One of the most unfortunate debates in our universities and the entire education sector has to do with the place of sciences and the arts in the curriculum.
The political class has also weighed in and made unsavory remarks on some disciplines. They have, for instance, argued that disciplines such as Christian Religious Education, history and anthropology should be scrapped.
These arguments show a lack of understanding of the nature of knowledge. This school of thought is now driving policy for the prioritisation of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in the curriculum.
These subjects are viewed as the magic bullet for our economic emancipation.
The proponents of this view do not acknowledge the fact that global economic realities and some of our policies have negatively affected job creation in STEM areas.
Our economy is not creating enough jobs in these areas. In fact, we seem to have exported many jobs to China.
Tracer studies continue to show that many of our science and engineering graduates are technically jobless or underemployed.
It is foolhardy to fall for fads and clichés about the importance of science and technology without enriching STEM to serve us better.
PERFORMING BELOW PAR
Interestingly, those who studied STEM subjects often see themselves as a special breed of scholars. This attitude does not help us evolve an inclusive approach, especially in multi-disciplinary research.
I agree that it is necessary to advocate for increased enrolment into STEM disciplines in order to produce graduates with skills necessary for the 21st Century.
However, we should not only focus on acquisition of skills and their application in the workplace.
We operate in an era where a multiplicity of skills are required. We need to produce graduates with the ability to visualise the practical nature of skills in a social context.
The bottom line is that STEM graduates have to apply their skills in a social and cultural context.
It is frustrating to hear those in STEM say, “we are scientists and do not have proclivity for creative works or social and cultural issues”.
Failure to appreciate the fact that we all need to acquire both technical and social skills is shocking.
It does not surprise me when all our modelling over Covid-19 have given suspicious projections.
I think the prioritisation of STEM is important, but we should not ignore the big questions of our time.
Why is it that we have very few patents registered from Kenya, and more so from our universities? How can we reclaim the STEM jobs we exported to China and other countries?
Why is our contribution to production of new knowledge in STEM areas abysmal?
How can we bring Kenya to the high table of global technological advancement and innovation? Why are we importing simple things that could manufactured here?
This reminds me of a nasty encounter with a drunkard a few weeks ago. The man, visibly tipsy, recognised me on the streets of Kakamega Town and started asking me questions.
"Why is your university not manufacturing anything yet it is a university of science and technology?”
He did not let me answer before shooting again. This time he raised his voice: “Professor, tell me why you cannot even come up with a condom that can burst?”
I was in for a hard time, but I think he made his point. We should come up with innovations that respond to societal needs. This is why arts and social sciences become important.
However, the arguments from those in the arts and social sciences do not help build the necessary bridge between disciplines.
They boast of producing thinkers in a multiplicity of disciplines. They say they produce competent teachers, lawyers, economists, accountants, artists, and journalists, among others.
They cling to their methods of research like the gospel truth and do not want to see how STEM concepts can enrich their graduates and vice-versa.
These two positions are counterproductive. The new thinking, which I subscribe to, is for us to shift from STEM to Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM).
We need to streamline science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics into the curriculum. The inclusion of arts will bring into training of STEM a key ingredient in producing a workforce for the 21st Century.
Arts, in this case, represents, humanities, language, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media.
STEAM puts emphasis on investigating concepts through inquiry and problem-based learning methods. This concept is not new, but it is alien to many Kenyans. Many countries have realised its importance.
STEAM is now more of a global movement. It affords learners the opportunity learn science creatively.
It fuses discovery with art and challenges the common thinking that learning areas are separate. It, therefore, changes the way we perceive STEM problems and presents a fresh way of thinking.
Indeed, arts broaden the mind and engage learners on issues of morality, values responsibility and human management. This shift is important if we have to produce broad-minded graduates.
Prof Kabaji is a researcher based at Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology and President of the Creative Writers Association of Kenya. [email protected]