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Summit for our pains

Dr Sushil K Sharma
Thursday, November 30, 2017

Science educational standards in Fiji, in my opinion, have continued to slide for the past 30-40 years and are almost at rock bottom.

Fijians cannot sit back and relax while this disastrous tail-spin, which has continued for almost over a generation of our life, goes unchecked.

Science education stakeholders must take drastic action.

This could be through a science summit where experts, laymen and women meet to discuss the relevant issues from each stakeholder's perspective. Once this is done, they can collate a plan to remedy what is wrong with our science education at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels.

Scientists, educators, trainers, teachers, Ministry of Education officials, administrators, politicians, students' representatives, tertiary institutions vice-chancellors, heads of schools' science departments, principals, headtechers and all other associated organisations that may have an interest in science education should take ownership of this summit. They can be "think tank advisers" to work out national plans and strategies to improve our nation's science education.

Former education minister Dr Mahendra Reddy confirmed science education in Fiji was in an extremely serious situation with student enrolments in the sciences, in a state of free-fall.

This should be arrested so we can extricate our people from the calamity of the "science crisis" we find ourselves in.

Not only that, we have to raise our standards and the participation rates of students in science subjects, especially physics, so we may gradually become a "science smart nation".

Dr Reddy had said then most Fijian students had lost interest in science subjects in Years 12 and 13, suggesting one of the reasons was the preconceived idea that science and technology subjects were difficult and there were a lack of career opportunities in the science and technological fields in Fiji.

The state of affairs has become so serious that there are not many science students in secondary schools.

Science subjects like physics for Year 12 and Year 13 often carry five or less students in an entire classroom when an adjacent non-science class may have as many as 40 students.

It is also important that science subjects must be taught by qualified teachers. If not, then our education system will produce students who are of a low calibre.

Government has been giving free textbooks, tuition and bus fares to primary and secondary school students. This kind of help is targeted to increase general student participation rates in school.

In my view, they do not address the issue of the slide in science education or any increase in subject uniformity, fairness or standards.

I believe Government can and should set up student selection guidelines for the sciences in a more targeted manner. We require more targeted intervention, guidance and controls on how schools stream students into the arts and sciences in the middle years of secondary school.

This type of scrutiny and exercise is important as down the line, these are the factors that will determine the number and quality of physics teachers, surveyors, doctors, engineers, hydrologists or meteorologists —just as an example — Fiji will have in six to eight years' time when they graduate from university.

Physics is a compulsory pre-requisite in many career choices. Many science students often don't opt for this subject in secondary school.

Three years later when trying to get into university, the student may find his or her career choice limited because of this erroneous, irreversible decision.

This problem arises all the time and we note disappointed students every year at university.

Many students often had not been academically counselled. They had opted for technical drawing or home economics as an elective and dropped physics. They felt secure because they, technically, were science students in the middle years at secondary school as they were taking biology and chemistry.

We all should shoulder the blame as our schools, teachers, parents and students were provided with too much liberty to make choices without thought when we were instead supposed to be more visionary as a society.

Often students just wanted to pass and get their certificates, choosing "easier" subjects. Many thought physics would be a road -block for them in their pursuit for better marks/grades during their final years at school as failing the "harder" subject would lower their grade point average.

They believed non-science students were "lucky" to do "easier" subjects and thus achieved better grades and so easily got scholarships for further education.

In my opinion, these are realities that need to be addressed by our education system as the level of difficulty of the courses students may have done in secondary school are often never considered for government scholarship allocation purpose.

In Fiji, parents and students often set their sights on getting a scholarship by any means, rather then considering national needs.

Students do not want any "road­-block subjects" to push them off course from their scholarship dreams. Career choices are thus relegated to a much lower point of contention.

For good national planning, we need to address this issue, to allow for equity and balance to subject selection and also ensure science students do not have to compete for scholarship allocation with the arts.

Recently, we have noted there were many scholarships available for medical courses but not enough qualified students to take up the scholarships.

It should thus be noted that undertaking a few science subjects may be adequate in many cases for many careers in science but the lack or absence of physics can also be detrimental to one's choices

On the good side, for those who detest the subject and think it is difficult, they should note that in some cases, physics is only required for the first year. Thus one neither needs to be a brilliant physicist, nor has to major in the subject.

We need to work extra hard to realign and finetune systems, methods and means to modernise Fiji's science educational needs to ensure we can continue to produce people for our own national, regional and global scientific needs in today's competitive world.

Our science graduates and experts need to be able to compete and always work towards excellence and meritocracy allowing Fiji to become a smarter and clever nation. There is no doubt, even if some students will not study science, it is an essential component for a smarter nation.

Through innovative thinking, planning, and strategic decisions, Fiji can definitely move decisively from its unacceptable, sad and deplorable situation in science education, to one that is the envy of the Pacific.

* Dr Sushil K Sharma BA MA MEng (RMIT) PhD (Melbourne) is a scientist and a World Meteorological Organisation accredited Class 1 professional meteorologist, and an associate professor of meteorology at the Fiji National University. The views expressed are his and not of FNU or this newspaper.

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