Workshop Assistants

Due to funding and timing constraints, I wasn’t able to come along with other PEN teammates this time. But I was so fortunate to connect with folks here that were interested in spending three days of their time to help me run the workshop.

Gameli Adzaho, who is a science/tech teacher+youth enthusiast+entrepreneur+blogger+more

Tom Tagoe, who (like me!) is a recent PhD graduate and is now working to promote science education. He founded Ghana Scientific – an online community for all things science in Ghana. I look forward to seeing all the ways in which that platform can expand – encouraging youth to pursue STEM, connecting students with internship opportunities, etc. They put a lovely post on our workshop here: http://ghscientific.com/2014/11/11/putting-the-pen-to-the-gast/

Habib Simaila, who is one of the students I worked with the first time I came to Ghana (at the TTI Fab Lab) and who happened to be in Accra this week.


gameli-sshot tom-sshot

Thanks to these guys’ contributions, I was not just able to reduce my amount of frantically running around, but got to have their expertise and passion add depth and energy to the whole event. Most of all, I’m grateful for the new friends I’ve made.


Here are short clips of Tom and Gameli talking about their experience. Sorry Tom’s got cut short…



Workshop: Day 3


Our workshop location

Last day! I’m starting to get the hang of this.

Saddik started off the morning schedule by sharing some ideas on classroom management in large classes. It was good for him to share some of his expertise and it was a reminder that quality science education involves more facets than including hands-on activities. (My hypothesis though is that HOA are the most important factor to incorporate at this stage.)

After that, I wanted everyone to share the activities they created yesterday with the whole group, since there wasn’t time at the end of Day 2 to do so. That turned out to be a bit tricky, since most of the materials had been put back on the side, so people reverted to describing their designs with words. I placed the materials in front of them and asked them to re-build their designs, but it was hard to cold-start that process. Perhaps it’s hard to remember exactly what you did, or perhaps it’s hard to do when there are a bunch of people staring at you, or perhaps it takes some warm-up time to get into the mode of making.


Some of the everyday materials we used

I asked for someone to demonstrate what they did in the electronics session, but this again deviated from where I was trying to lead things. One participant (who was part of the group that carefully sketched out their thoughts and made preliminary calculations before moving forward with any of their designs) shared what they reviewed about the theory of how different components work and led us step-by-step through identifying the resistance value of resistors based on the color bands. It’s nice that their team had worked together to cover the basic theory for those that were less familiar, but the participants were getting bored from sitting still that long.

I needed to somehow bring the practicality back into the conversation. I had noticed on my way into the building that morning, that there was a large circuit mounted on the wall next to the admin’s office. The cover was off, so all the components were visible. I told everyone to stand up and that we were making a quick field trip to see a real circuit. Everyone was excited to crowd in around the board and see the components they had learned about in use on a real thing (“those are capacitors!”, “these pieces are bigger than what we were using”, “we haven’t learned about that kind – what is that?”)! Embarrasingly, I don’t know what the circuit does (nothing was labeled, and I didn’t want to barge in on the admin’s office to see where the connections went), but at least there was a chance for the participants to see that what we were talking about is actually being used in things all around us.

By the time we all gathered back in our meeting room, one of the participants showed up with some old dusty circuits in his hands. I have no idea where he got them, but I was excited to see them exploring their surroundings to find more examples.

I ended the morning sessions with a few more quick-fire demos: lemon batteries, food tests (another topic in the syllabus) using local materials, and we played with some plant leaves that someone brought for testing of acidic properties. Making lemon batteries was very fun for them – they jumped into the activity, trying different types of coins, and immediately wanted to try to light the LEDs they were working with the day before. It drove home the point to me the deep need for training in and exposure to electronics. Only 2-3 of them had ever used (and seen?) a multimeter before. They said, “We don’t have those – they’re expensive”. I responded that we had bought one locally for $5, and they were surprised.

Just before lunch, the participants filled out an end-of-workshop survey to collect their perceptions comfort levels performing these experiments.

After lunch, we had a discussion session that I was looking forward to. I was worried because things were behind schedule, leaving us only about 30 minutes to discuss – “what are you going to do next?” “how can PEN be most helpful?”

To my great happiness, the general consent in the room was a hearty agreement that they would go back to their districts and lead their own workshops for their teachers. “As for the work, we will do it. We will do it.”

When I asked what they need to do a workshop right now, they only cited buying the materials and organizing the logistics to gather their teachers. Otherwise, they virtually all said that they were comfortable replicating everything they saw here. We didn’t need hours and hours to brainstorm and plan – they were ready to go.

