Thursday, April 3, 2014
This year marked the 10th annual Pi Day celebration in Tanzania, and it was held in a large gated park at Mnazi Mmoja grounds in Dar es Salaam. This was the first year that the event spanned two days, catering to its first-time theme of hands-on teaching aids in mathematics. What could be more fitting to the Shika na Mikono team?! As luck would have it, I knew the man running the Pi Day event from a math conference that I attended in Arusha a couple years ago, so he remembered our group and invited us to come and present some of our best math teaching aids.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ezsur0L0L1c) and lit a sufuria (pot) full of smoke bombs.
In the same light of everything else I’ve talked about in this post, I also received wonderful news recently that my grant proposal for putting on Science Competitions in this country has been approved!! The project is now listed on the Peace Corps website (https://donate.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=donate.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=14-621-010) and is open to receive donations. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE consider helping out with this if you’re able. The entire Science Day event at SEGA was done on a budget of under $50, and we were able to give 130 girls a day that they will never forget and that has certainly allowed them to see math and science in an exciting way that they’ve never seen before. For my project, I want to hold 5 or more multi-day conferences / teacher trainings to further the reach of the Shika philosophy and try to get as many Tanzanians as possible to see the advantage of interactive learning and a hands-on approach to science. Thank you in advance for taking an interest in this too!
Friday, February 28, 2014
In keeping with my extension goal of becoming a “Traveling Science Man” in Tanzania, in early February I took a trip to the valley/bowl of Mbinga, a small town near Songea known for its coffee production and less-than extensive diet consisting mainly of ugali wa mihogo (a lump of starch made from cassava flour). Another extending volunteer from my original Peace Corps class helped to host the 2-day competition between his school and that of another nearby volunteer.
The visiting school wasn’t able to come the first day, so we did a sort of preliminary competition among four teams from the host Mikalanga Secondary School, with student participants coming from all Forms (I-IV). From there, two teams advanced to take on the rival Hagati Secondary, which was represented the next day with four teams of its own. The host school was definitely seen as the underdog, since Hagati students have traditionally performed better on national examinations, and they are considered the more coveted school in the area for those families that can afford the higher school fees.
In the end, however, it was one of the Mikalanga teams that proved victorious, after completing a variety of the staple events such as Egg Drop, Bridge Challenge (teams buy all building materials using a few Science Shillings), Raft Rally (build a raft from aluminum foil), Jenga Jengo (make the tallest building out of straws) and some fun math and logic puzzles. The students were really excited at exceeding their own expectations for themselves and their school, and according to the volunteer at Mikalanga, they were able to show off at the morning assembly the following Monday.
This competition was a great and unique experience for me because the host school Mikalanga is one of the lowest performing secondary schools in the region, and has only recently gotten a couple of science teachers, meaning that many of the students there have not studied math or science for their entire high school education. Coming to that kind of setting to do a science competition reminded me of the real value of doing these kinds of events. At least for me, it’s not so much about getting every student to understand all of the concepts being talked about or necessarily showing immediate improvement on exams as it is about getting students to make some positive associations with math and science rather than just writing them off as “very difficult,” or in the case of math, “ugonjwa wa taifa” (“national disease”). Getting to see an entire school of underperforming students who have never left their home village cheering, standing on tables to watch bridge testing and intently listening to a butchered Swahili explanation of Archimedes’ Principle was a great motivation for me and a reminder of the reason why I wanted to extend my service in the first place. Many thanks to Mikalanga and Hagati schools for participating and for hosting me!
One of the perks of visiting the volunteer’s site near Mbinga was its proximity to Lake Nyasa (or Lake Malawi), which means delicious fresh fish was only a 12 hour hike away. Luckily for me, Jerome was coming back from the lake anyways, and so he shared with me some of the best fish I’ve ever had. Also on the menu for the weekend was a slightly less traditional delicacy, pigeon. Jerome’s neighbors had recently started raising a small pigeon farm of sorts, which were apparently not the best courtyard-mates, so he was pretty pleased with the idea of taking them off their hands. Turns out, when they’re not bathing in sewers and eating city trash, pigeons aren’t all that bad (sometimes the stereotype “tastes like chicken” is perfectly valid). Nonetheless, this is definitely an experience I don’t need to recreate in America.
