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12/8/16 - "Addressing Existentialist ‘Crisis of Interest’ in School Science Through Culturally Responsive African Stem Science Curriculum" by Ladislaus Semali, Ph.D.

Addressing Existentialist ‘Crisis of Interest’ in School Science Through Culturally Responsive African Stem Science Curriculum


Ladislaus Semali, Ph.D., received an ARC research grant in Fall 2015 for his project entitled "Using the Notion of Informal Science to Develop Positive Conceptions of Science with Future Secondary Teachers".


What is the existentialist crisis of ‘Interest’ in School Science?  The present study examines the challenges many teacher education colleges and universities in Africa face by failure to rekindle interest in science content with future teachers who often express a lifetime of negative associations with school science. This report presents the findings in three papers of a study of science teachers in Tanzania that addresses: (1) crisis of interest in school science; (2) Integration of cultural knowledge in STEM classes and (3) a Framework of culturally responsive African STEM science curriculum. This article discusses the first part on the crisis of interest.

The study involved science teachers in a participatory action research project to investigate the fear of STEM science as a field of study for African students. For example, the study of physics, chemistry, and biology (PCB) by African students is fraught with many challenges, failure and fear of science as “hard subjects” (Semali & Mehta, 2012). This fear has origins from a long standing myth that science is a hard subject; and so when choosing an area of study, students, particularly women should avoid STEM subjects all together. This myth is entrenched among students, teachers, and parents and it is, in part, the basis of the existentialist ‘crisis of interest’ in science education, where prospective teachers often enter teacher education programs with negative views of their ability in science.

Purpose of the study

First, the study was designed to involve science teachers to examine African historical reports and the history of science from which science teachers could discover the basis of the fear of science.  The goal was to scrutinize the linkages between students’ experiences in Indigenous communities, garnered from their localized knowledge, natural environments and real-life experiences, as juxtaposed with students’ dispositions toward school science education as taught in African classrooms. This participatory study pushed teachers to search for the basis of the fear of science among their students. The concept of indigenous innovations and its relationship to learning STEM education in the science subject’s content that teachers teach in Tanzania’s secondary schools were examined in focus group interviews to determine the locus of control in STEM education. Teachers examined textbooks, classroom teaching practices and teachers’ beliefs about teaching and learning of physics, chemistry and biology. The overall goal was to confront the existing fear of STEM science as a field of study for African students. See Figure 1.

Second, the study aimed to observe teachers in science classrooms and model for them ways in which to integrate and teach culturally responsive science subjects. The goal was to evaluate the methods used to teach science practicals embedded in the iSPACES model of integrating STEM curriculum with Indigenous innovations. This model of locally developed practicals that aspires to solve community problems stands for Innovation, Science, Practicals, Application, Conceptualization, Entrepreneurship, and Systems. This model of teaching science emphasizes the teaching of practical skills to develop scientific expertise, and employs a pedagogy that involves participatory teaching and learning techniques that value innovation, and critical exploration with an entrepreneurial focus.

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Figure 1: Engaging students in practical science

Theoretical Perspectives

This study was informed by the debates on the nature of science and science learning as reflected in the body of literature that analyzes the tensions between disparate perspectives on science education (Aikenhead, 1999; Boyce, Mishra, Halverson, & Thomas, 2004). The emphasis of this practical curriculum focus exploited the “wow-effect” in science teacher education (Kamstrupp, 2016). The wow-effect and the quest to solve problems are a phenomenon in science teacher education enacted in a particular way of teaching that “wows” students by stimulating their imagination to find explanations for why things are or behave in certain ways. In part, it is a recognition that we become bored or lose interest in our postmodern, consumerist Western-dominated world and that fear and boredom are related to this existence and hidden within it (Mansikka, 2009).

Proponents of this wow-effect rationale believe that informal environments provide students with unique experiences that allow them to actively participate in activities while promoting a positive attitude and increased interest in science (Boyce, et al., 2004). One way to enhance interest is through informal science experiences immersed in teaching through integration (e.g., of mobile technologies or immersing students in the natural environment).  The specifics of this holistic methodology for teaching science require discussion of restructuring existing science curricula and rethinking the pedagogy of physics, chemistry and biology (PCB) to overcome students’ cognitive conflicts between everyday life and academic science (See, Semali, Owiny & Hristova, 2016; Semali, 2013).

Therefore, science educators must recognize that students’ interactions and experiences with the natural world shape their ideas in significant ways. Often science teachers exacerbate the situation by viewing each student as tabula rasa to fill with principles and theories or they presume perfect prior knowledge with which to build more-complex concepts upon. The possibility of students’ intuitive ideas about natural phenomena is rarely acknowledged. In turn, teachers must realize that children “don’t just passively receive information,” but instead “operate on it and transform it,” based on global and personal experiences (Baker & Piburn, 1997, p. 31). In this instance, the integration of informal knowledge from the natural world of students is particularly useful in engaging underrepresented students in learning science and dispelling the myth that science is a “hard” subject.

As an interdisciplinary approach, the iSPACES model was introduced in some schools as an alternative way of teaching science that was informed by a variety of theoretical and epistemological perspectives represented in the acronym that bare the label of the disciplines of Engineering, Education, and the Sciences. However, the overarching concept is framed on the basis that every indigenous culture has an orientation to learning that is metaphorically represented in its art forms, its way of life consistent with the community, its language, and its way of understanding itself in relation to its natural environment.

The ultimate goal of this project is to prove whether the claims can stand: (1) “that using traditional knowledge in science lessons, activities, and class projects gives added depth, interest, and meaning to difficult concepts, and builds communication and respect with the community; and (2) whether science taught in conjunction with local traditional knowledge brings not only a sense of place, but also helps to make science less foreign to students. There is a tacit recognition or assumption that there is a mismatch between cultural perspectives that results in many young Africans and other Indigenous students becoming alienated from science. iSPACES attempts to bridge this gap by honing on integrating indigenous innovations, traditional values, teaching principles, and concepts of nature with those of modern school science.

