Task Force Essay: Incorporating IBSE in School Curriculum in Arab Countries: A New Approach

June 19th, 2015 | by MuslimScience
Task Force Essay: Incorporating IBSE in School Curriculum in Arab Countries: A New Approach
February 2015

Dato Ir. Lee Yee Cheong

Chairman, ISTIC Governing Board


1.0   Introduction

10891610_778953405513409_6830347662583704076_nThe decline in interest in science, engineering and technology (S.E.T) in the youth of both the developed and developing world has been a major concern of the global scientific community for several decades. This has resulted in declining enrolment in S.E.T courses in universities and tertiary institutions of education.

At the beginning of the last decade of the Twentieth Century, a pioneering call was made by Nobel Laureate Dr. Leon Lederman of Chicago for the scientific community to launch a “Learning by Doing” or “Hands On” initiative in primary school science and mathematics education in the poor African American regions of Chicago through his Teachers Academy of Mathematics and Science (TAMS). This “Learning by Doing” method is now known as Inquiry Based Science Education (IBSE) or in USA as Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

The success of his initiative led to the International Council for Science (ICSU) to set up the Capacity Building Committee to spread IBSE to the rest of the world. The founding Chairman was Dr. Leon Lederman. He was succeeded by Dr. Shirley Malcom of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The InterAcademy Panel (IAP) which is the umbrella organization of the 106 national academy of sciences in the world, took over in 2001 the global IBSE Program leadership from ICSU as IAP’s Flagship Science Education Program (SEP). In 2003, IAP set up the IAP SEP Global Council with Professor Jorge Allende of Chile as Chairman (2003-2007). He was succeeded by Professor Pierre Lena of France (2008-2013). Under their dedicated and dynamic chairmanship, IBSE has spread throughout the world.  The anchor has been in large measure the La Main a la Pate (LAMAP) program of the French Academy of Sciences, established by the late Nobel Laureate Professor Georges Charpak, Professor Yves Quere and Professor Pierre Lena. To assure multi-stakeholder support in France, LAMAP has been transformed as the LAMAP Fondation with Professor Pierre Lena as the founding Chairman.

The important and impressive IAP SEP milestones 2001-2007 and 2008-2013 are listed respectively below:


I took over from Professor Pierre Lena as Chairman of IAP SEP Global Council in July 2013.


2.0   IBSE/STEM in the Developed World

By and large, IBSE has taken root in the developed world. In USA, President Obama is a national champion of STEM. The former president of US National Academy of Sciences and President Obama’s Science Envoy to Indonesia and Pakistan, Dr. Bruce Alberts, is a tireless advocate of STEM at home and abroad. I have mentioned Dr. Leon Lederman and Dr. Shirley Malcom before. In the USA, education is within the State or local district purview, and there must be many innovative and thriving IBSE/STEM programs unbeknown to me.

In Australia, the “Primary Connections” program of the Australian Academy of Science and the STELR program of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering are spreading well. IBSE/STEM is in the Australian National Education Curriculum.

By far the most impressive growth is in Europe propelled by the 58 academies under the Federation of All European Academies (ALLEA). Reference is made to the Executive Summary of the Report “A Renewal of Science Education in Europe: Views and Actions of National Academies” ALLEA Working Group.

The Report noted the excellent progress of IBSE in France, Sweden and the United Kingdom. It drew particular attention to many European academies, participating as part of their national teams in European Union co-funded projects such as SciencEduc, Pollen and Fibonacci etc. The spread of IBSE/STEM to Eastern European countries is remarkable.

3.0   IBSE/STEM in Developing Countries

Compared to the developed world, IBSE/STEM has not really taken root in developing countries with the exception of Singapore, Chile, China and Mexico and a few other countries. Besides dedicated national champions, most have had close collaboration with LAMAP.

In my opinion, most IBSE/STEM programs in the developing world are too dependent on the national academies of sciences. As a rule, many are poorly resourced and quite a few, too independent of government. The academies of sciences relate to ministries of science and technology whereas schools and teachers are under ministries of education. Thus their IBSE/STEM advocacy is indirect, intermittent and ineffective. The emphasis has been on getting the younger generation to aspire to be Nobel Prize winners and the like, rather than stressing that science, engineering and technology are critical in meeting the global challenges of poverty eradication and climate change. In the process, the relevant science, engineering, and technology (S.E.T) innovations will create widespread employment and reasonable income for the youth of South countries. The successful IBSE/STEM countries mentioned above all have ministries of education as partners, and the main drivers are not academies of sciences. They have passed the acid test of having IBSE/STEM incorporated into their national education curricula.

Very importantly, the priority in primary education for developing countries is meeting the UNESCO “Education for All” target by 2015 as required by the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). South countries have been having a very hard time merely building sufficient schools and training enough teachers to get all their children of school going age to school. It is universally accepted that every child has the fundamental human right of formal primary education. It is also universally accepted even by the most ardent advocates of science education that the prime objective of formal primary school education is teaching children to read and write and understand arithmetic.