In other news, our Shika na Mikono science team has selected its newest members from the most recent group of Education volunteers. Of course myself and the rest of the current team will still be around for a while, but we wanted to incorporate the new people as early as possible so that we can hand things off better over the course of several months rather than a couple weeks, which is how it’s been done in the past. We will all be gathering in Morogoro in mid-March to do a Science Day at a nearby volunteer’s school so that the new group can get some experience in preparing for and conducting such events and trainings. The Shika team has made such great progress in working with the Ministry of Education over the past year that we want to make sure that that relationship continues to grow in years to come.
So more on that to come shortly, as well as a recap of a math Pi Day celebration on 3/14, so stay tuned!
Sunday, January 19, 2014
To make for a smoother transition back into the country (and to kill time before going to the in-service training of the new Education Volunteers), Belle and I took a detour to Mafia Island the day after our return to country. Apparently NOT known for housing all of the head Tanzanian mobsters (who knew?), Mafia is actually well known for having whale sharks pass by on their annual migration pattern from the months of November – early February. We were able to see 5 or 6 of them and actually got to swim and snorkel alongside them! Whale sharks are apparently the largest fish in the world, but pose no threat to humans because they are filter feeders that only eat plankton. They have really cool spots on their bodies, which are unique to each individual and can be used as an alternative “tagging” method for biologists to identify them. Even though they are relatively slow swimmers compared to other ocean-dwellers, they were able to easily out-swim us as soon as we entered the water. But we were still able to get close enough in the boat so that when I jumped in, I almost got smacked in the face by one’s massive tail fin. It was a lot of fun!
After Mafia we decided to make an impromptu trip to Zanzibar for a couple days. I had been there once before when Christine came to visit a year and a half ago, but it was Belle’s first time, so we did the spice tour which includes a nice trip to the beach at the end. More delicious sea food and fresh sugar cane juice as well.
The real reason we had to stay in Dar all that time though was because the new group of Volunteers who arrived last July were having their in-service training, and our Shika na Mikono science team was given a day to do sessions for them. For this training, volunteers come with their counterparts (Tanzanian teachers at their schools who they work well with) and go through the sessions together. We themed the Shika sessions in a game show setting called “Whose Lab is it Anyway?” It consisted of three rounds for teams of PCVs and Tanzanians together to compete in making useful math and science teaching aids and hands-on activities.
The first round had all teams separated by subject (math, physics, biology, chemistry), trying to use a table of local materials (aka trash) to teach about a topic from the Tanzanian syllabi. We Shika members served as coaches/judges and selected one team from our subject to advance to the next round. For Round 2, the four remaining teams were given additional time and better materials to prepare a 3-minute mini lesson from one of three assigned topics from their subject. While they were preparing that, the rest of the teams were able to get guidance on the national exams or compete in a “losers bracket” science competition of constructing buildings out of straws. The remaining teams presented their mini lessons to the audience, but were judged on a scale of 1-10 by our panel of Shika experts. Without meaning to, I apparently became the Simon of the group because I was not quite as lenient of a scorer as the rest of the judges. The top 2 teams advanced to Round 3, where they were given 5,000 shillings (about 3 dollars) of credit to buy a limited set of items found in local stores to prepare a hands-on activity that could be performed by a full class of students. This time, we played the role of the students, but the audience got to vote for the winner. We gave out prizes to winning teams that we had picked up in our recent trip to America. Everyone seemed to enjoy it, especially all the cheesy game show music we cued up throughout the show.
We had a great time preparing everything too (exhausting though it was), and coming up with new explosion ideas for the introduction. For this one, we rigged up several sets of hydraulic presses using plastic syringes and tubing which could be used to push small cups of kerosene into charcoal stoves below, which made big flames timed to the lyrics of Fall Out Boy’s new “Light it Up” song. It was cool because using the syringe presses made it possible for someone to hide behind the front table and “detonate” the explosions remotely without being seen by the audience. Then Ben, the host, came in and announced the rest of us one-by-one as we popped out from our hiding places (I was hiding behind a curtain) and dropped smoke bombs into the stoves. The people in the front row got a bit of smoke in their faces, but it still got a good reaction from the crowd.
In keeping with the "Changing of the Seasons” theme, this was likely the last Peace Corps training that our group will do together, since this new group of volunteers will soon be taking over the reins of Shika. Soon we will choose our successors with the help of the Peace Corps staff, and hopefully be able to serve as mentors to them during the remaining time that we all have in country before we hand things over completely. It’s always difficult passing on projects from one class to the next, but it helped last year that I was extending and could help bridge the gap a little bit. It’s doubtful that anyone from the current group will be extending into next year, so we want to get the new group started as quickly as possible so that we can work with them before we leave. We still have a lot planned for the near future as well, and will hopefully continue working with the Ministry of Education doing teacher trainings like we started last year. As for me, I’m now heading back down to the rains and cooler weather of the southern highlands to my site for the start of another school year and teaching Form II math. Helia Mwaka Mpya! (Happy New Year!)
