Spurt in science festivals

Hassnain Qasim Bokhari

A spring of science festivals recently swept through Pakistan, allowing the curiosity and creativity of hundreds of children to blossom. These festivals are setting a much-needed trend to spark scientific interests and also to farm the creative intellect of thousands of students studying in both private and public schools across the country. Students, along with their teachers, are given an opportunity to break free from the monotonous routine of the classroom environment and showcase their understanding and passion for the discipline of nature.

It’s no secret that science and mathematics have been behind the golden era of different civilisations throughout history. Be it Greek, Roman, Muslim or the Renaissance, societies had been able to flourish because of science and mathematics. These two subjects not only empowered citizens but also gave way to social and economic progression in nations.

With the ever-changing technology and global economy, the scope of science is evolving continuously. It serves as main tool for sustainability in the current technology driven era. Science festivals and competitions serve as important events to popularise and democratise science, through the involvement of schools, teachers, and government and non-government organisations. It provides all the stakeholders room to become more knowledgeable about science and the current deficiencies in our education system. This type of literacy is necessary to make educated decisions.

Previously, the only examples of such a massive gatherings with the objective of promoting scientific and transformative learning among students, were the Magnifi-Science organised by the Dawood Foundation in Karachi and later, the Lahore Science Mela, organized by Khwarizmi Science Society. Moreover, students looked towards international competitions in order to test their knowledge, learn from the global community and attain a direction for their future ventures.

However, over the past 6 months alone, a wave of science festivals has swept across all 4 provinces of Pakistan, with the help of Alif Ailaan and local government and non-government local departments and organisations. This has brought forward the hitherto hidden talent of thousands of students by creating an opportunity missing earlier.

Science festivals and science competitions are providing students an enabling environment to pursue high-quality learning and are also serving as an example for the education departments and policy makers to identify new teaching methods and tools in order to enhance the quality of maths and science curriculum and learning in schools. They are a new form of science communication and popularisation which are making up the educational gaps left by limited classroom driven knowledge.

Our current academic system, which is filled to the brim with assignments and tests, devised to test the memory, rather than the actual knowledge of students, leaves a minute space for students to indulge in inquiry-based learning and perform projects pertinent to the ideals of discovery and curiosity. Inquiry based-learning is a form of hands-on learning, which is the foundation for science education.

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In our classrooms, science and mathematics have become a “call and response” activity, something similar to Pavlov’s experiment, in which students repeat the answers in the form of rhythmical lyrics whenever a teacher asks a certain question. More time is spent on getting the rhythm right than teaching the students the meaning of phenomenon and equations. Memorising scientific phenomenon and scientific equation without learning the meaning behind them is like taking an event from a novel and not being aware of the plot behind it i.e. the lack of knowledge makes most important of instances, meaningless. Although memorisation techniques help keep information in the head, this deliberate effort has temporary efficacy and sidesteps conceptual learning. Move into a 5th grade classroom and ask the students about the table of 6 and they will instantly chant in unison with alluring proficiency, eluding logic. They would have said 6 times 6 is 40 had they been made to memorise that.

Contrary to the conventional classroom education, when students take up a project for a science festival or a competition, it provides them a chance to experience the same research protocols, which professionals go through, to conceive and implement an idea. During this learning experience, students design their own ideas and projects. Intensive brainstorming sessions for problem identification and solution development not only allows them to research and innovate, but also teaches them time management and team work. This experience of inquiry-based learning on which one may spend a week or two helps the students to develop an appetite and gain knowledge about their field of interest and gain a deep understanding of what otherwise they might not have known anything about.

On the days of the festival and competition, these projects represent the intrinsic capabilities of students, which the current classroom education systems fails to identify. These projects are a result of a scientific method which, generally and unfortunately, is taught at a much latter stage.

While few of the private schools do pay attention to such activities, students studying in government schools or low-fee private schools do not normally receive an opportunity to participate in science fairs or science festivals. For a large amount of time, science festivals or competitions, have been considered a “supplementary” part of the education system. They have not been given due attention, mostly because of the notion that they take away a significant amount of time from the typical academic schedule to prepare students ‘adequately’ for the ‘board’ exams and do not transform into adequate learning. To the contrary, science festivals prove to be a much better platform for learning and development. They aren’t appetisers, they are a part of the main course.

Moreover, parallel to science festivals, students and institutions should be encouraged, through an interest developed on part of the government, to set up programmes that facilitate the participation of local talent in international competitions. These science competitions not only help the participating individuals in skill development but also influence the popularisation of science in their own country.

Last year, I was a part of Pakistan’s team iGEMPeshawar for the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition (iGEM). The profound effect of our participation in popularising the field of synthetic biology was quite evident. Not only did more students develop an interest in synthetic biology, but there was also a surge in interest was evidenced from both private and public stakeholders. Teams are already raring to participate in the next event.

Ensuring the continuation of such platforms and provision of opportunities to students will make science and math learning fun for them. Instead of pushing students into these fields, they can be pulled by them owing to the sheer strength of love for knowledge. The creative energy spent by public/private stakeholders and the students themselves, has the ability to translate into technological and economic growth for the country along with expanding the knowledge pool.

Hassnain Qasim Bokhari is a biology graduate and is a Science Communicator. His interests include the public understanding of scientific research and its impact on public policy. He blogs on science and poetry at operaofscience.wordpress.com and tweets @QasimHassnain.

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