One of the most vexing challenges in education in Pakistan is the excessive emphasis on and linkage to market outcomes – jobs, degrees, and grades. As a nation, we have become accustomed to the idea of pursuing education for the sake of finding a job rather than the pure joy of learning itself. Our society (and subsequently parents) imposes demands on young learners almost right from the day they step foot in schools—to ace the tests and strive for grades so that the economic return of education can be assured.
The pressure to conform not just in the classroom but outside it particularly in the choice of professions is tremendous. Sometimes it comes at the expense of learning itself. Young ones are encouraged to become doctors and engineers or do an MBA or CA or attempt the CSS (more recently entrepreneurship has been added to this list) but they are often discouraged from becoming scientists, astronomers, archaeologists, and innovators or even writers, philosophers, and historians. The latter are considered unworthy for a lack of ‘market opportunities’. It appears not to matter that these fields are essential for human progress.
The pressure to conform not just in the classroom but outside it particularly in the choice of professions is tremendous
Passion and learning play little or no role in the career choices of the vast majority of our youth. Passion is something to be tamed rather than encouraged. Unfortunately, our education system is great at producing millions of conformists who tend to seek mediocrity rather than a large enough number of those who aspire to excellence.
A case in point is Prof. Abdus Salam, the country’s only Nobel Laureate in the Sciences. Salam’s own brilliance, while quite evident in his early school years, was refined by his alma maters at Imperial College and Cambridge University and not at an institution in Pakistan. He did his most meaningful work there. While Salam made significant contributions to Science in Pakistan, we failed to fully capitalise on his genius. Others, however, did. For society’s ambivalence and neglect of Science, there has not been another Salam since Abdus Salam.
There are many causes and symptoms for this malaise, but there is little doubt this must change if Pakistan has to achieve its goals and aspirations of becoming a developed country some day, a creator rather than a mere user of new scientific knowledge, technology and innovation. And the quest to bring about such a change must begin from school where young minds are inspired and molded with the excitement and wonder of Science.
Passion and learning play little or no role in the career choices of the vast majority of our youth. Passion is something to be tamed rather than encouraged
Bringing about a radical transformation at the systemic level is a massive undertaking. However, we launched a small effort to move in the right direction and demonstrate what could be achieved, hoping others will follow suit. We created Pakistan’s School of Scientists, Innovators, Nerds, and Geeks!
The National STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) School was organised by the Pakistan Innovation Foundation, an organisation I, and 19 others, have founded and hosted at the PhysLab at LUMS from December 27, 2016 to January 5, 2017. This residential school brought together 36 of the best and brightest 13 to 17 year olds who we could find for a 10-day residential programme aimed at creating an experiential and hands-on learning process. One of the other reasons some of our brightest do not take up Science is because our schools teach it in a least imaginative and inspiring manner possible. This, however, does not have to be the case.
Through a carefully handpicked faculty from LUMS, Habib University, CECOS University, NUST, Zeds Astronomical Observatory, and Khwarizmi Science Society, the STEM School created an experience that enabled students to ‘learn science by making/doing things’. This made all the difference since they can now actually appreciate what scientists really do and how they do it. The students observed the Sun and far away planets and stars, isolated their own DNA, designed landing a mechanism for a mission to Mars, wrote the code for a preliminary search engine or an artificially intelligent chatbot.
Many interesting things happened. Young learners began to appreciate the beauty and excitement of various disciplines—even those they did not want to pursue—and how they all come together to contribute to solve problems and improve the human condition. Future doctors learnt why Computer Science may be a skill they must consider exploring and future computer scientists realised they must understand Biology to do wonderful and amazing things in the future. A number of participants explored areas they were inherently uncomfortable with and thus extended their capabilities and capacities.
We also began each day with a session on reflections, talking to the future scientists about history, philosophy, ethics, and life. We talked about everything from the nature of scientific knowledge to ethical implications of the rise of Artificial Intelligence and from evolutionary biology to how to reconcile modern science with our faith.
Another important element of the programme was a series of guest talks with scientists, engineers, and innovators as well as science communicators who spoke to the young learners about the important and the exciting developments in their fields and what they do to make a difference. This kind of exposure is usually missing in the learning journeys of young pupils who end up making career choices based on a very limited sample of people they know: this is usually their parents, close relatives, or somebody they may have accidentally come across. Students found these exchanges with astronomers, environmentalists, oncologists, computer scientists, and innovators particularly enriching and useful.
Many of them later remarked that while they knew what they wanted to become when they arrived at the programme, new worlds had opened to them and they were not sure their previously fixed ideas necessarily worked any more. This, we believe, is a good thing since it gives young learners the opportunity to really explore and understand before making career choices. Half-baked and ill-informed decisions can lead them to being stuck in careers they don’t have an aptitude or a passion for.
On the whole, the National STEM School was a resounding success and we intend to do this on a regular basis to create a new breed of scientists, engineers, innovators, and entrepreneurs who are self-aware, confident, well-groomed, and holistically trained but also are those who are passionate about following their dreams.
We are evaluating the programme’s outcomes to see how it can be scaled so that these ideas can benefit a larger segment of the population, so Pakistan has a better chance of creating one (or many) more Abdus Salams in the coming years and decades.
The final day was the most difficult as these young learners packed their bags to return to life in the same old educational system that discouraged questioning and killed creativity. Many of them felt it would be a challenge to go back to the old ways of studying Science. However, they were encouraged by none other than Syed Babar Ali, the founder of LUMS and its School of Science and Engineering to apply what they had learnt, struggle, persevere, and continue to think dream and think big. We had taught them to be realistic but also to benchmark themselves through their own internal prisms rather than the eyes of society.
We believe, for many, a new world may have opened up and improbabilities may have become possibilities. What they make of it is now up to them and we will happy to support and help where we can.
The writer is a member of the Planning Commission (S&T, IT), started the Pakistan Innovation Foundation. He has a PhD in Science and Innovation Policy from Pardee RAND Graduate School firstname.lastname@example.org