Ghana TV quiz promotes math and science

Photo caption: Ghana TV quiz show that promotes math and science has taken the country by storm, with supporters crowding around television sets on Saturday mornings much like they do during soccer matches. Here, supporters of the Ghana soccer team watch the 2010 World Cup. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images)

ACCRA, Ghana — Walk the streets of any Ghanaian town and peer over the shoulders jostling around a television — there’s no doubt about the attraction. European soccer. Probably English powers Manchester United or Chelsea.

But on Saturday mornings cries of excitement and despair reverberate for another reason. It’s "The National Science and Maths Quiz for Senior Secondary Schools." And it’s on TV.

This semester, high schools across Ghana are preparing for the quiz finals due to be held at the end of the academic year.

At Presbyterian Boys’ Secondary School in Accra, science department head S.O. Peprah, who doubles as quiz team coordinator, has already identified promising students. He has them training three times a week, absorbing extra reading and formulating possible tournament questions.

“We look for students who are interested and who have been doing well,” Peprah said. “Fast reading and fast calculation.”

The competition originated in 1993, first sponsored by a soap manufacturer, and resembles the “quiz bowls” of American high schools.

The quizmistress — it’s always a female scientist — presents questions that demand swift mathematics (“Find Y in terms of X: logY + 2logX = 2”), scientific explication (“Explain the cause of dizziness”) or factual precision (“True or false: The prolegs of a caterpillar occur on the third to the sixth abdominal segments”). The clock ticks. Failure to answer correctly hands the opposition a chance to steal the marks.

Primetime Limited, the show’s founding producer, plans to broadcast the coming competition again. Managing Director Kwaku Mensa-Bonsu said surveys indicate the quiz ranks among Ghana's most popular shows.

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“We always get people calling,” he said. “They’re making a comment, or just wanting to find out the time of the show.”

The quiz show, if not “Jeopardy!” slick, features the trappings. Contestants — in school uniform — confer behind name placards. The camera pans across nervous parents and the audio strains to the roars of classmate support. A tinny jingle accompanies a chemistry problem requiring dexterous stoichiometry at the blackboard.

Victory will bring, as one student puts it, “respect and favors.” Success in the 32-team knockout tournament goes a long way to establishing a school’s academic reputation.

“People use the quiz as a barometer for the performance of schools,” Mensa-Bonsu said, adding that the prospect of bragging rights galvanizes parent-teacher associations and flag-waving alumni boosters.

Junior high students and parents pay particular attention.

“People will watch to decide which school to go to,” Eadbert Nortey, a student at the Presbyterian Boys’ Secondary School, said. “Winning shows some kind of standard.”

The school, in fact, is the Manchester United of the quiz competition. Five-time champions, the Presbyterian Boys’ school won back-to-back in 2008 and 2009, the first school to defend a title.

As for 2010, the school's three-peat campaign was delayed when education politics and funding issues scuppered the final.

Blame goes partly to curriculum re-jiggering — senior high in Ghana recently flip-flopped from three years to four, and back to three. But the Ministry of Education also dropped its sponsorship of the quiz, after supporting it for seven years.

Mensa-Bonsu, the producer, is optimistic the next competition is on. He is talking with headmasters and potential private sector sponsors, knowing that government funding is limited.

After all, especially in math and science, Ghana's education system is not Manchester United.

On one hand, a recent report from the government and the U.N. Development Program maintains Ghana can achieve the Millennium Development Goal for universal primary education by 2015. But the same report laments that the “quality of Science and Technology education is falling and has affected students’ interest in the discipline.”

Ghana’s eighth-graders scored last (science) and second-to-last (math) in a 2007 international assessment of nearly 50 countries. And the U.S. Peace Corps, citing a shortage of qualified Ghanaian teachers, makes a point of placing volunteers in math and science teaching positions.

But the quiz and its participants operate on another plane.

“The competition has made math and science more interesting,” claims Dzidefo Afram, a physics teacher at the Presbyterian Boys’ Secondary School.

Mensah-Bonsu tells of girls whose first encounter with a woman scientist was the quizmistress, and one student said the quiz show specifically turned him on to math and science.

“The quiz has had a large impact on the country,” said Peprah. “Parents are proud. Children are proud to see their friends on TV. Everyone is aspiring.”

While teams acknowledge pressure — “You wouldn’t return to school if you lost,” said student Joshua Aryee — students say they are “revered” on campus and believe the quiz’s wide-ranging subject matter gives them “the upper hand” at university and beyond.

For top quiz show graduates, opportunity follows expectations and fame. According to Peprah, students have swept up domestic medical school scholarships and study at the likes of Harvard and Cornell. They are legends.

“The quiz teams are the pride of the schools,” Peprah said. “They excel wherever they go.”