There are now several initiatives aimed at increasing the enrolment of students into science, both in secondary schools, universities, and other tertiary and vocational education institutions. It is important to point out that the gender imbalance in the science subsector is very visible in schools, starting in A-level, where subjects are all elective. It should be noted that since 2004, the government of Uganda made core science subjects compulsory in O-level. These subjects include Physics, Chemistry, and Biology. Before this, only Mathematics and English was compulsory. It is now 16 years since that science-centric policy change, but little has been changed. The demand for science graduates continues to grow with the economy, yet the failure rate amongst science subjects continues unhindered, with worse subject being biology. 

The number of girls in A-level studying science subjects is very low, most choosing to do Literature in English, History, Entrepreneurship and CRE. Despite this small number of students doing sciences, a much smaller number actually manage to pass with two principal passes -a requirement for degree courses. For many, they only get just one principal pass, enough to enrol only for Diploma programmes.

Meanwhile, the president continues to advocate for science and the need to pay scientists more than their art/humanities colleagues. This has been largely controversial in schools, where teachers have the same workload and qualification.

In order to persuade and interest students to the science domain, there are many initiatives and programmes aimed at achieving this. Overall, the focus has turned into STEM and other similar catch-words like STEAM and STREAM. But what do they actually mean?

STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics

The basis of this is putting emphasis on core sciences such as chemistry, mathematics, physics, biology and computer science (ICT). The STEM advocates believe the old science professions is the way to way since they have stood the test of time and are highly paying. This includes professions such as Medicine, Physicists, Chemists, Science teachers, Computer scientists/IT specialists and Engineering (civil, mechanical, petroleum, computer, telecom). In Uganda, most schools and activists have taken this approach.

STEAM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics.

This approach includes the Arts into the STEM. Because of the emergence of digital arts in the early 1990s, many people believe that it is okay to have an artist who is a programmer. Computer programming tools such as Scratchjr.org and Processing.org attest to this shift in thinking – the emergence of “artistic scientists.” The new careers for digital artists include multimedia (audio) engineers, usability experience (UX) designers, User Interface (UI) designers,  Visualization, Digital Analytics, VR etc. 

STREAM – Science, Technology, Reading, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics.

The first type of STREAM approach adds the “Reading” into the STEAM. So, the new things here are “reading” and “art”. Few schools in Uganda have taken this approach since the mainstream STEM approach is focused on enabling learners “do” things in order to learn. In other words, “you learn by doing” kind of approach.

In my view, I believe the reading part is good as well. This is because you have to understand the foundation of what you are doing. That way, you will be able to do it right and also explain what you are doing.

STREAM – Science, Technology, Religion, Engineering, Art and Mathematics

This is a bit controversial and many organizations and activists have stayed away from it. The “R” in STREAM stands for “Religion”. And because religion is a personal decision and deeply divisive (due to many religions), this version of STEM has not been quite popular. But some schools, especially the church founded schools and organizations have not been shy in promoting it. Students attend the same classes or subjects and should be solely focused on academic achievement. My view is that it is better to leave religion to religious leaders, and not introduce it in class. Let the students focus on academic (intellectual and skills) achievement in class.

Summary and Way Forward

The STEM movement in Uganda has largely focused on secondary school sub-sector, yet it must encompass the vocational sub-sector. There is a need to have more organizations and activists embrace vocational education as part of the STEM movement. Especially, the need to have more girls enrolled in vocational institutions after primary schools, O-level or A-level. We need more girls and women who are drivers, brick masons, painters, mechanics, welders, electricians, and carpenters. This mainly go through the vocational career path. Similarly, even for those who follow the secondary education path, we need more girls to pursue STEM careers – especially the neutral programmes that admit both arts and science students.

I believe that both arts and science careers are good. That being said, the complicated job situation and the very high unemployment rates amongst the arts/humanities graduates makes it safer to pursue a science career. The small number of students in science classes at A-level also means that the number of graduates (both degree and diploma) is much small compared to the arts/humanities. In my view, the bottom line is that – the smaller the number in the class, the easier it will be to find a job and vice versa. For graduates in the arts/humanities sector, you can still get a job or employment, but you really have to be very creative and flexible. At the end of the day, we all need something to do after school, only then will we keep regrets away and make our parents proud. My personal view is that the school can choose whatever it wants, but for students, I think STREAM (R for reading) is better. What do you think?