Methods, techniques, or modes of inquiry

The PAR process of building a culturally responsive science curriculum in iSPACES focused on improving the quality of teaching by means of a self-reflecting process to explore and solve problems (Whyte, 1991). The arguments supporting PAR are many, and include the notion that educational policies and practices based on research with intended beneficiaries of school science are more likely to meet the interests and needs of students and teachers, and that those educational reforms or interventions based on cultural knowledge and experience are more likely to be relevant, “home grown” and therefore sustainable (Kothari, 2004). Teachers explored these innovative ways with open minds through an informal environmental science experiment that aimed to engage African ninth-grade students in an informal learning environment supplemented with cameras. The basic structure of PAR followed in this study was an ever increasing spiral process of planning, acting, observing, reflecting, developing theory and re-planning model of engaging participants in a project-based research cycle of diagnose, prescribe, implement, and evaluate was applied to this project to enable teachers to stay focused (McTaggart, 1997, p. 34; Stoecker, 2005).

Data sources, evidence, objects, or materials

Data gathering was operationalized in several formats including a survey questionnaire, interviews, classroom observations, and focus group discussions. Documentation of minutes of systematic face-to-face meetings of science teachers were collected and included in the field data as part of the overall data matrix. Meetings and focus group interviews were conducted in English and the notes were circulated back to the groups for verification. Basic interviewing techniques were used to facilitate mutual participation and reflection. The themes of the questions were: (1) how do science teachers engage students, staff, and administrators to value culturally responsive STEM curriculum? (2) How can science teachers achieve the goal of designing, teaching, and practice a culturally responsive African STEM science curriculum? (3) What is the place of local or Indigenous innovations in such curriculum?

Results and Conclusions

This study generated lots of discussions and field notes, observation data and interview data. Preliminary results summarize impressions and teachers’ understanding of culturally responsive STEM curriculum. Partial analysis of the massive data paint a grim picture of science education which is desperately in need of reform. Teachers recognized that science continues to be taught using traditional ways of “chalk and talk. See Figure 2.

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 Figure 2: Rote learning, chalk and talk is the main method of delivery of content

The rigid science curriculum syllabi are nationally distributed. The examples, methods, and practicals contained in these syllabi prompted instructors to transmit content according to a prescribed timetable and guided by pedagogy of “teaching to the test” through rote or memorization-based instead of developing practical skills. Few teachers find time to venture outside the classroom to explore the natural environment. Large classes made it difficult for students to perform experiments. Classroom observations confirmed that most of the students learned through rote and teaching and learning were pursued theoretically without doing practicals. See Figure 3.

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Figure 3: Science classroom

Motivation to pursue science teaching as a career was low. The perception was that those who taught science subjects were not compensated fairly relative to the effort and time they put into preparing for science classes, experiments and labs.

The research facilitators in this study strived to bring out the best insights from all participants, however this was not without challenges. Constantly, there was the tension between human agency and scientific determinism. The principles of PAR such as mutual collaboration, reciprocal respect, co-learning and acting on results from the inquiry are essential in student-faculty and faculty-administration relationships. Self-awareness, the ability to self-critique and reflect in a deep manner are gears essential for the development of a science program where the stakes are high.

Findings showed that what is critical in physics education, for example, is that the nature of commonsense knowledge, which is the initial patrimony of learners, is quite different from scientific knowledge: it is context-dependent, focusing on contradictions, rooted in personal experience and therefore resistant to change; and generally expressed in natural language. For example, students were not challenged to explore physics of mechanical innovations in the local community. See Figure 4.

Teachers observed in focus groups that some common learning obstacles encountered by learners when studying physics are related to naïve ideas and reasoning patterns coming from common-sense knowledge and conflicting with disciplinary knowledge. As a simple example, we may quote the difficulties created by the different meaning that some terms such as force, energy, temperature heat, field, ray, wave, etc., have in everyday language with respect to their definitions and formulas in physics. However, commonsense knowledge should not be considered as something negative and undesirable. In fact, it directly derives from the daily interaction with the natural environment and is appropriate and even necessary for everyday life.

Through focus group meetings, teachers produced principles to guide a culturally responsive African STEM science curriculum that outlined (a) the characteristics; (b) the strengths and (c) the challenges. It summarized teachers’ understanding of the crisis of interest and the principles to be used to address the crisis.

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Figure 4: Local women in the village demonstrate how they extract juices from sugar cane using local technologies and indigenous ingenuity.

Scientific or scholarly significance of the study

This study is work in progress and it seems there is much to be learned from this study when the analysis of the data is completed. Even though the use of PAR does not provide a silver bullet to educational reform, we learned that consensus was high among participating teachers. First, we concur with Leu and Price-Rom (2006) that a good basic education is the result of the interaction of multiple actors—administrators, students, community and teachers. It is essential that the teachers become sufficiently knowledgeable about the subject matter of STEM subjects and successfully having completed a minimum of secondary education or bachelor’s degree to be able to implement effective pedagogical methods that value local knowledge systems and best practices in teaching (Rogan & Grayson, 2003).

Second, the issues of power and its analysis in science reform particularly in understanding the everyday nature of social control are critical and as it was shown, these issues came to a head early on in this study. So, although participatory approaches to curriculum development attempt to reveal subjugated knowledges, those that have been hitherto disqualified as insufficient or insignificant, there remains in the practice of participation forms of control and dominance that are not simply articulated in the direct and immediate relationship between participant and observer but also historically constructed through all sorts of social practices, customs, and rituals.