In Cameroon, where I am from, and across Africa’s 54 countries, rates of illiteracy are high – particularly among those living in remote areas. Not surprisingly, skills for critical thinking and problem solving are low. But even highly-educated urban dwellers often act and think quite irrationally and still hold superstitious beliefs. In my experience, only a few aspects of today’s modern and global world appear to be of any interest for the majority of citizens – who are change averse.  Because many do not understand how these beliefs hold us all back, our economic and social development is still designed and implemented by international aid agencies and NGOs.

And yet, MINDS and BRAINS are Africa’s biggest resource.  Certainly, there are still many challenges in ensuring that all learners have access to basic education. But we also need to move beyond our focus on basic education to encourage more learners to participate in secondary school and university, and most importantly, to participate in STEM.  Indeed, we have ignored the science, technology, engineering and mathematics learning at all levels of education at a high cost.

For fifty years, Africa has focused on training a core group of youth in the fields of administration, law and humanities. That was great at the beginning since governments had the duty to promote the growth of new leaders in African states to fill the void left by the colonizers. But we need to renew education for our times – and that means raising expectations regarding STEM learning.

I would argue that higher-level STEM skills are important for ALL learners in Africa. Africa’s long-term development challenges include the need to improve agriculture, AIDS, malaria and other health challenges – as well as to promote economic development.  People are more likely to adopt new practices when they know why it is important to do so (for example to improve the productivity of a family farm or to protect family health).  If people are to move beyond old superstitions, they need to understand what is going on around them in the natural world.

To achieve all this, we are going to need to improve the quality of STEM teaching.  A first important step has been the United Nation’s “Global Education First Initiative”, which was launched in September 2012 to raise the political profile of education, to ensure access and improve the quality of learning.  There is also vital need to integrate technology into classrooms.  STEM teaching will also need to be much more relevant to learner’s and communities’ needs if it is to have a real impact on social and economic development.

In Cameroon, we have launched a public awareness campaign to raise the image of STEM subjects and careers and CHANGE the impression of these subjects as being difficult and “out of reach” for most people.  The best time to start STEM education is when learners are very young.  We need to pique their interest and curiosity.  And the best way to do that is by teaching them how to use STEM skills to solve problems, rather than forcing them to learn to calculate (which computers can do for us). Although not all learners will be interested in so-called STEM jobs early in their careers, they still need a strong foundation in these subjects.  They will be better prepared to take on jobs or enter any profession they embrace in the future.

Special efforts should also be made to ensure that girls succeed in STEM.  OECD and World Bank data show that there are real social and economic benefits in countries where more girls have higher levels of education. Of course we want more women in STEM careers, but women and girls with STEM backgrounds can also best contribute to the well-being of their families and communities. In my experience, women trained in STEM are eager to invest more in their children’s education and health because science learning nurtures a critical mind.  These women do not hold on to old superstitions.  On they contrary, they are real problem solvers.  

If Africans are to solve problems and to lead social and economic development in their own countries – rather than leaving it to international aid agencies – all African learners will need higher-level STEM skills.

Published in collaboration with WISEPublication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Dr. Florence Tobo Lobe  is the President of Rubisadt Foundation.

Image: Children read during a studies lesson inside a classroom. REUTERS/Feisal Omar.