Moises Wasserman: “It is necessary to go back to basics and practice mathematics, science and text analysis”

Moises Wasserman, university professor, researcher and former president of the National University of Colombia, analyzes the state of education and the study of science in Colombia – Credit Mauricio Alvarado – Colpresa

The current state of education, and particularly the study of science in Colombia, was the subject of an analysis by Moisés Wasserman, university professor, researcher and biochemist, who served as president of the National University of Colombia between 2006 and 2012. Speaking to infobae, Wasserman provided an in-depth and critical diagnosis of the problems and progress in these sectors, highlighting the urgent need for action and adjustments to improve the current situation.

What is the current state of science and higher education in Colombia?

Science in Colombia has suffered in recent years from a marked indifference, with the budget for science and technology being the lowest, even lower than that for sports. The activities carried out by the ministry tend to be propagandistic, with little modern scientific content, compared to what is carried out at the international level.

In terms of education, both progress and problems have been noted. It is important to recognize them in order to continue moving forward. We have increased coverage in recent years; basic education is practically universal and free by law, which is a major advance. However, we face serious shortcomings in pre-school and secondary education. Coverage at these levels is insufficient and represents a significant gap between basic and secondary education, affecting young people aged 15 to 17 at a crucial stage in their lives.

In higher education, we have increased coverage, reaching 53%, after a few years ago it was in single digits. This is a remarkable progress. However, there are still significant shortcomings, especially in quality, as the results of national and international tests are poor and do not show improvement over time, which is worrying. Moreover, there are significant disparities that generate complex inequalities: between the public and private sectors, between urban and rural areas, and between the different regions of the country, especially between the center and the coasts, with a particularly marked gap on the Pacific coast.

Moises Wasserman noted that despite progress in educational coverage, there are still serious shortcomings in pre-school and secondary education – Credit Mauricio Alvarado – Colprensa

How can I change this panorama?

There is a persistent and often repeated belief that we are overdiagnosing our condition, that everyone knows what is happening but that action is necessary; however, I am not sure about that. It is possible that we are overdiagnosing, but if so, we have not read the diagnoses, and if we have read them we do not believe them. This may be one of the reasons why the measures taken are weak, sometimes counterproductive, and receive many times more publicity.

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There are many things that need to be done, especially in terms of improving quality, because this is fundamental to achieving equity. The differences in grades between regions and groups are due to the fact that they receive a different quality of education. We need to work hard on teacher training. One of the last points of discussion, when discussing the bill that was presented to Congress, was the evaluation of teachers. The current evaluation is a formal evaluation, which confirms the correctness of the implementation of processes, but it is completely separate from the results, and this is inappropriate. We must be honest and acknowledge the problems, something that we often refuse to do.

The main measures should be to improve the quality of teaching and learning, including pedagogical and administrative strategies. We did not invent education; there are successful examples from which we can, and should, learn, without fear of appearing elitist.

In short, although it is said that we overdiagnose our condition, I believe that this is not the case. We must have accurate diagnoses and, above all, believe in them and act according to them, without trying to hide the shortcomings that bother certain groups.

What measures do you think are needed to increase investment in science and technology?

Although it may seem repetitive, the first thing is to take it seriously. All the rulers, including the current president, declared before taking office that this would be a government of science and scientific and technological progress. However, once they come to office, they forget and think that this can be achieved without a budget or personal or administrative efforts. We have a scientific community that has grown with great effort, but it faces great difficulties in carrying out its activities due to the lack of sufficient resources and funding.

Wasserman said that young people with high professional skills and good preparation are leaving the country – Credit Mauricio Alvarado – Colprensa

What is happening now, and in a sharp way, is that highly qualified and well-prepared people, who are young, are looking for a future elsewhere. This represents a huge deficit of capital in the country. A few years ago we carried out a wise mission that resulted in many recommendations, but they were forgotten soon after, even though they are published and available on the Internet.

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It is essential to take it seriously, make an accurate diagnosis, believe in it and act accordingly. If we conclude that science and technology are underfunded, as is clear, the first step is to improve funding. But what has happened in successive budgets is exactly the opposite: a decrease. This year we have the smallest budget in 25 years, and the proposed budget for next year is even smaller. Therefore, the potential for scientific activity to grow and consolidate is very small.

How can educational institutions encourage new generations to enjoy studying science?

Throughout recent history, which I have been able to experience personally, there have been many initiatives in different directions. One is the promotion of scientific vocations from childhood, with important programs that must be continued and strengthened. Institutions such as museums, observatories and interactive centers, such as Maluca in Bogotá and Explora in Medellín, also play a decisive role in promoting these professions.

However, the place where the calls can be strengthened most strongly is in basic education, especially in school. Unfortunately, mathematics and science education in our country is insufficient. Mathematics, being the language of science, is essential. Those who do not have a minimum of preparation in mathematics cannot understand or appreciate scientific works. It is therefore of utmost importance to improve preparation in mathematics and science, areas where our results in national (SABER) and international (PISA) tests are very low.

The result of this deficiency is the very low number of young people interested in studying scientific careers in Colombian universities, only about 2% of university students. I am convinced that basic education is the main source of scientific vocations. It is necessary to focus on generating and supporting these careers from an early age. Children are naturally curious and wonder why different things happen, such as rain or snow. However, this innate curiosity tends to decrease over time, perhaps due to insufficient attention to basic education.

In his book, “Education in Colombia,” Moises Wasserman suggests going back to basics and strengthening training in math, science, and clear communication skills. – Credit Mauricio Alvarado – Colpresa

What advice would you give to young students starting their career in science?

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I would tell them to stay strong. This experience is very rewarding, as is the case with other disciplines, but it is a challenging activity. Young, energetic people usually like to face challenges, and this activity leads them to a better understanding of natural phenomena. Understanding is one of the great pleasures of life. Moreover, it is very clear from all the indicators in the world that economies are increasingly knowledge economies and societies are knowledge societies. There is no doubt that possessing knowledge, now and in the future, will put them in a useful position to deal with their development and the way they will build their lives.

In your book, Education in Colombia, you propose going back to basics and strengthening training in mathematics and science, the ability to understand texts and express oneself clearly. Do you consider these essential tools for future education?

Yes, and I say this for a very important reason. The most obvious feature of modern knowledge and information is their rapid obsolescence. Knowledge, technologies and information are changing at an ever-increasing speed. The acceleration of change is so high that a limited study of a particular technology or a particular reality quickly becomes obsolete.

At the same time, the basic disciplines remain. We do not know what the engineers of the future will be called, but they will all have different titles than they do today. However, they will all need to know physics, mathematics and perhaps chemistry. We do not know how biotechnology will develop, but biological principles will always remain the basis of any future development. The same thing happens in the social sciences and humanities; we do not know in which direction they will develop, but they will always need the ability to express themselves well, to understand what is being said and to say things clearly and precisely.

This basic knowledge remains important despite the rapid obsolescence of other knowledge. That is why I insist on the importance of going back to basics.

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