Learning Applied Science in Schools

Institutions, Habits and Learning Applied Science in Schools
Grimot Nane
Written for Government College Ughelli Old Boys Association UK Annual Dinner, Paddington Hilton, London on the 27th August 2016

The difference between pure science and applied is incredibly huge when one considers their usefulness to society. Pure science is mostly cerebral and experimental, but applied science is of important practical use to society. Technological know-how, medical understanding, microscopic explorations, extra-terrestrial conquests. And superstition minimisation is all the dividends of applying science to many problems encountered by human beings.

In all societies, developing and advanced, it is the application of science and not mere theory that has made the technosphere so amazing and useful. This is certainly not an attempt to denigrate pure science. One can only apply scientific solutions to common and rare problems, big and small. If the practitioner or student knows enough pure science to begin with. It is the application of science that makes tonnes of metal to fly in the sky. Or incurable diseases become curable, summer foods to grow in winter. And people communicate with each other over thousands of miles in real-time, meat preserved for months. Pure science and applied science are truly beautiful, even though they can put them to ugly uses.

The most important thing about learning applied science is the key institutions that provide such capacities and opportunities for young males and females. Especially at the secondary school age. Most students start their proper science education in secondary school. This is where they first learn the definitions, assumptions, and explanations of scientific phenomena. This is where learning to know and learning to apply should be different to the student, grounds for his or her encouragement.

The applied scientist, from student to experienced practitioner, is only as good as the institutions of learning/practising applied science available to him or her. Institutions are simply the “rules of the game” by which we organise social activities. The better and the better enforced the institutions are, the better the outcomes of a social organisation like education. There are six levels of institutions observed in society from top to bottom. First, there are the structures that make the general macro-rules of social organisation. E.g. the education sector managed by, say, a ministry of education, legislators with other stakeholders. Second, are regulatory bodies who set the specific or specialised macro-rules for the education sector. E.g. a universities commission or a secondary schools inspectorate.

Third, are the rules, as set by the government. E.g. national curricula, schooling ages, education calendars and education assessment standards. Fourth, are conventions which are rules that spontaneously develop to resolve some problems. They are often unwritten. E.g. a lower sixth former from another school is equivalent to a Class Four schoolboy in the student hierarchy. Fifth, are organisations where the rules of the game determined by government and stakeholders we implement within their boundaries through consistent routines. E.g. schools, universities, training/trade centres. Six, are habits which individuals gain to respond to the consistent routines required by organisations.

All these six levels of institutions have the minimum requirement of being individually adequate. They also complement each other sufficiently by coordination for them to be useful in consistently providing enabling resources/environments for the proper learning of applied science. The absence of these complementary requirements and coordination can easily shed light on key problems. Why individual projects (mainly the provision of resources (teaching, equipment and funds) directed at specific schools, even very good ones, usually fail. The provision of resources for learning is never sufficient for applied science education. Institutions properly enforced provide stable preferences and stable expectations in society, which are necessary for highly reliable and effective learning/practice. Let us not forget that scientific and technological standards are also institutions.

However, the facility of habit is the most important institution at the learning level, all things considered. Applied science properly undertaken depends on habit. Examine habits of thoughtfulness, observation, accuracy, sincerity, precision, trial, rigour, relentlessness, patience. All are necessary for being good at applied science. Organisations with bad routines not only fail, but they also make bad habits of learning and industry to proliferate.

There are several bad habits of students and practitioners. Particularly gifted ones we have observed in developing nations like Nigeria that defeat the very intentions that make applied science so valuable to modern society. Reports of common instances are not generalisations but simple facts. There are instances of “information averseness”. Information averseness is the refusal or unwillingness to share [scientific] information that has monetary or other values when applied. The person who has this information, whether he got it from a book, manual or practitioner, sees it as a personal advantage and one not to be shared. Yet such a person will expect free answers from doctors when they or their loved ones are ill. Or explanations why a piece of equipment they bought is not working properly. This habit is shocking and thoughtless in the “age of Google”. There cannot be effective learning of applied science without free information sharing.

There are also instances of “entitlement” exhibited by students and practitioners of applied science. Doctors and engineers being habituated into feelings of being the brightest students in school feel entitled to “know it all”. “I do not know” is an admission impossible for them. Since the late Professor Deji Awojobi boasted, “I can read law, but you cannot read engineering.” A disparaging remark to art students and professionals. Ever since, most applied science students and practitioners have worn the boast like a badge of honour. Applied science is not really about what you know, but about what you can do with it. Ironically, most Nigerian applied scientists are extremely proud to be “designers” of products and systems, but not “builders” of them. If this is truly the case, we may ask who will build Nigeria’s technosphere?

Prof Peter Palmer Ekeh famously declared higher education in Nigeria as a source of “entitlement” to be successful in life. People primarily go to school to make money, not to learn and practice what they have learnt conscientiously. If you focus this thinking more closely on the applied sciences profession, you will find most do not want to be great applied scientists. They want to be brilliant administrators of academic institutions, research institutions, state / federal government ministries and agencies, or become outright politicians. They start strong in publications and industry but quickly shift direction to administration and politics. Not only do these well trained applied scientists eschew its practice, but they also evaporate opportunities for transmitting their knowledge, roles as models and experience unto the younger generations.

The last bad habit identified and worthy of mention relating to applied science learning and practice is the becoming of an applied scientist as an “unnatural choice”. Because of the perceived “entitlement” of being an applied scientist, many students abandon the arts and social sciences they are more suited for or gifted to learn and practice. But embark on a career where they struggle to cope with the inescapable rigours of the applied sciences. Academic failure, dropping out from school, being sacked from work for incompetence, serious psychological distress, etc. are consequences of choosing a career one cannot sincerely cope with. Applied science is not for every student. We should make this thoroughly clear to students in the early stages of learning.

Good habits of learning and practising applied science are strictly based on getting the job done timely, practically, precisely, reliably, repeatably, and innovatively where possible. The keywords are acquisition, habituation, and mastery. How do students gain good habits of science application, how to retain them, and how are they mastered? The dictum “master the laws of applications” suffices as an answer; practice makes perfect. Like the apprentices of ancient times. We must consistently expose the student of applied science to enable learning opportunities, inspiring mentors. And understandings of daily challenges that will facilitate the transformation of a novice into a competent practitioner and even a master. Every scientific phenomenon that occurs in the environment should be an opportunity for learning. And every observable problem a chance to make some rational application.

We must not forget that the development and growth of society via the technosphere is not dependent on geniuses but the input of the largest number of active citizens. Every day citizens have contributed as much to the learning and products of applied science as have scientists, engineers, technologist, teachers, professors, communicators, financiers, administrators and politicians. The supportive parent, the person who donates to an education or research fund, the careful car driver, the friend who advises one not to drink and drive. Or the individual who practices safe sex, the consumer/user of technology. All reinforce the habits that foster the mastery of applied science in society in their ways. If your applications of science do not work, no one will buy or use them.

The advice to education practitioners and sponsors who want to improve the quality and horizons of applied science learning in secondary schools and beyond is straightforward. Focus on a thorough holistic institutional approach. Such will enable developments and adjustments at the structural, regulatory, rule-enforcing, conventional organisational and individual levels to meet the demands of the day. Lobby groups and pressure groups are some of the most appropriate and consistently reliable approaches to achieving necessary holistic improvements through institutional mechanisms in a democracy.

Government College Ughelli Old Boys Association UK may have a quite a challenge but a truly worthy one on their hands.

Thank You



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