Monday, November 4, 2013
Sure, it might not make the most exciting title for a Harry Potter spin-off, but it was still a monumental event in the short history of Peace Corps Tanzania’s Shika na Mikono hands-on science group. Since its origin in 2009, the Shika group has had opportunities to work with the Ministry at various workshops, but it has typically been for the purpose of creating new teaching manuals and resources. Last month, however, marked the first time Shika has been invited to actually conduct sessions at a Ministry training. And it was a huge success! Below is a write-up we made as a Peace Corps Success Story, which will soon be published in the PC Tanzania weekly newsletter given to all PCVs and PC staff. The Ministry contacts who invited us to this training have already invited us to additional regional math and science trainings in Mbeya and Dodoma at the end of this month. Enjoy!
The week of the 21st through the 25th of October, Peace Corps’ Shika na Mikono hands-on science team was invited by the Ministry of Education and Vocational Training (MoEVT) of Tanzania to help facilitate an INSET workshop for national and regional trainers in Morogoro. The workshop provided various Math, Science, and Language trainers with the necessary information and resources to train other Tanzanian teachers upon return to their respective regions. Sessions focused on educational improvement, including Big Results Now (BRN), classroom and presentation skills, and hands-on science, which is where Shika na Mikono was called in to assist.
The Shika Team were allotted one day (five hours) with the Math and Science trainers to share their experiences of using locally available materials to teach hands-on science in Tanzanian schools. The five members of the Shika Team included Belle Archaphorn (Mbeya), Willie Blackmon (Mbeya), Steve Bonomo (Ruvuma), Ryan Early (Dodoma), and Ben Savonen (Iringa). Workshop Coordinator Dorothy Mwaluko and Salum Kilipamwambu from the Ministry assisted the Shika members in their preparations, while also providing the supplies and resources required to conduct their sessions.
Approximately 70 trainers represented the four subject panels (Math, Biology, Chemistry, and Physics). After a brief introduction to the aims and goals of the Shika na Mikono group, the trainers were split up by subject for the first session: The Box of Fun. The Box of Fun is an activity that challenges teachers to come up with teaching aids for various assigned topics on the spot, using only a limited number of locally available science materials (LASMs) to be shared among all groups. The trainers were forced to use their creativity to construct interactive teaching materials to be used in the classroom as well as the laboratory in the absence of traditional teaching resources. After each group had a few minutes to brainstorm and construct, they were given a chance to present their ideas to the whole group. It was great to see the creativity and innovative ideas of each group, which proved that science and math do not require expensive materials to teach in an exciting way!
Following the Box of Fun was a session entitled Shika Express, which involved a gallery walk and science fair set-up of various, short demonstrations that can be done in the classroom, also using LASMs. Tables were aligned so that all participants could walk around and observe demonstrations for all subjects, which were led by the respective Shika members. Demonstrations included construction of a simple DC motor, alternatives to litmus or pH paper using hibiscus leaves, a cardboard model hand to show joints and movement, as well as multiple interactive mathematics teaching games.
After the chai break, the Shika Team began its second session with a presentation on performing science competitions for students in order to stimulate their creativity and interest in the math and science subjects. Following a short introductory video and explanation, the trainers were divided into teams of 4-5 and asked to perform the competitions themselves. Teams competed in one of two different events: Egg Drop and Bridge Challenge. The Egg Drop competition required teams to design and build a device using a limited set of materials to safely carry an egg from a drop height of roughly 3 metres. Teams taking the Bridge Challenge were asked to build a bridge that could withstand the greatest load before failure. However, they were given only 15 Science Shillings with which they needed to purchase all (locally available) construction materials from Mama Belle’s Science Duka. Following construction, all of the devices and bridges were observed and tested for all groups to see. What a fun way to learn about science!
The final session led by the Shika Team was one on conducting math and science NECTA practicals by substituting local materials for expensive lab equipment. Participants were able to see and think about alternative methods for doing practicals at schools which lack traditional laboratory apparatus. Beakers were replaced by water bottles, glass test tubes by plastic syringes, expensive chemicals by their local sources - these and many other examples helped to prove that science can be taught anywhere and on a small budget. In this way, students can see that science exists all around them in their daily lives and not just in the laboratory.
