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Enabling environment

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - December 16, 2020 - 12:00am

A woman I know got pregnant at 18, and went on to bear three more children. Her husband is a farmer and life is hard in their village in the Visayas.

She finished only fourth grade, limiting her employment options. Still, because more food was needed on the table, one day she decided to leave her family and her village to try her luck in Metro Manila.

What did four years of formal education give her? She can read and write in her dialect and in Tagalog. She is functionally literate in English, which their village school began using as a medium of instruction, together with the local dialect, from first grade (kindergarten was still optional in her time). In math, she can handle addition and subtraction, and simple division and multiplication.

But for the life of her, she can’t grasp the concept of fractions. At past 40 years old, she can’t understand how many fourths make up three quarters, and what half of one-half is. She can’t see how two-thirds plus a third equals one or a whole.

She can understand the division of tangible things by fractions: pag-apatin or pagtatluhin (divide in fourths, or by thirds), for example. But she can’t grasp how 3/3 or 4/4 is equivalent to one.

My guess is that this lack of comprehension is due to the absence of words in her mother tongue or in conversational Filipino, her second language, for fractions, except for one-half – kalahati.

A similar problem, I think, underpins a common mistake among Filipinos when communicating in English, our second language: interchanging gender references such as he or she, his and hers. I also attribute this to the fact that Filipino, our Tagalog-based national language, is gender-neutral.

But this problem can be corrected, and is nowhere as debilitating as the inability to grasp the concept of fractions.

*      *      *

I remembered the woman after reading reports related to literacy in our country, the latest of which was the 2019 TIMMS, or Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.

The study showed Filipino fourth graders ranking lowest among all the 58 participating countries in mathematics and science.

The results reinforced that of the 2018 Program for International Student Assessment, in which 15-year-old Filipinos ranked the worst in reading comprehension among 79 countries, and second worst in math and science.

As for functional literacy, the Philippine Statistics Authority reported last week that the country managed to inch up from 90.3 percent in 2013 to 91.6 percent last year among those aged 10 to 64.

*      *      *

It’s sad that this is happening in an era of stiff global competition. Like malnutrition and undernourishment, which stunt physical growth, poor education stunts intellectual growth and national competitiveness.

It’s not in our gene pool; in an enabling environment, Filipinos do well. We can be innovators; we can excel.

Just consider Nicanor Austriaco, a Filipino-American Dominican priest who is showing that science and religion can go hand-in-hand.

Father Nic, a visiting professor at the University of Santo Tomas, is best known these days as a member of the OCTA Research team, whose math-based projections of COVID transmission in our country throughout the pandemic have been frighteningly accurate. The number cruncher in the team is also a Filipino, University of the Philippines math professor Guido David. Who says we’re poor in math?

Father Nic, a molecular biologist and theologian, might soon be known for something bigger. He is on leave from Providence College in Rhode Island where he teaches biology and theology, not only to track COVID in the country of his birth, but also to advance his research on something that germinated in his mind about 15 years ago, long before the COVID virus was unleashed apparently because someone hankered for bat soup.

His project: the use of yeast cells to develop vaccines – not the usual injectables, but something that can be processed into powder form, bought in a drug store, dissolved in water and taken orally.

The yeast, Father Nic told us Monday night on OneNews / TV 5’s “The Chiefs,” is not the one used for baking, but is closer to brewer’s yeast – the one used for beer making, taken as human food supplement, and which I also add to my dogs’ home-cooked meals to keep away fleas.

Father Nic, who got his doctorate in molecular biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says he is doing his R&D in the Philippines because the warm, humid tropical climate is more conducive to yeast development. If – or when – he succeeds, he intends to present the results to reputable international peer review.

*      *      *

Another Filipino scientist who gained prominence in this pandemic is molecular biologist and biotechnology expert Raul Destura. The head of the Philippine Genome Center, Doctor Destura is best known these days for his private company, Manila HealthTek Inc., which is producing the only locally made (and most affordable) real time reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction swab test kit for COVID. This RT-PCR test is available at the Philippine General Hospital and the Marikina City government health facilities.

Shortly before the COVID pandemic reached our shores, however, Manila HealthTek had also produced a rapid dengue diagnostic kit. This is a most welcome tool in our country where dengue is a common pestilence.

Dengue diagnosis can take from three to four days, when other afflictions are ruled out through other tests – during which the patient, regularly throwing up and with fever, stomach pains and rashes, must remain confined and the hospital bills pile up. Depending on the hospital, confinement in a private room for dengue can set you back from P50,000 to P100,000 before the viral infection is accurately diagnosed and properly treated.

So yes, Filipinos can be scientists and mathematicians. Filipinos can dream big, like Father Nic, who said in a 2011 interview: “I wanted to cure cancer and win the Nobel Prize so I ended up coming to the United States.”

And many Filipinos can definitely grasp the concept of fractions.

What is needed is the enabling environment for quality education. In our country, this remains a luxury beyond the reach of millions.

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