STEAM-ing in the wrong direction


Prime Minister Andrew Holness (centre) symbolically marks the land where Jamaica’s first Academy of Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) will be built in Dunbeholden at Bernard Lodge, St Catherine.

Recently Prime Minister Andrew Holness has opened Bernard Lodge, St Catherine, to build what is proposed as the first of six STEAM (science, technology, education, arts, maths) academies on the island. According to the Prime Minister, the construction costs of these six schools will exceed 133 million US dollars.

APARTHEID EDUCATION

The proposal and the decision to build STEAM schools is for me a very clear indication that the government seems more inclined to engage in legacy projects rather than working to solve the pitfalls of our education system, some of which have been identified.

We have an apartheid education system that has not served us well as a country. In many ways, success or failure is often determined early on by the school one attends. This proposal to build these six so-called elite STEAM schools will do little to break the back of this apartheid education system. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that it will further perpetuate and entrench the same.

Every student who enters the walls of our educational institutions should be exposed to STEAM education, but this cannot happen, given the less than meager resources that are available to the vast majority of schools, in especially improved and rural schools. These 133 million dollars would have been better spent on overhauling our education system, in accordance with a number of proposals in the Orlando Patterson report. Many schools have labs in need of upgrading and renovation, not to mention poor technological infrastructure available to teachers and students. Why don’t we focus on addressing these issues so that all schools have the opportunity to STEAM forward, facilitating an inclusive education system?

TECHNICAL SCHOOLS

The National Board of Education website lists 17 technical high schools scattered across the country. For a long time, these technical schools have engaged in STEAM education at different and varied levels. In fact, these schools were born from the concept of STEAM education. Contrary to popular opinion, the opposite of brilliant is really not technical. So I ask the question: why are we looking to reinvent the wheel by building these so-called STEAM institutions? It would take far less than $133 million to dramatically improve these technical schools, build their labs, bring them up to world-class standards, and retrain teachers.

PRIMARY SCHOOLS

The way the government is going about implementing STEAM education seems to me as illogical as building a house without a foundation. How come we plan to engage in STEAM education in the end through implementation at the secondary level? Why aren’t we building the foundations at the early childhood and elementary levels? We clearly need to be much more strategic with this. We should invest some of this US$133 million in redesigning early childhood and primary school curricula to better reflect STEAM skills; provide the physical infrastructure for this purpose; retraining our teachers, especially at this level, in the first place, to teach STEAM skills; and investing in our teacher training institutions to provide them with the resources and facilities to develop the expertise required in our educators to facilitate STEAM learning.

PATTERSON REPORT

The Orlando Patterson report was supposed to provide us with a roadmap to produce an inclusive world-class education system. The only major announcement made by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Education since the publication of the report was the formation of an oversight committee. Since then, national debate on the report and attempts to implement the report’s recommendations have been minimal to non-existent. Is a strategic action plan being developed? What is the cost to incur? Over what time horizon will this strategic action plan be carried out and what are the indicators of success? This is the type of speech that we should have so that the whole nation has a clear picture of what is going to happen.

That $133 million would have been better spent grease the wheels of education system transformation instead of building STEAM schools.

Even better, there are a number of schools that are still on a shift system. Despite a number of announcements aimed at ending the practice, there has been little movement on this front over the past eight years. We can find the funds to build STEAM schools, but we can’t find the funds to take these schools out of shifts?

TRUST HEART/NSTA AND UTECH

The government seems to have no clear direction on how to transform Jamaica’s education landscape. HEART/NSTA Trust, for example, which was conceptualized by former Prime Minister Edward Seaga, languishes under the Prime Minister’s Office with no articulated strategic direction.

The entity does not lack financial resources and can certainly do much more to fulfill its mandate. It is first and foremost an educational institution and therefore it should be transferred to the Ministry of Education and transformed into a National Polytechnic University. He already has the resources to lead the transformation. Such a move would have the greatest life-transforming impact on the many young people who enter its doors who would otherwise not have had the opportunity to obtain a tertiary education. This comes against the background that countries with high crime rates have been shown to have a low percentage of their population accessing higher education.

Prime Minister Holness has often said that he wants Jamaica to become the Silicon Valley of the Caribbean. But he certainly did not explain how to achieve this. Nevertheless, before there can be a Silicon Valley, there must first be a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that will create a workforce to populate the industry.

The Jamaica University of Technology, which over the years has operated more like a traditional university, should be made into the MIT of the Caribbean to spur the creation of a tech industry.

Investments will always go where there is an available and efficient workforce. So we have to create that workforce first if we want to create a Silicon Valley type industry.

The transformation of our apartheid education system is eager for debate. The Prime Minister and the Ministry of Education must end the practice of innovating and develop a practice of breaking the glass ceilings that hinder the transformation of the education system. And they certainly need to be much more strategic and inclusive in decision-making processes regarding the current trajectory of the education system.

Marc Malabver

Mark Malabver is principal of Yallahs Secondary School and a PhD candidate. Send your comments to the Jamaica Observer and to [email protected]

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