Science Standards Worry Officials, Teachers

If Cambodia had more scientists, its farms could be more productive, its mines more efficient, and natural resources like fisheries better managed.

But at a time when scientific and technical skills are more important than ever, the country’s science teachers say their students understand less each year than they did the year before.

“I am so worried,” says Pak Ponlokeo, a senior physics tea­cher in Takeo province. “From year to year, our younger generation has less knowledge of physics, chemistry, biology and even mathematics.”

School officials say students are learning less because science laboratories in Cambodian schools—when they exist at all—are inadequately equipped.

“Learning about science is different from [studying] philosophy,” says Pak Ponlokeo. He said he is one of only two dozen science teachers to survive the Khmer Rouge regime.

While students can be taught scientific theory in class, Pak Ponlokeo says they must be able to perform experiments in laboratories to truly understand science.

“Equipment is essential to make scientific experiments comprehensible,” he says.

Top education officials agree.

Chry Limsry, director of the Ministry of Education’s secondary school general knowledge department, says it is impossible to exactly measure the decline in science knowledge among students, because no survey has been taken.

But few schools have any laboratory equipment to speak of, and since the early 1980s there has never been money in the education budget to buy any. He said the ministry is drafting a five-year plan which will include for the first time money for equipment from microscopes to test tubes.

What material there is came from two charitable donations: one from the UN Childrens Fund in 1982, and the second from the Asian Development Bank, which in 1997 donated $80,000 in lab equipment to 50 schools.

In the intervening years, some of that equipment has been broken, and some goes unused because of a shortage of science teachers. The ADB grant did not include funds for training, which means some schools have no teachers who know how to use the equipment.

Chhea Chhean, chief of research and teaching aid production for the ministry, said that to his knowledge only one high school—in Svay Rieng province—has used its lab equipment properly, because the headmaster at that school likes science.

Chhea Chhean said that providing Cambodian schools with modern equipment and laboratories is far more expensive than the government can afford.

Building an entire building costs about $40,000, he said, while equipping a laboratory can cost $20,000.

Since 1987, Chhea Chhean has been trying to convince officials to set up one or two regional labs in all 24 provinces and cities, so that schools in each area could have access to the facilities.

It’s been a hard sell, since the ministry says it does not have the money to give teachers raises and the labs would be so expensive.

Still, Chhea Chhean says they are so important to the future of science education in Cambodia that he will continue to press his case, and to appeal to international organizations for help.

Education officials are receptive to the idea of concentrating scarce resources to provide top-quality services, though it’s not clear where the money would come from or when.

Chry Limsry said he wants the government to set up “target” programs for high-achieving students, as is done in Vietnam.

Meanwhile, teachers like Pok Ponlokeo are using all their ingenuity to spark a love of science in their students.

The last time Pok Ponlokeo’s high school in the Bati district of Takeo province obtained new equipment was in 1981, when it received four boxes of German-made lab equipment.

For the next two years, all went well. “During those years, our students found it easier to understand lessons,” he says. “And they liked studying science.”

But in 1983, Pok Ponlokeo was transferred to a regional teachers training college, where he spent several years teaching teachers how to teach science.

Nobody used the lab equipment to teach science while he was away, and by the time he returned to the high school, it was either broken or gone.

Since then, he has devised equipment for simple experiments from materials at hand. But while education officials praise Pok Ponlokeo and others like him for their ingenuity, he says teachers really need decent equipment if they are to teach effectively.

“If the government gives more weight to allowing students access to laboratories, we can orient them to better scientific understanding, so they can [progress further] in education,” Pok Ponlokeo says.

“And secondly, we can help them learn life skills when they are unable to continue higher education.”

In a country where so many citizens obtain their electric power from car batteries charged at the neighborhood generator, he says, most of his students cannot grasp how electricity works.



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