More of my thoughts and analysis to come in a future post. But the quick version is that I finished the workshop in a state of simultaneous excitement and exhaustion.


They presented me some African wear as a thank you


Some happy District Coordinators 

Workshop: Day 2

Day 2 was invigorating.

My aim with this work is that we can help teachers view themselves as innovators, capable of creating their own hands-on activities. We started to see the beginning of that very clearly today.

My approach to accomplishing this (which I was trying for the first time here) was to explain the design process at the beginning of the day, go through an activity to practice it, then apply the process to a topic in the syllabus.

I briefly talked about design (which I’ve found myself falling more in love with lately) and then challenged them to go through D-Lab’s CCB Maize Raise. Well… Banana Raise since it was easier for me to find a bunch of bananas here. In teams, I asked them to raise as many bananas as possible at least 15 cm off of the ground (imagining that they are trying to keep rodents away from where they are storing their fruit at home). And they were only allowed to use two sheets of paper.

This activity is empowering! A seemingly impossible challenge can be achieved through teamwork, creativity, and use of the design cycle. The teams readily came up with various solutions. The room was filled with chatter and energy as people discussed strategy, and the cell phone cameras were firing left and right to capture the various creations.


It was hard to get everyone’s attention back, and even once I did, people kept wanting to talk and share 1- how surprised they were that they could come up with a solution and 2- how much they wanted there to be more “real-life” activities like this in their classrooms.

Next up: light energy – a topic that was mentioned by the participants as being hard to develop activities for, but since the concepts are generally understood, I chose this as something they could start trying to apply the design process to. I charged them to design an activity to explain the concepts that the syllabus covers: One team developed something to show reflection, one team was on refraction, and the final team on the rectilinear propagation of light.

It was a natural transition- they were already in groups and there was still a buzz in the room. With some basic starter materials, they jumped in without me saying hardly anything else.

reflection refraction

After lunch, I was again scrambling to adjust what I had planned for the afternoon. I mentioned to my wonderful assistants (who I’ll introduce in another post) that we were going to cover electronics, but that I was still deciding what exactly to present. One of them was trying to clarify what was going on and said, “so you’re going to give them some components and tell them to just build a circuit?”. That was not what I was originally thinking, but it was actually a great idea, especially given how everything today had been presented as a Challenge.

So I told everyone to gather whatever components they needed from a pile and make something that could light an LED using a switch. It appeared to be the first time that some of the participants had worked with real electronics components before. Their continued teamwork and can-do attitude helped them get through this activity and left me with a big smile.

Workshop: Day 1 Afternoon

We sat down for a very filling lunch. I tried to speak to one of the participants sitting next to me, but wasn’t able to go very deep. I guess I’m still learning how to have a meaningful cross-cultural, cross-generational conversation here.

Meanwhile, my mind was racing because we had gotten through the activities faster than I had expected. Would I be able to fill the rest of the afternoon? Also, I wasn’t sure how people were engaging with the content overall. The 4-5 people who readily jumped to the front of the room to help prepare the flowers were clearly interested, but the majority of the others had been sitting back in their seats, where they could barely see what was happening.

We went back to the classroom (We are meeting in the Computer Lab, which is a nice room, but has no computers. They are being stored in another room temporarily. Hopefully that means that they still function, but just need to be brought out for any workshops/programs that come to use them. My intent in pointing this out is not to ridicule anything. In fact, improving such situations is not straightforward, as our D-Lab:Ed team discovered this summer. It’s just to say that if this is the level of equipment that the national venue for science programs and workshops has, you can imagine how little teachers themselves must feel that they have to work with.). I was so happy to discover that two people had left lunch early, wandered around outside, and brought back some more flowers for us to test! I’m not sure how far they walked, since I couldn’t find any in the immediate vicinity of the building.

more flowers

We tested a few of the new flowers. We also tried making litmus paper by dipping paper into the watery flower pigment. It didn’t work that well, but it was fun that people wanted to give it a try.

Last topic I wanted to cover for the day was electronics. This is something that has been mentioned to me by several folks as being a difficult topic. I decided that rather than demo how to build any particular circuit, I’d use a demo to describe what happens inside a circuit. Electrons flow through a circuit as beans being moved across bottle caps placed in a circle. Using manipulatives, we explored the function of different electronic components. A resistor reduces the flow of beans and a capacitor stores them. I didn’t have anything good planned for how to depict a diode, but people started jumping in with suggestions. One of the participants fashioned a slide+hinged door out of paper that would allow beans to come out one way, but not enter from the other way.

