YENIA SILVA CORREA
RAIKO heard the news announced during his high school’s regular morning ceremonies. He would be spending 12th grade at the University of Havana, studying within the Department of Economics. He had taken the admissions test and was among 30 students from Cuba’s western provinces selected to complete their high school studies at the university, preparing to subsequently major in Mathematics.
Franklin also took advantage of the opportunity, applying for the program given his interest in studying Physics. He worked tirelessly to prepare for the exams and won a silver medal in the national Physics contest for high schools students. The two young men are completing their military service while at the university, getting ready to begin their higher education careers next year, in the areas of their choice.
María de la Caridad, Mayrene and Naila all have similar stories. Their love for the exact sciences and aspirations to study Chemistry, Biochemistry and Biology, respectively, have led them to pursue the option of finishing high school at the university level and becoming accustomed to the academic rigor.
Cuban higher education has much to do to revitalize studies in specialties historically neglected such as Mathematics and Physics, but the high school-to-university program at least assures that well-prepared and highly motivated students are entering these areas of study.
The idea of selecting high school students to complete 12th grade at an institution of higher learning is part of a broader strategy to meet the country’s needs for professionals. One of the policy guidelines approved by the Communist Party of Cuba’s 6th Congress last year emphasized the need, "to increase the number of students in agricultural, pedagogical and technical university majors and related basic sciences."
Social and family perceptions, as well as images projected by the media, draw many students toward majors in the Social Sciences, with the exception of Medicine, of course, which has always been a dream and goal of many.
The 12th grade program emerged in an effort to address this challenge in the Natural and Exact Sciences, specifically in Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Biology, according to Msc. Bárbara Oviedo Brito, associate professor at the University of Havana and methodologist for the department in charge of the project.
The initiative began during the 2009-2010 academic year, with a convocation sent to pre-university high schools. Interested students were given the option of choosing a major in Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Biochemistry, Microbiology or for that year only, Engineering.
Thousands of students have applied for the program, also being implemented at the Universidad Central de La Villas in Santa Clara, serving the central provinces, and the Universidad de Oriente in Santiago de Cuba, for students from the eastern portion of the country. The selection process is rigorous and although admission to the program does not guarantee admission to the university, students are well prepared for the entrance exams.
Biology is the major most requested, followed, in order of popularity, by Chemistry, Mathematics and Physics. The faculty working with these students is composed of university professors familiar with the 12th Grade curriculum and, of course, very knowledgeable of the content they teach.
The coursework offered these students is the same as that presented in all Cuban pre-university high schools, although the content is enhanced with vocational activities. Additionally complementary Math and English are offered depending on the major in which the student is interested.
"Students are admitted based on a competitive exam, designed by university professors and administered throughout the western region. Then 30 are selected for each major," explained Oviedo Brito.
In addition to this test, students take a diagnostic evaluation based on the 12th grade curriculum, which allows teachers to identify areas of knowledge which require reinforcement.
"We take into account students’ levels of development and work to take advantage of potential and continually assess progress. When the students arrive they feel the impact of the evaluations, since expectations are higher, they see that they are affected in terms of their numerical grades."
FOCUSING ON THE GOAL
Despite the initial impact, students’ interest and their teachers’ efforts, along with the discipline and positive attitudes expected, have produced encouraging results.
The program’s first students are currently in the third year of their university studies. Figures from last year indicate that 100% of the students who spent 12th Grade at the University of Havana, successfully passed their entrance exams.
At the beginning of this academic year, 117 program students from the Isle of Youth, Pinar del Río, Artemisa, Mayabeque, Havana and Matanzas were studying in the departments of Physics, Chemistry and Biology.
Perhaps it is too early to describe the project as successful, but the results thus far are positive. The substantial increase in the number of biologists, mathematicians and chemists which the country needs requires the consolidation of all efforts. Understanding of the role these professionals play in society must also be promoted.
Strategic decisions to restructure coursework plans, promote the skilled trades and develop non-state modes of management all oblige the country’s higher education system to maintain its focus precisely on the hard sciences.