Most South countries were former colonies of Western powers. Most of their territorial borders were drawn in the corridors of power in Europe, senselessly incorporating diverse ethnic, cultural and religious groups that had been at odds with one another for many centuries. Therefore, in their short histories of nationhood of much less than a century, the urgent task has been building the sense and reality of nationhood amongst their citizens. Thus school education must emphasize character building, national unity, national language, national history and geography, national culture, religion, civics etc. Of all the above, I consider character building to be the most important, as the developing world is desperately in need of an educated citizenry that is caring of family, community, country, continent and the world.

In such a crowded school curriculum in poor educational facilities in South countries, it is not surprising that science has to take a back seat.

In my opinion, the science education advocates of having science, and especially IBSE/STEM, as a subject in primary school curriculum in South countries are knocking their heads against a brick wall.

I now propose a new approach for South countries, starting wth Arab countries.

4.0   The New Approach in IBSE/STEM in Arab Countries

The Islamic Golden Age is usually dated from the 8th century to the 13th century. During this period, scholars, scientists, engineers, merchants and traders of the Islamic world contributed enormously to the arts, agriculture, economics, industry, literature, navigation, philosophy, science and technology, both by preserving and building upon earlier traditions and by adding many inventions and innovations of their own. Muslim philosophers, poets, artists, scientists, princes and labourers, created a unique culture that influenced societies on every continent.

During the Muslim conquests of the 7th and early 8th centuries, nomadic Arab armies established the Islamic Empire, the largest empire the world had yet seen. The Islamic Golden Age was soon inaugurated by the middle of the 8th century by the ascension of the Abbasid Caliphate and the transfer of the capital from Damascus to Baghdad. The Abbassids were influenced by the Qur’anic injunctions and hadith such as “the ink of scientists is equal to the blood of martyrs”, stressing the value of knowledge.


During this period, the Muslim world became the unrivalled intellectual centre for science, philosophy, medicine and education as the Abbasids championed the cause of knowledge and established a “House of Wisdom” in Baghdad. There both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars sought to translate and gather the entire world’s knowledge into Arabic. Many classic works of antiquity that would otherwise have been lost were translated into Arabic and later in turn translated into Turkish, Persian, Hebrew and Latin. During this period the Muslim world was a cauldron of cultures which collected, synthesized and significantly advanced the knowledge gained from the ancient Chinese, Indian, Persian, Egyptian, North African, Greek and Byzantine civilizations. The Golden Age of Islam paved the way for the European Renaissance that ultimately led to the science and technology-driven global civilization of today.

It is thus most logical that the new approach in IBSE/STEM curriculum for schools in South countries should have a pilot project in the Arab world.

4.1   LAMAP “Decouvertes en pays d’Islam” or “The Discoveries in Islamic Countries”

I base the new approach principally on the LAMAP thematic book “Decouvertes en pays d’islam” or “The Discoveries in Islamic Countries” in English (called LAMAP Book) written by Professor Ahmed Djebbar with pedagogical contribution from Cecille de Hosson and David Jasmin from LAMAP. The book was written as an expertly and pedagogically designed “learning by doing” text for French schools and is now well tested in French schools.


Prof. Djebbar shows how the history of Islamic science and technology can be turned into a pedagogical tool for IBSE/STEM in schools. For LAMAP, Prof. Djebbar has built ‘learning by doing” modules around ten “scientific” topics related to discoveries made by outstanding Muslim scientists during the Golden Age of Islam. The LAMAP Book is complemented by a website with a teacher’s folder, showing links to explanations (and more) on each of the discoveries used in the book, namely Al-Farisi’s model of the rainbow, Al-Khazini weighing scale, Ibn al-Nafis’s discovery of the pulmonary blood cycle, Al-Jazari’s water pump, Ibn Al-Haytham’s light and vision, Al-Khwarizme’s astrolabe, Al-Farisi’s model of the rainbow, Al-Kashi’s decorative symmetry and Al-Khazini’s balance of wisdom. The website contains a children’s folder, showing animations for each discovery and wiki pages constructed by the children from their research, both experimental and bibliographical. It is a truly a marvelous IBSE/STEM educational set.  The LAMAP Book is now available in English in Malaysia and in Arabic through the collaborative efforts of ISTIC Malaysia and the Islamic World Academy of Sciences Jordan. I particularly commend the “easy to do” experiments in the LAMAP book and the short animation of each of the ten topics on the website.

Alas, for me, the website and all its wonders are in French!

4.2   Science and Islam

The program that really set me thinking about the new approach to IBSE/STEM in Arab countries is the 3-part BBC TV series “Science and Islam”, anchored by the lucid commentary of Professor Jim Al-Khalili.

This wide ranging and comprehensive TV program reveals to me how intimately the religion of Islam is intertwined with the spectacular progress of science and technology in the Golden Age of Islam. The three parts of the series are available for free download from YouTube:

Professor Jim Khalili has since written a most readable book “The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance”, (Khalili Book) Penguin Book, 2010. The Khalili Book is also published under the title “Pathfinders”. The Khalili Book describes the life history of each of the most outstanding Islamic scientific and technological pioneers in some detail and provides scientific and mathematical explanation illustrated with drawings of the associated innovation. The Khalili Book strengthens my conviction that one cannot separate the religion of Islam, S.E.T and everyday life in the Golden Age of Islam.

