Robotics success and the national curriculum

At the beginning of last week, amidst a surfeit of depressing developments at home, not least the  attempted bank robbery and the spectacular Georgetown Prison fire and ensuing jailbreak, came news that that the Guyana team competing in an international robotics Olympiad in Washington had placed 10th overall, out of 165 participating teams.

Setting aside the temporary respite in the flow of bad news, the significance of Team Guyana’s performance in Washington reposed in the fact that what was felt to be a local outfit altogether unprepared for an assignment of that magnitude, performed beyond our – and perhaps even their own – wildest expectations. It proves, as has been the case in numerous other instances, that Guyana has a knack for enduring and coming through in various situations against all sorts of seemingly insurmountable odds, a propensity that is accounted for in the sheer resilience of our people.

A measure of perspective is necessary at this juncture if Team Guyana’s fortunes in Washington are to be put into proper context. The majority of the current engineering students from several of the countries that participated in the robotics tournament are likely to have had some exposure to robotics during their primary/secondary education. We are told that some of the teams that competed in Washington – Team Ireland is reportedly one example – comprised, in large measure, children who had been exposed to robotics from as early as the Fourth Grade. Many of the participating teams had also benefited from further years of progressively more challenging robotics assignments in preparation for events like the Washington Olympiad.

By comparison, many members of the Guyana team had been exposed to robotics for less than a year and some for as little as four months. This is a not particularly surprising circumstance when account is taken of the fact that, over the years, successive governments have not made anything even remotely resembling an energetic effort to extricate our education system from the prison of a teaching/learning environment that has no discernable interest in infusing a generous measure of scientific/technological bias into the  curriculum. This deficiency puts into perspective the remark made by Team Guyana’s Chef de Mission, Atlanta-based Guyanese Karen Abrams, that our performance in Washington was “nothing short of a miracle.” She did make the point, however, that Team Guyana’s fortunes illustrate what is possible once we can cultivate the requisite official vision and attendant national mindset.

Incidentally, Ms Abrams is one of those indefatigable Guyanese who, though domiciled abroad continues to demonstrate a passion for ‘giving back’ to Guyana. In her work with the local robotics team – which this newspaper has followed closely – she has demonstrated a capacity to offer focused and inspirational leadership and to instil self-belief. Team Guyana’s accomplishment in Washington was due in considerable measure to her efforts. Guyana owes her a debt of gratitude.

In the summer of 2016 Ms Abrams had arrived in Guyana to offer local children workshops in robotics under an initiative that had secured the support of First Lady Sandra Granger. Her stint of what she describes as “national service” also included the unveiling of a software application that targeted improving the performance of children in the National Grade Six Mathematics examination. Arguably, her most important accomplishment has been the fact that she has been able to generate both public and private sector interest in the aggressive promotion of disciplines for which our youngsters have not, up until now, demonstrated any great appetite.

The STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) concept which she has introduced to local children through her workshops targets the revolutionizing of the disciplines identified in the acronym, incorporating technology and engineering into the  school curriculum, seeking to reduce the traditional teacher-oriented classroom approach ‒ an approach to which education delivery has remained anchored from time immemorial ‒ to what one might call a new regime of problem-solving, discovery and exploratory learning. It is an approach that requires students to immerse themselves in understanding the nature of problems in order to equip them to engage in creative problem-solving rather than remain rooted in randomness. Needless to say, we will need to undertake a major teacher-retraining exercise as part of the reform process.

Purely accidentally, or at least so it would seem, the popularization of the STEM concept as a vehicle for the realization of an enhanced and, more importantly, relevant (to the country’s developmental needs) teaching/learning culture, would appear to coincide in some respects with the disclosure by government of plans to create a Department of Innovation and Education Reform within the Ministry of the Presidency. What now appears to have been a decision to balkanize the Ministry of Education, temporarily, we are told, amounts to an open official confession that accelerating the significant qualitative enhancement of our education system is beyond the capability of the substantive ministry given its present state of technical under-preparedness. What we must hope is that what has been proffered as a limited-term initiative does not metamorphose into a permanent and dysfunctional disfigurement of the administration of the country’s education system.

Presumably, one of the manifestations of the “innovation and reform” pursuits of the new department (it is, incidentally, highly desirable that at some early stage the country as a whole is properly briefed on the new department’s specific agenda) will be some sort of structured effort to infuse a stronger STEM component into the national curriculum. In this regard it need hardly be said that what we accomplished in Washington recently, coupled of course with the dictates of the country’s developmental direction, points to the need for a quantum shift in state policy as much as in the allocation of state resources, towards an education system that embraces a much stronger STEM component.

Making our more than modest accomplishment in Washington and the commitment of a Guyanese woman to the effort count, will depend on whether government is prepared to allow its decisions on the direction of the education system, going forward, to be preceded by measured and adequate consultation. Over time, government, in its decision-making pursuits, has been inclined, far too frequently, to take critical decisions without the benefit of really meaningful public consultation. We cannot afford to pay the price of such an omission when it comes to the education system and its importance to Guyana’s future. That is a consideration which the present administration cannot and must not overlook.

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