by Kenneth Muhumuza
I had a rare opportunity to visit my old high school while I was in Uganda last year. I wanted to not only visit my old teachers, but also talk to students about my research subject and passion for Earth science. During my conversation with students doing science subjects at A-level, I was surprised that no student knew the approximate age of the Earth or even what causes earthquakes, floods and global climate change. As I tried to explain all this to them I was a little bit upset thinking about the future of these scientists, who do not understand the basic science of their own planet.
Unfortunately, it is a well-established fact that in lower levels of education (primary and secondary), Earth science has not gained the same status as mathematics, chemistry or physics. Earth science is an integrated science, bringing together biology, chemistry, mathematics and physics as they apply to the workings of the Earth.
In many African countries, Earth science appears for the first time at the end of secondary school, if not at university only. In fact, an assessment made by UNESCO in 2009 found that only 128 universities in the whole of Africa had a department of Earth sciences. This raises the question of whether Earth science education has been forgotten in Africa.
This is not to say that every scientist is supposed to know Earth science in detail. However, it is important to acknowledge that any Earth-related environmental challenges facing our evolving world can only be addressed if young generations are equipped with necessary knowledge. This needs to start at an early age through education.
I believe now there is a critical need for students to understand how the Earth works and how humans interact with it. Global warming and climate change issues are perhaps the greatest threats facing the planet. In addition, many countries in the world, especially in Africa, are facing an energy crisis.
The knowledge of Earth sciences is thus vital to understand the impact of human activity on the Earth’s environment and to design methods to protect the planet. Understanding the Earth’s processes such as volcanoes, landslides, earthquakes and hurricanes can help to plan communities that will not expose people to these dangerous events. Earth sciences are also the key if we are to sustainably manage the Earth’s energy, water, mineral, soil and coastal resources. Empowering students with scientific knowledge and skills to make informed decisions as citizens of our common home is vital and a key responsibility for science educators and geoscientists.
The importance of ICTP’s role in educating and training Earth scientists from developing countries, especially in Africa, cannot be underestimated. I am proud to be part of the students in the Earth System Physics (ESP) pre-PhD Postgraduate Diploma Programme, where we study a wide spectrum of the Earth system, from its fluid components (oceans and the atmosphere) to the planet’s interior. Being taught by active researchers, I have come to understand deeply what I studied previously. I have also been inspired by these researchers, and have come up with infinite ideas of my own for pursuing a higher research degree in solid Earth geophysics. Institutes like ICTP are helping in training highly qualified African teachers and researchers that can promote Earth science teaching and research to address Earth science-related problems.
I am very passionate about promoting Earth- science research in developing countries. I would be happy to see African governments adapt their natural sciences curricula to give Earth sciences a status that reflects the importance that this discipline plays in the everyday life of African people. The applied, and often visual, nature of Earth science helps learners see the connections and relevance of science to their lives and their communities. Therefore, Earth science can serve as an introduction to the life and physical sciences or as a capstone course requiring students to apply their knowledge of these sciences.
I challenge all the stakeholders promoting science education and research in Africa to recognize the importance of teaching Earth science at levels of elementary school. It is critical that Earth-science education begin at primary school levels and include advanced offerings at the secondary school level, and that highly qualified Earth-science teachers provide the instruction. The basic knowledge of Earth science is essential to meeting the environmental challenges and natural resource limitations of the twenty-first century and therefore should not to be forgotten in Africa.