For this activity, I forced everyone to stand in a circle around the desk, so they all had to pay attention! But they were enthusiastic. I asked for volunteers to play the role of each component in our pretend circuit and go through what the electrons would do at each point. One of the ladies who was farther back, who probably couldn’t see very well, asked the lady in front of her (who was the capacitor), “Are you doing it?” She emphatically responded, “I am storing! I am storing!”

Finally, we finished by handing around the outline of the JHS science syllabus to each row of participants and asking them to circle the top three hardest topics for their teachers to teach. And mark whether it’s hard because of finding materials, understanding the concept, or knowing how to explain/teach it. This will help me select topics to cover for the rest of the workshop.





Workshop: Day 1 Morning

Whew- day one of the workshop is done! I survived the whirlwind.
After working to the wee hours of the morning frantically testing a couple of the activities on the floor of my room (would the flowers I picked up actually work as pH indicators? kind of!), and leaving the house by 6 AM to “beat” the traffic, I made it to the National Science Resource Center, where the workshop was being held.


45 minutes after our supposed start time, we got started. We had waited for the staff to arrive to unlock the doors and for a critical mass (~half of the 20) to arrive – Is this Ghanaian time? Or is it the traffic? Or do they see coming to this as a chore?

After an opening prayer and introduction from the Regional Science Coordinator, I jumped in and gave an introduction to PEN: who we are, the kinds of things we have done, and how we hope to work with them to promote hands-on activities.

I began with a demo that involves fire! Although it is one I have done before, I didn’t have a chance to practice it with my materials here yet, so I was thinking in my head “Oh man, this better work. How am I going to convince them to listen to me lead a hands-on science workshop if I can’t even get the first one to work?” But thankfully the chemical laws of nature have not changed since I last tried it. Manganese dioxide (the black powder you can get if you open up a dry cell battery) still successfully acts as a catalyst to decompose hydrogen peroxide to hydrogen and oxygen. This method for the production of oxygen gas can take place inside a water bottle and can be visualized with a glowing splint flaming up upon contact.
The participants were impressed. Compared to what is required to do this experiment using the suggested lab equipment, this seemed very do-able and effective at demonstrating a concept.

We discussed what they see as the benefits/challenges of doing hands-on activities. In general, people agreed that they can enhance learning, and connect science to real-life activities. If a kid saw the glowing splint in the oxygen demo, they may go home and see a connection to what happens as they blow on the flames of their stoves. They described the main challenges as being big class sizes and time. Interestingly, they didn’t think materials were too difficult to acquire. I wonder if that perspective was influenced by having just seen the oxygen demo.

What I immediately noticed as the discussion unfolded was that having this group of people together in one room could in and of itself be a powerful thing.
Something important I found out only a couple of days ago (due to some miscommunication), is that my co-organizer was so excited about the potential of this workshop that he decided to invite all the District Science Coordinators from Greater Accra to participate, rather than current teachers themselves. That totally changes the dynamics in the room and the desired outcomes for the workshop. The potential though is great. These people are already responsible for overseeing the work of a group of science teachers and providing them assistance. If we can get the Coordinators on board with doing more practicals and if they can brainstorm together how to make that happen, the result can be greater than what we had originally envisioned.
It’s just that “training the teacher trainers” is a tall order for someone who is running a workshop with adults abroad for the first time. We had intended this to be more of an exploratory session where we all could begin probing this space together and I could learn how to do this kind of thing. Well, here we go 🙂

The discussion could have continued for a while, but the Coordinators decided that they would have another meeting afterwards to discuss more about what they themselves could do to promote practicals. For now, they wanted more demos.
So I showed how one can use the pigment in flowers to serve as a pH indicator. A couple of excited volunteers came up to help grind petals, but most people stayed back, comfortable in their seats. Once the indicator was finally ready, we combined one sample with an acid (vinegar), one with a base (baking soda), kept a control, and noted a color change. Indeed the pink flower I picked turned brownish in the base and lighter pink in the acid. Those that were involved in the setup were intrigued: “Does it matter what color it turns? Does it matter what kind of flower to use?” Berthi had also brought some purple flowers, which we tried, and they worked even better. The color was green in base and light pink in the acid.
“Does that mean all acids will make the flower indicator turn light pink?” “You can test it out – here are two other types of flowers.”
One person was reminded of bitter leaf, a plant with acidic properties, which perhaps could also be used in some type of experiment.
Another person thought ahead and wondered out loud if we could take a piece of paper, crush the flower petals on it, and make our own litmus paper.