Upon completion of the Shika na Mikono sessions, Salum and the Shika members expressed their gratitude for the invitation to participate in the Ministry of Education INSET workshop by presenting the coordinator with several copies of the Shika na Mikono hands-on science and math manuals to be given to the head regional trainers for further distribution at future trainings. The Shika Team looks forward to future opportunities to share interactive math and science teaching ideas, as well as a continued partnership with the Ministry of Education in Tanzania.
The Shika Team poses with Ministry representatives.
(Top row) pictured left to right: Ben Savonen, Ryan Early, Willie Blackmon, Salum Kilipamwambu, Steve Bonomo
(Bottom row) pictured left to right: Belle Archaphorn, Dorothy Mwaluko
In the time since my last blog post, I took a brief, yet densely intense return trip to America, my second since originally coming to Tanzania in June of 2011. My two-week refresher included attending a cousin’s wedding near Chicago, followed by a baseball-road-trip-inspired tour of Texas. As it was my first taste of ballpark tours in 3 summers, as well as my first chance to watch live baseball in a couple years, I was extremely excited and more than willing to pack in the extra travelling to an already-limited stay home (besides, who can complain about transportation that leaves on-time and gives you a seat all to yourself?).
My Texas tour began in Austin, where I had a day to explore the campus at the University of Texas and splurge on some delicious tex-mex stuffed avocados and sweet tea. After meeting up with the rest of the gang, we drove to Houston to see an Astros-Yankees game, whose meaninglessness in terms of league standings was overshadowed by what I thought to be a really cool stadium in Minute Maid Park. The highlight was getting to see the engineering wonder of the 20-minute retractable roof opening for a post-game fireworks display. The next day we got an early start to Arlington to catch a Rangers-Angels game (this one actually relevant) that got bumped up 7 hours due to imminent storms. Narrowly dodging the rains after the Rangers victory, we sought shelter and killed some time playing 4-way air hockey, complements of Dave and Busters, and then stayed the night at Belle’s family’s house near Plano.
As luck would have it, some of the other recently-returned PCVs from my class (and fellow Njombe-natives) were also in the area and were able to meet up for a very disappointing all-you-can-eat pancakes brunch at Steak ‘n Shake (it’s no IHOP, I shoulda known…). While the baseball group headed back to Austin, I stayed a couple extra days to spend some more time with Belle’s family. They took me to the Texas State Fair in Dallas, which featured the single largest display of unexpectedly deep-fried foods I’ve ever seen, including (of course) the deep-fried thanksgiving dinner. I was also able to try all kinds of home-made and dine-in Thai food (none of which are done justice by the word scrumptrulescent) and also meet a lot of the extended family and friends who live nearby.
The trip home was a great way to rejuvenate myself as I continue now in my one-year extension, but in actuality it was just a snack, as I’ll be coming home once again around Thanksgiving for my month-long home leave granted by Peace Corps. So for everyone I wasn’t able to see this time, I’ll still see you soon!
As for life back in Tanzania, things have been getting really exciting with our Shika na Mikono group, so much so that it warrants its own separate post! And so, submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society, I call this blog post…
Saturday, August 31, 2013
Although it probably could have been inferred from the fact that I’m not back in America after completing 2 years of Peace Corps service, I can finally say with certainty that I am in fact extending my service for a third year. After spending much of the last few months in uncertainty on what the next step for me would be, I was finally able to realize that what I most want to do right now is continue teaching here in Tanzania and continue the work I’ve been doing with the “Shika na Mikono” hands-on science group and conducting science competitions around the country. In other words, I want to be a travelling science man who goes around Tanzania promoting interactive science events and working with other Peace Corps Volunteers.
I will be staying at my current site at Wilima Secondary School near Njombe, and will continue teaching, though with a reduced number of scheduled periods. I am continuing to teach Form I Math, but will have more time to prepare Physics lab practicals for students in every grade level. Hopefully around once a month or so, I will be able to visit other Volunteers’ schools or nearby towns and provide the materials and planning to do science competitions / seminars with their students. Depending on how things go, it may also be possible to do region-wide science fairs and possibly gain added support from the Ministry of Education as well.
