When an 11th-grade student, Yassin Mohamed, came to the lecture “Evolution: Between Science and Myth,” he thought the theory of evolution meant that humans came from monkeys. He believed that the idea contradicted the Islamic view on the creation of Adam.
The lecture, part of a Science Book Forum hosted by Qatar National Library to encourage science reading among youth and correct common misconceptions about science, altered Mohamed’s views on evolutionary theory.
“My idea about evolution completely changed after the lecture,” Mohamed said. “The subject is more complicated than the statement that man comes from monkeys, which we all had heard about. This discussion motivated me to read more on the topic.” (See a related article, “Do Human Evolution and Islam Conflict in the Classroom?”)
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The forum provides attendees the opportunity to talk to scientists—from Nobel laureates to space explorers—and ask questions. Through these interactions and access to scientific books, the library hopes to promote science education among the country’s children.
“The library mirrors the needs of society and we always need scientists in this part of the world,” the library’s executive director, Sohair Wastawy, said. “By making the environment available for discussing scientific topics, we are broadening the base of children who are interested in science so they are able to select that as a career when they are older.”
Improving Science Education
Qatar has been trying to encourage more students to choose the STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—a goal that is seen as an important requirement for a knowledge-based economy that could decrease the country’s dependency on hydrocarbon revenue. Qatar is not as strong a producer of oil as some of its neighbors, but it is the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, according to the World Bank. Progress in reforming science education has been slow.
A 2016 paper in the Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science and Technology Education, titled “Science Education Reform in Qatar: Progress and Challenges,” states that the push to improve science education in the country has had limited success. Students’ scores remain below international averages on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study test (TIMSS) and Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests. In the study, science coordinators and teachers mainly attributed the mediocre results to students’ lack of motivation to learn science.
“By making the environment available for discussing scientific topics, we are broadening the base of children who are interested in science so they are able to select that as a career when they are older.”Sohair Wastawy Qatar National Library’s executive director
A 2008 Unesco report, titled “Improving Science Education in the Arab States,” that presented the results of a project to improve science education in the Arab region reached similar conclusions. Moreover, the report said that improving science education would require the use of new forms of student-centered instruction and the introduction of inquiry-based approaches in schools to help students develop creative and critical thinking skills.
A physics laboratory teacher in Qatar, Abdel Hamid Ismail, said that exposure to scientific concepts through books and discussions with scientists at the library’s forum can inspire students to think creatively and critically. Such efforts can also help students understand the abstract concepts they study at school and spark their curiosity to read more about them.
“A question I am asked a lot by students is: How will I benefit from this lesson?” Ismail said. “They can’t understand how what they study in a physics or chemistry lesson applies in real life.”
Since it started in October last year, the forum has attracted 3,705 attendees, with an average of 300 to 600 people at each event, according to organizers. Topics of discussion have included space exploration, climate change, desertification and renewable energy. Wastawy, the library’s executive director, says the more an event’s topic is relevant to the Arab region or to a current international issue, the more it attracts an audience that wants to understand the science behind the topic.
No Topic Is Off-Limits
The library doesn’t shy away from more complicated or sensitive topics, as the evolution lecture showed.
“There is no topic off-limits for discussion at the library,” the forum’s chairman, Essam Heggy, a research scientist in earth and planetary sciences, said during an event. “This is not about believing or disbelieving, it’s about understanding.”
As such, the library provides a safe space for teachers and students to meet outside the classroom and explore controversial topics in a more profound way that is not always possible at school because of limited time, a packed curriculum and cultural sensitivities.
“It’s a great opportunity for students to get out of the classroom and listen to experts in the field,” said Lauren Marcos, the gifted-education programs coordinator at Qatar Foundation Schools, who attended the forum on evolution. “The questions they asked were amazing and were asked in a respectful manner that incorporates their religious views and then listening open-mindedly to the scientific experts.”
In addition to the science forum, the library organizes activities for children, researchers, stay-at-home mothers and young adults. By catering to the needs of people with different cognitive abilities and education levels, Wastawy says the library fulfills its public role as an inclusive public institution.
“The role of the library has changed, thanks to new technologies and the availability of information on the Internet,” Wastawy said. “Libraries are no longer just containers of information, but social spaces and platforms for learning.”