A science education that matters

Published online 20 November 2014

The aim of science education in the Middle East should be to develop a bold generation who are armed with skills to make a difference – who will build progressive communities and nations – and confidently take us into the 21st century.

Rana Dajani

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Recently I was giving a biology lecture to a freshman class at the university. I was, as always, engrossed in urging the students to think about and question everything, from the structures of plants to debating whether evolution contradicts religion. But is this determination worth it when I know that the education system works against me? 

The current state of science education focuses on rote memorization and regurgitation of facts.  This system has become obsolete because all known facts are at our fingertips through the internet and are changing all the time. Therefore science education should not be about teaching facts, but teaching how to deal with the ever changing facts.

We must change our education system to one that gives students the tools and skills needed for analysis and critical thinking so they can make use of the information accessible online, and employ it in the future when the science evolves. This will bring usefulness back to science education. These are the tools that will be of real benefit later on.

We should instill in our students the drive to become educated in science,  by teaching them the history, philosophy and ethics of science as well as scientific method. All this must be done from the perspective of our culture, religion and values and not necessarily from a Western outlook. This is paramount to preserve our identity in the face of globalization. Scientific thinking is an innate human quality we should build on and draw upon while teaching.

Religious leaders in the Arab world should call for an open-minded science education. Meanwhile, we should call for adopting the concept of global civics proposed by Hakan Altinay as a framework for science students to realize their role and responsibility on both an individual and a global scale.

As a result the methods of delivery of science education should change from teacher-centered to student-centered. The teacher should become a guide. Problem-based learning, service learning, drama and art should become the new tools for delivery. The skills of reading and writing must be emphasized and practiced. 

Methods of assessment must also change to gauge achievement not by number of facts learned but by ability to deal with new situations in a critical, logical way and the ability to express oneself clearly and coherently.

The teacher must remain central to the process throughout. They should provide the personal interaction necessary for humans to thrive. Teachers need training and appreciation, so we must be careful in substituting technology for humans in teaching. On the surface it may seem more convenient but in the long-run we will be missing out on the most important element that was key to our survival.

A particular situation in the Middle East is the demographic bulge that is leading to high youth unemployment. We must make sure that our education system equips our youth with the necessary entrepreneurial skills to create their own jobs and businesses. 

The core of the future of science education in the Middle East should be creating an environment conducive for free thinking. Such freedom starts at home with children given the opportunity and encouragement to question, challenge and to form their own opinion. This is further fostered in schools where teachers encourage students to ask and if an answer is not readily available, to be honest enough to say so without stifling the students.

Children learn to form their own opinion based on reasoning and deduction. Such a skill requires practice in the real world. That is what our children need and that is what is missing in the Arab world. Students at the university have never formed an independent opinion that reflects their original thinking.  

I teach evolution to adults at university. Evolution is a taboo topic, but my goal in this course is for the students to form their own opinion about evolution, not taking anyone’s opinion for granted – not their parents, religious scholars or teachers. 

After one course, my students later informed me that they feared that I was going to force them to take a stand against religion. They later realized that they were free to decide what they think. They were asked to write an essay expressing their opinion. Some were able to escape into the world of free thinking and some were not, but change takes time. We must not belittle any act of good however small, they all count. What is a drop in the ocean? And what is the ocean but a multitude of drops.

A few days after my freshman class, I got the answer to my question of whether this was worth it. I was visiting a friend at hospital when a young nurse who was my student five years ago recognized me. She said she never forgot how I explained enantiomers to the class by shaking hands all around the classroom as an example of the concept of mirror images of molecules and the specificity of proteins. I had never seen her since that class, but I had made a difference. It was worth it. 

Rana Dajani is a researcher at the Department of Biology and Biotechnology of the Hashemite University, Zarqa, Jordan.