Big push for science dominance - Businesses urged to contribute to building national STEM centre
Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ plan to establish six STEM centres of excellence might draw on the template of a private-sector-led initiative that is already spearheading a game-changing innovation and research academy.
The movement is expected to break the cycle of anaemic economic growth and build technical and creative capacity within Jamaica’s workforce.
A fundraising campaign is now under way to finance the first in what is expected to be a series of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, centres to be built, equipped and operated in cities and towns throughout Jamaica.
Well-known businessmen Glen Christian, chairman and chief executive officer (CEO) of the Cari-Med group, and Gary ‘Butch’ Hendrickson, chairman and CEO of National Baking Company, are leading a coordinating team seeking to raise more than US$1 million (J$139 million) to establish the National STEM Centre for Research and Innovations in Teaching and Learning at The Mico University College in Kingston. The project has a one-year timeline for financing, remodelling of existing space to accommodate the centre, and equipping and staffing the facility to be operational is one year.
“The STEM for Growth initiative has to be private sector-led because we, in the private sector, are the ones who need the output in terms of workers with the technical and scientific knowledge and skills,” said Christian, the convener of the coordinating task force. Highlighting the importance of businesses coming on board to support the venture, he stressed that, “growth is a must and an educated, and scientifically and technically trained workforce is a must”.
NOT ENOUGH INNOVATION
Christian, who heads a group of companies involved in the manufacturing and distribution of pharmaceutical products, said: “We can’t get growth because, as a country, we are not innovating sufficiently. We are not doing anything different. The jobs that we had 20 years ago are, by and large, the same low-paid jobs we have today. For manufacturing, our value added is very low.”
A consultative meeting is scheduled for The Jamaica Pegasus hotel in Kingston on December 4. At that event, members of the coordinating team, a STEM specialist and Dr Ashburn Pinnock, president of Mico, will make presentations about the project to prospective financial donors.
In an interview with The Gleaner, Christian pointed out that the project is being developed as a collaborative effort and the core team also includes former president of the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica, Howard Mitchell, and representatives of the American Friends of Jamaica and The University of the West Indies. Other Jamaican universities and teachers’ colleges will be invited to participate in the development of the national STEM centre, which will also provide training for other tertiary institutions.
Christian points to analyses of the CXC passes showing that the current sitting pass rate of 62 per cent for mathematics represents less than 40 per cent of the grade 11 cohort leaving high schools. This, he says, means that at current levels of performance, a significant number of Jamaican workers lack essential mathematical skills and competencies. Additionally,there is said to be an inadequate number of trained mathematics and science teachers available to the education system.
Christian and Hendrickson have led other successful initiatives to build educational institutions, including the Union Gardens Infant School in Kingston, which was opened in September 2015 and built at a cost of $186 million. The Evelyn Mitchell Infant School and Early Childhood Education Centre of Excellence in Brandon Hill, Clarendon, was also built at a cost of $70 million as a project of the Cari-Med Foundation in 2011.
... Building culture of innovation in Jamaica
Outlining the expected impact of the national STEM centre, Pinnock, The Mico University College president, says the facility is important for creating a scientific culture and way of thinking in the society. The scientific and technical methodologies, he points out, are best diffused throughout the society through the conduit of teacher education. He notes that teachers are ultimately responsible for moulding people who enter the workforce.
“Those of us in education are concerned about the low levels of growth in the economy and we believe that it is because we are alienating a large percentage of the society. We want to bring them into the mainstream,” Pinnock told The Gleaner.
“One of the shortfalls of the Jamaican workforce is that it is not immersed into the STEM technologies that foster creativity, innovation and all that comes through knowledge of the STEM disciplines,” the president of Mico lamented. He is of the view that the education system has been elitist, where only the so-called cream of the crop are allowed to pursue subjects such as physics, chemistry, and biology, with some of those students going on to study for professions in medicine and engineering.
Pinnock further explains the rationale for the project against the background of some of the limitations of the existing education system in Jamaica: “Almost 90 per cent of the population is not immersed in STEM at all, (so)we create a STEM workforce of the minority and many of them move abroad. If we immerse the STEM disciplines in the entire education system, then we capture many more scientifically and technically trained persons. When we introduce it in our teachers’ colleges, the teachers graduate with the concepts. Those already in the schools will be brought back for training and professional development, so it is training for pre-service and in-service teachers.”
The National STEM Centre, which will occupy more than 8,000 square feet of space on the third floor of the Renford Shirley Building at the Marescaux Road-based Mico campus, will host a SMART STEM teaching and innovation laboratory, a mechatronics lab, an online content development studio, and a SMART conference room.
The Mico-based project is also intended to increase the number and level of STEM-based teaching and learning facilities in Kingston as part of a larger initiative to develop the Corporate Area into a STEM city known locally, regionally and internationally for its scientific and technical training and application. Over the long term, there is also the hope of extending intensive STEM-based teaching and learning to several schools and colleges across the country through the establishment of satellite STEM centres in those areas.