4.3   “1001 Inventions”

I next turn for justification to “1001 Inventions”, an exhibition that uses modern computer based animation and audio visual devices and systems to construct a highly interactive platform for the promotion of scientific and technological innovations in the Golden Age of Islam.  The exhibition is accompanied by the remarkable book “1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization” of the UK Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilization. This book identifies, in an enjoyable, easy-to-read format, aspects of our modern lives that are linked to inventions by Muslims or were inspired by them in seven important areas of our lives, namely, Home, School, Hospital, Market, Town, World and Universe.


The book is now available in Arabic and has a compendium volume for children “1001 Inventions and Awesome Facts from Muslim Civilization”.

5.0   A New Approach of IBSE/STEM in School Curriculum in Arab Countries

My proposed new approach in curriculum design in schools in Arab countries is predicated on the fusion of S.E.T with the Religion of Islam and everyday life in Arab countries, using the Golden Age of Islam for inspiration. I believe the student’s interest in S.E.T will be much enhanced if it is anchored in their own religion, culture and heritage. I am convinced that for South countries to lift themselves out of poverty and achieve economic development, they need to develop widespread basic infrastructure i.e. roads, schools, water, sanitation, irrigation, clinics, telecommunications, energy — as well as small and medium enterprises (SMEs) for supply of goods and services. Without the above pre-requisites, indigenous industries cannot upscale, the economy cannot expand and foreign direct investment (FDI) will not come. This development pathway will provide adequate job opportunities for the teeming school graduates in South countries, including those in Arab nations. School education in Arab countries must provide the human capital required for this development pathway.

Consider for example Sudan.  While I have no knowledge of the school curriculum, I am certain that the Islam religion must feature prominently. We should be able to insert Islamic discoveries and innovations in mathematics and astronomy into the curriculum design of the religion of Islam by explaining how S.E.T achievements in the Golden Age of Islam were designed to satisfy the needs of Islam for ascertaining the direction of Mecca and the times of daily prayer from every part of the far-flung Muslim Empire. Mosques could know the time so they could announce the call to prayer. Times of important annual events in the Islam calendar, such as when to fast in Ramadan, celebrate Eid or go on pilgrimage to Mecca could be anticipated. This need led to the making of many innovative Islamic time pieces, the most famous of which is the Elephant Clock of Al-Jazari. The “hands on” experiments in the LAMAP Book for school students that allow them to determine the latitude and longitude of Paris can be adapted for Khartoum. The chapter of the LAMAP book on the still for clean water and perfume can be related to the need of the faithful for cleanliness.

The Chapter of the LAMAP Book on Symmetry highlights the principles behind religious motifs that are so prominent in Islamic mosques, palaces and buildings. These motifs have become a world heritage. This can also be inserted into the school curriculum on culture or civilization.

The Chapter of the LAMAP Book on the Al-Jazari water pump satisfies the societal need for irrigation for enhancing food production in the growing populations of the Islamic Empire. His discovery of the conversion of rotary motion into linear motion and vice versa forms the basis for every form of transmission system in modern transport.

The Chapter of the LAMAP Book on the discovery of the principle of light and vision can become part and parcel of school curriculum on history by featuring the giant of science, Ibn al Haytham.

Similarly the fascinating subject of the Arab numerals can be rightfully related to the life story of al Khwarizmi. The arrival of the pivotal “decimal point” from India can be included in a travelogue highlighting the changing landscape from India to the Middle East and the Maghrib in the school curriculum on geography.

On medicine and physiology, the Chapter in the LAMAP Book on the pulmonary blood circulation system of Ibn Nafis can be added to the achievements of Abul Qasim Khalaf ibn al-Abbas al-Zahrawi. In his medical encyclopedia, al-Tasrif, he introduced a staggering collection of over two hundred surgical tools, including the catgut for internal stitching that is still used in the simplest to the most complicated surgery today.

My own fascination with human flight induces me to include the tale of the first Muslim, and perhaps person, to make a real attempt to construct a flying machine and fly, namely Abbas ibn Firnas in the 9th century. He constructed a flying machine and mounted a hill. A large crowd gathered to witness his flight. He flew to a significant height and hung in the air for over ten minutes before plummeting to the ground, breaking the wings and one of his vertebrae. After the event, Ibn Firnas understood the role played by the tail, when birds land! Perhaps students can figure out the function of the tail on landing.

Relative to character building, the school curriculum in Arab countries should emphasize the importance of students having a broad outlook in all facets of everyday life by emphasizing that almost every giant of innovation in the Golden Age of Islam was a polymath, being at the same time, religious scholar, poet, astrologer, musician, astronomer and engineer etc.

Finally the most striking feature of the Golden Age of Islam was the embracing of knowledge from all civilizations — with Muslims, Jews, Greeks, Indians and even Chinese working together to preserve ancient knowledge and improve and adapt it for the benefit of society. This spirit of harmony and tolerance is very much at the core of Islam.



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