Rwanda inaugurated its Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Center on May 7. The $100,000 center, which aims to promote science and technology education and learning among students, is the first in a series of eight similar facilities to be established by U.S. STEMpower over the next three years.
The center resulting from a partnership between the Rwandan Ministry of Education and the Israeli Embassy in Rwanda is part of the strategy led by the country of a thousand hills to promote STEM education. Over the last five years, in particular, several initiatives have been carried out in this direction, from the creation of coding academies to the construction of school labs in schools in the country. As a result, 64.4% of the 9968 students who were awarded government scholarships for the 2019- 2020 academic year pursued STEM courses according to data released by the Higher Education Council (HEC).
STEM to address the mismatch between training and employment
Rwanda is therefore part of a regional trend: while, as elsewhere on the continent, the humanities and social sciences still attract a majority of students, the leaders in the region have been keen to change this, faced with the mismatch between training and employment, the main cause of youth unemployment in Africa.
Indeed, several East African countries have introduced science-based curricula over the past five years. These include, primarily, Kenya, a true pioneer in this area. The country, already renowned for the quality of its higher education but also facing a high unemployment rate among young graduates, very early, initiated a policy to promote STEM jointly led by the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of ICT Affairs. This policy has resulted in the integration and promotion of these fields in educational programs, the creation or support of centers dedicated to technology, or the upgrading of teachers. A very ambitious project is also on the roadmap: the Kenya Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, a result of partnership with the Korean Advanced Institute of Science & Technology (KAIST), which should welcome its first students in 2022.
Science a national priority
This policy is beginning to bear fruit in both Kenya and Rwanda. Published by Cornell University, INSEAD Business School and the World Intellectual Property Organization, the Global Innovation Index lists Kenya and Rwanda among the top 20 countries that "outperform" in innovation relative to their level of development. What do they have in common? Their governments have made science a national priority.
To further improve these results, the Rwandan Ministry of Education introduced a weekly after-school professional development program for teachers in these subjects in early October, just as the school year began. Every Wednesday afternoon, teachers meet and choose a topic of interest for which they can request personalized training. This new arrangement is added to the fact that more than 80 percent of Rwanda’s secondary schools have access to at least 50 connected computers through the Smart Classroom program that allows teachers and students to use the digital tools available to them to research and learn about science.
STEM disciplines take root
That proactive policy is applauded by Herine Otieno, the director of teacher education programs at the very selective African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in Kigali. “Rwanda has deliberately invested in promoting STEM courses in schools, not only in the cities but throughout the country. [Smart Classrooms], trained teachers, and facilitated study environments through programs such as school feeding programs, among others, have made it easier for students and teachers to take STEM courses that are usually resource intensive,” the education officer boasts.
Better still, the number of girls taking STEM courses has increased significantly in recent years, so much so that when the results of this year’s national exam, which is very science-oriented, were announced, most of the country’s top ten students were girls. For Herine Otieno, “this is a strong indicator that STEM disciplines are taking root,” even though “there are still areas for improvement, especially in terms of resources, such as the student/course manuals ratio and labs for science classes.”