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Chemistry International
Vol. 23, No. 4
July 2001

Chemical Education in Eritrea (cont')

Peter G. Mahaffy and Berhane Girmay

Roots of Eritrean Science Education
Present State of Eritrean Chemical Education
Eritrean Chemical Society


Present State of Eritrean Chemical Education 1

Elementary, Secondary, and Technical Schools

Eritrean students receive their first introduction to chemistry in elementary school general science, taught in grades 6 and 7. Formal coursework in chemistry begins in secondary school grade 8, and continues each year through grade 11. Students who are educated in technical schools receive the same grades 10 and 11 chemistry curriculum as secondary school students. Students are assessed through the Eritrean Secondary Education Certificate Examination (ESECE) in chemistry and other subjects at the end of grade 11. A 1997 survey tallied about 100 chemistry teachers in 29 secondary schools.

Chemistry teachers are a mix of Eritrean nationals, many educated at the University of Asmara, and visiting teachers, many from India. The vast majority of those teachers are well qualified, with a bachelors or masters degree. Most face challenging teaching conditions. Student/teacher ratios are high, typically about 40, and class sizes of 60 are not uncommon. Average weekly teaching loads are just over 30 hours per week. Because of the shortage of schools, most schools run two sessions each day for students, with one group studying in the morning, and one in the afternoon. As a temporary measure, owing to disruptions in the school year caused by the recent conflict with Ethiopia, most secondary schools now operate six days a week. Textbooks are often in limited supply; practical work is not routinely part of the secondary school curriculum; and chemicals, equipment, lab manuals, models, and technical support are all hard to come by for many schools. The Asmara Barka school, for example, runs about 60 sections of chemistry classes each week, with about 60 students in each section - using the single laboratory built by the Camboni Fathers for demonstration purposes.

Yet, despite those challenging conditions, teachers are working hard and constructively with the Ministry of Education and the University of Asmara to take steps to strengthen chemical education. A chemistry panel of the Ministry’s Curriculum Research and Development Center has produced Eritrean textbooks for grades 8-11, which present standard chemistry curriculum, while placing concepts in the context of local industrial processes. While further revision is necessary to make the texts more student-friendly, these materials represent unique examples of adapting chemistry curriculum to the local environment.

Recently, secondary school chemistry teachers set as one of their highest priorities the systematic introduction of practical work, learning by doing - through experiments, demonstrations, and field trips. And so they exchange ideas. They hope to make teaching more student-centered, and to make students more active learners. And they are finding creative ways to overcome barriers. Zinc metal can be harvested from old dry cells. Aluminum can be retrieved from cigarette and gum foils. Students can collect silica gel from shoe shops and sulfur from local markets. Students can conduct many simple experiments at home 2 . Other chemistry teachers are systematically evaluating methodology used in current chemical education practices, for presentation at an annual research conference of the Eritrean Chemical Society 3 .

Chemistry at the University of Asmara

The University of Asmara received its charter from the Ethiopian government in 1968. It granted its first undergraduate degrees in chemistry in 1980, shortly after a troubling period in the institution’s history, when the university was closed after the Communist revolution in Ethiopia. The early 1980s saw major growth for chemistry and other science programs, as young, influential scholars, many from India, East Germany, and elsewhere, contributed to building the institution. The 1983—1984 University catalog shows a sample program for chemistry students, taking coursework in all four main branches of chemistry, along with other required courses, such as Marxist thought and practice. Some chemical education debates change little over time, as noted by the calendar rule that: "Calculating machines may not be used during examinations unless permitted or required by the course instructor"4 .

Since independence, the University has grown explosively, to its present student population of over 4 000 - in a campus originally designed to accommodate about 500. Undergraduate programs in chemistry continue to receive high priority, boosted by major linkages with Swedish institutions such as the University of Uppsala and Stockholm University. Interdisciplinary research programs rooted in chemistry, such as the Eritrean Medicinal Plants Project and the Materials Science Project, which deals with structure—property relationships of technologically useful materials, are producing results and attracting attention. Those programs have had valuable spinoffs for chemical education, as they attract and retain gifted scholars with Ph.D. and postdoctoral qualifications, keep chemists working across interfaces with other disciplines, bring in research equipment, and involve senior undergraduate students in activities. The chemistry department is currently in the process of reviewing its undergraduate curriculum, looking at both content and pedagogy, and evaluating ways to introduce computer-assisted instruction and molecular modeling into the classroom effectively.

Eritrean Chemical Society

Eritrean chemists know the importance of building networks and lifelong learning, particularly when working in settings geographically separated from major global centers of excellence in chemistry. Immediately after independence, in November 1991, the Eritrean Chemical Society was founded in the capital city of Asmara. It was legally recognized by the government in 1993, and has been working actively since then to achieve the following objectives:

  • to develop and promote chemistry education and research
  • to establish close relationships between chemists and other professionals engaged in chemistry- related fields of activity so as to increase the role of chemistry in national development
  • to popularize chemistry, especially in schools
  • to enhance participation and collaboration of professional chemists in matters pertaining to national policies, curriculum development, and training of chemists
  • to promote the improvement of the qualification of members
  • to provide a forum for the exchange of ideas through professional publications, symposia, and regular meetings
  • to establish and strengthen links with other societies, national and international, that pursue similar aims

Several of those key objectives have been translated into action. The society has about 160 members, from industry, government, and education. It sponsors annual research conferences that bring together local and international chemists, and it has held several significant workshops, where key stake-holders work to strengthen chemical education at the secondary level


We would like to thank Mr. Habtai Zerai from the Department of History, University of Asmara, for contributing to and checking the historical section, and Dr. Ghebrebrhan Ogubazghi, Dean of the College of Science, University of Asmara, for providing other materials and support for this project.


1 Historical background summarized from:
(a) Research provided by Mr. Habtai Zerai, University of Asmara History Department, September 2000.
(b) John Distefano and University of Asmara History Staff, in "Joint Survey on the State of High School Education in Eritrea. A Compilation of Papers Presented at a Workshop, February 1998", University of Asmara and Eritrean Ministry of Education, 1998, Dr. Ghebrebrhan Ogubazghi, Commission Chair.
(c) Asmara University General Catalog, 1983-84 Academic Year, Asmara, Ethiopia, January 1983.

2 "Report on the Proceedings of the Workshop on Integration of Practical Activities Work in Teaching Chemistry in Eritrean Secondary Schools", Eritrean Chemical Society, December 1998.

3 Ghebrehiwet Mehari, "Some Aspects of Methodology in the Teaching of Chemistry in Secondary Schools of Eritrea", Ministry of Education, Zoba Maekel, 1999.

4 Reference 1(c), page 40.


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