besides research, it was time for universities to review their degree programmes and employ new, cutting-edge syllabuses that are more responsive to current industry trends and demands.

“We cannot be using 1960 notes to teach students engineering and continue and expect to produce the next generation of globally competitive engineers,” he said.

Part of the problem afflicting STEM in Africa was the ‘hugely theoretical” approach to teaching which did not adequately prepare graduates for expectations and realities in industry, according to Dr Karin Wolff of the faculty of engineering at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.

She observed that what many universities taught was often different from the applied STEM that the industry needed, a problem exacerbated by the use of outdated technologies in educational institutions.

Redundant technologies

“Universities need to review what they teach in their STEM faculties because some of the problems we face today emanate from redundant technologies taught in universities which are far away from what the industry uses today,” explained the senior researcher.

According to Professor Maggie Dallman of Imperial College London, faculties needed to be highly innovative if they were to produce knowledge relevant to the fast pace of scientific and technological advances being generated by the industry across the world today.

To do this, they could seek collaborations in ‘risky’ areas of research while diversifying the range of disciplines they taught in order to cope, the associate provost for academic partnerships counselled.

She observed that ‘cross-faculty’ research collaboration initiatives had the potential to help universities produce research programmes relevant to the changes expected in the 4IR.

“Ultimately, the winners of the technological benefits that will come with the 4IR will be those who can innovate, be they researchers or students,” she said.