So please stay tuned as things progress, as I will continue to give inside looks into the various events and conferences that I take part in around Tanzania. If there is anyone who may be interested in supporting these kinds of events, either by donating money, books, supplies or other learning resources, please feel free to contact me by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) for now, and please also be on the lookout soon for a more direct way to contribute that I will make available online. BUT PLEASE DO NOT SEND PACKAGES OR BOXES OF SUPPLIES TO MY PO BOX IN NJOMBE!!!! Problems with the Njombe customs office continue to stifle attempts at receiving care packages from America, so until things get figured out, please don’t send anything other than letters to that address.
In other news, I’ll be coming home in a couple weeks! For the last two weeks of September I’ll be home - a Game Night wedding and a Texas baseball trip are just too much of an excuse not to use to come home, so I am very much looking forward to that. Plus, one of the perks of extending for a full year with the Peace Corps is that they give you a month’s home leave to use whenever you want. So I’ll be adding on a few days using my regular vacation time to be home from Thanksgiving, all the way up through New Year’s! Can’t wait to hopefully get to see everyone over at least one of those trips!
Belle, Ben and I were the three chosen representatives from the Shika na Mikono hands-on science team to go to the pre-service training (PST) of the newly arrived 2013 class of education volunteers. The location of PST was changed this year, from Morogoro, where I completed my training almost exactly 2 years ago, to the altogether underwhelming new location of Korogwe, near the coastal region of Tanga. However, despite its lack of luxuries, conveniences and more than 2 dining options, Korogwe did perhaps offer the trainees a more genuine “Tanzanian experience” than its predecessor. And at least we were able to tell the new group in all honesty that going to their sites would almost certainly actually be an upgrade compared to what they’ve gotten used to in 10 weeks of training.
During the week, the trainees stayed at their CBT’s, or local clusters of nearby village schools, while we made preparations for our sessions on Friday and Saturday. Our task was to prepare the volunteers for teaching math and science in a Tanzanian context and to show them ways to use cheap and easy-to-find materials to make their teaching more interactive. But of course, as has been the case for the past couple years of such trainings, the primary area of focus was to make a dazzling explosion-filled introduction that would hopefully scare the new volunteers as much as inspire them. So that’s what we spent the majority of our week prepping for.
Here’s what we did: For a while, the Shika team has been working to perfect locally available recipes for gunpowder and smoke bombs, so we made a few trial batches of each to make sure everything would go as planned. For the introduction, the group was led into a dimly lit open dining hall as initial smoke bombs were thrown into the charcoal jiko’s (stoves) placed on the front stage. Out of the shadows appeared Ben, who as he walked out, initiated a video space montage, finely tuned to coincide with the song Lux Aeterna by Clint Mansell (think Requiem for a Dream). Throughout the video, Ben stood on the stage in front of the crowd, giving a passionate monologue on the mysteries of space and our attempts to understand the universe through science. Meanwhile, Belle and I slowly approached from the back of the room with lit toilet paper torches, lighting kerosene-soaked rocks on the ground on either side of the standing crowd, before setting off pouches of gunpowder front and center, and then finally ascending the stage for a synchronized final trio of smoke bombs as the music reached its final crescendo and Ben capped off his speech with, “We are….Shika na Mikono!”
Of course in a perfect world, things would have actually lit as they were expected, been timed correctly, and we would have mysteriously disappeared behind a wall of smoke and reappeared in the back of the room. But it was still pretty entertaining I think, and we made sure to admit that we are in fact nothing more than a bunch of nerds who like to blow things up.
Needless to say, the rest of our training was a let down compared to the introduction, but it was the first time the trainees had training sessions that weren’t just sitting and listening to powerpoint presentations, so they all said they really appreciated our days with them. For our first session, we split them up into small groups and dumped out a giant “Box of Fun,” filled with different items that can be found almost anywhere at very little cost. Each group was given a couple topics from the various science syllabi and had to come up with some kind of engaging way to present the topic. There were some really creative ideas from the volunteers, and Ben, Belle and I shared some of our own that we’ve picked during our time teaching. We also introduced them to the idea of doing science competitions by having them do an Egg Drop competition, and showed them how to set up and conduct science practicals, or lab experiments. A couple times we split up into separate math and science groups to talk about issues specific to those respective subjects.
In the end, it was a lot of work and travel for a couple days of training that went by incredibly fast, but we all loved being able to lead our sessions and getting to know the new group of volunteers. They will be headed to their sites in early September, and it sounds like 3 will be coming down to Njombe, so that’s very exciting.
And I’ll actually be able to get to know them because…