How invigorating to see their curiosity and impetus to do additional experimentation themselves!

Food, conversations, and pharmacies

It’s been a great few days of settling in here. The transition has been more smooth than my first visit here. That is certainly thanks in part to my wonderful collaborators/hosts Saddik and Berthi, who said “I don’t want you calling me telling me you have a stomachache or a fever!”, so they are watching over me very carefully. And thanks to Berthi for feeding me jollof rice, fufu, and banku.

jollof-rice banku

Over the weekend, I went to church with Berthi. After the service, everyone stayed around and chatted for a few more hours. No rushing here. It was a great chance to finally get to talk to Berthi more in depth about her experience as a teacher, what struggles she faces, and what she hopes for. We took a walk (in the scorching sun) and chatted for quite a while. She was formerly a teacher and is now one of the District Science Coordinators, which means she oversees a group of science teachers, providing them technical and pedagogical help. It’s great that such a position exists. She shared the financial frustrations that teachers face and her desire that she and her teachers could learn more practicals.

After our walk, we come back to talk with other members of the congregation. We shared that I was here to help put on a workshop, people very kindly welcomed me, and we greeted the next set of people. When we began talking to one person however, he immediately starting shaking his head and sharing his skepticism that anything would be able to change the education system here, aside from increasing pay for teachers. Right now, (according to him) people generally don’t choose to become teachers unless they don’t have other options.
His skepticism caught me off guard. Generally people simply welcome me and wish me a nice time here. Also, I am used to hearing opinions on the other end of the spectrum. As an instructor of D-Lab:Education, we are constantly receiving requests from various communities to work with them and having to turn down a majority of them due to lack of manpower and funding.

Another person I talked to the next day shared similar skepticism. He said that even if we show that you can cheaply buy materials for these activities, teachers still may not actually do them. He said he’s not sure why – that’s just his feeling – maybe laziness, maybe a belief that the school should pay for everything and provide it to them.

I’m left with this impression: People are skeptical that science education will change but they wish they were wrong.
I wonder if the skeptics would change their minds if they saw for themselves what is possible with local materials? Or if they themselves experienced understanding a difficult concept through the use of tactile tools?
It is great to have people bring up the issues they see rather than sugarcoat it, as would happen if I only spoke with our collaborators. It forces us to think more carefully about our work and what questions we should test. Let’s see what happens when we gather a bunch of “early adopters” together in one room for three days and where things lead. Maybe the skeptics will eventually get on board as well.

On a final note, I’ve been wandering around to pharmacies, supermarkets, and roadside shops to collect materials to use in our workshop. I’ve also been the crazy white girl picking flowers off the ground for science experiments…

pharmacy flowers

Our workshop in collaboration with the Ghana Association of Science Teachers- Greater Accra Branch starts tomorrow! I’m very excited for the possibilities of what can happen, but also feeling the nervousness that comes with uncertainty.

Our vision

Practical Education Network (PEN) works with teachers to design hands-on science activities based on the national curriculum. This month, we are kicking off a new phase of work starting in Accra, Ghana.

You can read a bit about the background of PEN here and here. We are a group of MIT students and alums who joined together in 2011 with a vision of sharing the MIT style “learning by doing” with others so that they could learn to design and build solutions to real problems in their lives. We are especially interested in working with those communities who seemingly have the least resources to enable such endeavors.

Over the last few years, we have written dozens of lessons, designed material kits to accompany them, and shared them with hundreds of students and dozens of teachers in Boston, San Francisco, Peru, Ghana, South Africa, and Tanzania. Those solar-powered lamps, small-scale wind turbines, and saltwater batteries certainly piqued curiosity and inspiration in those students. And with a few years under our belt, we are starting to see the fruit of that in some of our students, who have chosen to go on to university and study engineering. However, two major questions arose for us: 1- how long could we continue to produce curriculum and fund shipment of materials abroad? 2- would people even use things shipped over? In the field, we began to observe many interesting science curricula collecting dust in the corner of classrooms.

I’ve just arrived in Accra to kick off our new phase of work. PEN has re-envisioned our role in this field and designed an approach of working with teachers to facilitate indigenous creation of practical science activities. We will start by working within existing educational structures: teachers have a national curriculum to follow, so we’d like to help them (and their students) experience the wonder of scientific exploration in the classrooms where they’re already meeting and through the topics that they’re already covering.

The sun, dust, and music have shown me a warm welcome to this place I last visited 3 years ago. I can’t wait to meet and work with the budding Practical Educators here.