By Dr. Lorraine Sobers – OilNOW
September, the start of the new academic year, often prompts me to search for linkages between the state of education and the state of the nation. This brought me to consider that much of the information about Guyana’s prosperous future is conveyed using numbers: 11 billion barrels of oil reserves; 62.3% growth in real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) reported by the International Monetary Fund (IMF); 12.3% non-oil GDP growth in the first half of 2023 and; production capacity expected to exceed 560,000 barrels per day (bbl/) when all three floating production, storage and offloading vessels (FPSO), Liza Unity, Liza Destiny and Prosperity are fully operational.
Contentious issues are also communicated with the gravitas of numbers: 10% royalty, up from 2%, to be paid to the Guyana Government for future leases; Guyana government allocated 50% oil profit on the Stabroek block, calls for GYD 50,000 per month for 50,000 citizens to pursue or continue their education. As legions of voices join in public discourse on the anticipated windfall of petrodollars, it is fair to ask, how many Guyanese appreciate what these numbers actually mean. Are their expectations realistic?
Without an in-depth knowledge of how GDP or royalty, for instance, are calculated, it is easy for someone to reject a low number in favour of a higher number without context or reference. The purpose of this column is not to dispute the fairness or validity of numbers reported, this has been addressed on many occasions. My objective is to emphasize that poor mathematical skills will limit individual and national progress in Guyana.
To not know math is a severe limitation to understanding the world. – Richard P. Feynman
Earlier this year moderator, Dr. Terrence Blackman, Mathematician and founder of the Transforming Guyana series posed the question: How do we ensure that (Guyanese) youth would play a vital, sustaining, central role in what is emerging? It is no mistake that each panelist elaborated on mathematical skills, statistics and technology. The oil and gas sector rests not only on dollars and cents reported in the news but essentially on advanced mathematical principles that give rise to technologies that power the industry.
The youth of far east countries such China, Japan and Korea are known worldwide for impressive numeracy at an early age. It is no coincidence that these countries are also recognised as leaders in innovation, technology and manufacturing. These countries are not in the top ten per capita oil production or forests cover or precious metal reserves. National prosperity and growth are bolstered by the level education, literacy and numeracy at the primary school level, that the average person has mastered.
We will always have (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) STEM with us. Some things will drop out of the public eye and go away, but there will always be science, engineering, and technology. And there will always, always be mathematics.
— Katherine Johnson, African-American mathematician
During his presentation, panelist and Economic and Youth Advisor to the Leader of the Opposition Guyana, Elson Low, highlighted the fact that 80% of Guyanese do not have a passing grade in both Math and English at the CSEC (Caribbean Secondary School) examination level. Karen Abrams, founder of STEM Guyana linked this statistic to another equally eyebrow-raising situation reported by the Guyana Bureau of Statistics in 2021: more than 75% of the working-age population were not educated beyond Upper Secondary Education (48.4% up to primary school education). This is a weak point for Guyana; low math scores will hinder progress in business, science, trade and local content in the energy sector. The low achievement in math at CSEC level (less than 40% pass rate) can account for the problem of employment mismatch in Guyana’s energy, agriculture, healthcare and business sectors.
The other area of shortfall is functional literacy which is closely linked to problem-solving, critical thinking, communication, confidence and core academic skills. The corporate world, international business and the energy sector, is looking for these characteristics in employees. Before I go any further with doom and gloom, I would interject here that Abrams pointed out that Guyanese youth are enthusiastic about technology. Also, her work with STEMGuyana has rediscovered that “genius is everywhere, opportunity is not”.
The study of mathematics, like the Nile, begins in minuteness but ends in magnificence.
— Charles Caleb Colton, English cleric, writer and collector
Back to the main question: How do we ensure that (Guyanese) youth would play a vital, sustaining, central role in what is emerging? It may seem minute but Guyana’s education has to focus on basic numeracy and literacy. STEMGuyana has provided an excellent working example on how to achieve this. Nationwide, they have 42 learning pods currently engaging more than 800 students, 44 teachers and over 40 volunteers. STEMGuyana learners are entering national and international robotics competitions, creating mobile apps at all age levels alongside a parent academy to support students at home.
The vision for STEMGuyana is to create engaged citizens who will spearhead tech start-ups, solve local and regional problems, fulfill capacity for local content in all sectors and generate a ‘spirit of cooperation for national development’. In other words, programs like STEMGuyana support the core of national magnificence.
Without mathematics, there’s nothing you can do. Everything around you is mathematics. Everything around you is numbers.
— Shakuntala Devi, Indian writer and mental calculator
National magnificence in the form of skyscrapers, fast cars and beautiful homes may not be everyone’s dream for Guyana. However, at the very least, Guyanese youth anticipate access to affordable housing, education, healthcare and employment opportunities as petrodollars flood into the country. Economists, policy and law makers will reduce their wants and needs to hard numbers. These hard numbers influence what is promised on political platforms, discussed in board rooms and encapsulated in policy documents. Eventually the numbers bounce around in the minds of elected leaders and ricochet into laws and national budget allocations, impacting lives and livelihood everywhere. There is strength in numbers.
Not every Guyanese will be a mathematician. But national development depends on a greater fraction of the populace having a better grasp of the ‘strength in numbers’ that predetermines which hopes and dreams for One Guyana will come true.
About the Author
Dr. Lorraine Sobers is a Petroleum Engineering lecturer at the University of the West Indies. She has 20 years’ experience in the energy sector specialising in Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR). She has a keen interest in using her technical expertise for the development of low carbon development policies. Dr. Sobers is a Fellow of the Caribbean Policy Consortium and a member of the Global Americans Global High-Level Working Group on Climate Change in the Caribbean.