Worried by the growing global disinterest in science and engineering courses, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) recently announced $1 million investment for the production of a special publication to popularise science and engineering among young people and women. Part of the fund will also go into the staging of special events to encourage interest in the study of these courses.
Dr. Imteyay Khodabus of UNESCO Science Education Unit who disclosed this plan at the opening of the agency’s first Science and Engineering Fair at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), said the science publication will be known as “World Library of Science.” The publication, which will be for undergraduates in their first and second years of study, will contain 2500 to 3000 learning modules now freely available on the Internet.
This UNESCO intervention in science and engineering education is timely. It is coming at a time when it has become necessary to actively encourage young persons to study these courses, and make careers in them. The importance of science and engineering cannot be over-emphasized. The courses are critical to badly needed advances in medicine, industrial production and related fields. They were at the heart of the scientific and industrial revolutions in advanced countries. They also hold the key to the breakthroughs the world needs to further dominate the environment and ensure its sustainability. Specifically, they are needed to improve healthcare and boost industrial and food production for the world’s booming population.
Unfortunately, as UNESCO has observed, there is a global shift in interest from science to the arts and social sciences. While these are equally legitimate and rewarding fields of study, neglect of the sciences and engineering is detrimental to national development.
Luckily, the Nigerian government is already demonstrating its appreciation of the importance of science education with the 60:40 ratio in favour of science courses in university admissions. But, it is necessary for the country to go a step further by creating an environment in which science and engineering can thrive. For one, it is necessary that science and engineering departments of tertiary institutions are adequately staffed and equipped. Today, many of the science and engineering laboratories and workshops in our universities are grossly under-equipped. Recent studies indicated that many of them have only obsolete and outdated equipment that were installed at the inception of the institutions many decades ago.
Chemicals and other items needed for experiments are unavailable, leading to frustration of both the lecturers and their students, and the production of half-baked scientists and engineers. When these engineering and science students graduate, there are insufficient core science and engineering jobs awaiting them. This is largely due to the slowdown in research and manufacturing in the country. Science and engineering graduates, therefore, join the struggle for jobs in the banks and other companies that are unrelated to their fields of study. The few who get into the limited research institutes in the country soon get frustrated by their poor working environment. Disillusionment sets in as their dreams of becoming great scientists and engineers are lost in the rigours of daily living and the unprofessionally uninspiring environment.
It is clear, therefore, that it is necessary not only to encourage the study of these courses in Nigeria, the government must provide enabling environment for flourishing careers in the two fields. Corporate organisations should also actively promote science and technology, as they are doing for acting, music, literature and the other arts.
The UNICEF has done well to send out this wake up call with the staging of its first Science and Engineering Fair in Africa at UNN. We wish the organisation well in its plan for the World Library of Science and hope that the initiative will promote careers in science in Nigeria and other parts of the world.
Nigerian educational authorities must, however, strive to make the curricula of science and engineering courses relevant to our society. The teaching of science and engineering should be practical and tilted towards job creation. Graduates in the fields also need to be taught professional skills required in their industries.
Nigeria cannot afford a gap in the production of scientists and engineers. Societies that have made great leaps in engineering such as China and Russia have a large number of engineers. Many of the Nobel Prize winners are biochemists. We must, therefore, tailor our environment to harness the many benefits of science and engineering. Let us support UNESCO in the bid to popularise science and engineering education by making careers in the fields worthwhile in the country.