November 23, 2017

When PEN Met GAST

They say big things have small beginnings, and this truth can be seen in all of nature, everyday life, sometimes in the business world and also in the movie Prometheus. Well allow me to introduce you to the next big thing which had its small beginnings last week while many were in their offices and schools preparing their tweets for the #TGIF hash tag. Over the course of last week, from the 5th – 7th November, the Practical Education Network (PEN) represented by Dr. Heather Beem was sharpening twenty-four members of the Ghana Association of Science Teachers (GAST). With Assistance from Myself, Gameli Adzaho (blogs at Gamelian world) and Habib Sumaila, the hand-picked participants made up of district science co-ordinators and teachers were cocooned up at the National ICT and Science Resource Centre undergoing what can only be described as a wonderful experience. So in a few years time when there is an explosion of brilliant Ghanaian scientists and people are wondering where it all begun, this is where the answers shall be found:

Day 1

Day 1 kicked off with a brief introduction by Dr. Beem on the aims of the PEN and the idea behind the workshop. The end goal was to promote hands on science and practical experiments to better engage and inspire science students. In a developing country like Ghana where practical science education is not on the priority list of any government, finding alternatives to expensive lab equipment is essential to allow students to witness the wonders of science first hand. Take the slightly complex setup below which is used to produce Oxygen from Manganese dioxide and Hydrogen peroxide.

Oxygen Production

We repeated this same experiment with nothing more than the black stuff from a battery (Manganese dioxide) and Hydrogen peroxide (bought from a local pharmacist). Mix these two together in a plastic bottle and the resulting oxygen can be tested from by rekindling a flame.

We also performed tests for acids and bases using crushed flower petals rather than lithmus paper and developed a concept to explain simple circuits use beans and bottle tops. This was quite ingenious as some imaginative work by the co-ordinators using paper funnels and valves could explain resistors and diodes.

Day 2

Day 2 saw an overflow of creative juices. The day started off with an overview of the design process which was the then applied to the greatest engineering question that ever existed ever since the Tower of Babel; How high can we build before God gets involved? In this instance the question was How high can you stack bananas off the table using only two pieces of A4 sheets before someone eats the bananas. The answer; 16 bananas can be stacked 15cms above the ground using only two sheets of paper and some ingenuity.

Design process and bananas

The process did not stop here but went ahead to design alternative experiments using simple tools to showcase the rectilinear propagation of light, the refraction of light and my personal favourite, the reflective properties of light with nothing more than a mirror, a light source, a sheet of paper and some clever maths to show that the angle of incidence is equal to the angle of reflection.

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The last activity for the day, putting together a circuit complete with switch, LED, resistor, cells and a capacitor proved what many already know; electronics is not for the faint hearted.

Day 3

Day 3 saw a return to some basic experiments to demonstrate basic science principles such as the principles behind food tests and generation of electricity. The highlight of the day involved using nails and 20p coins to connect lemons in series or parallel in an attempt t light up a small LED. As it stands now, half the participants involved in this experiment are convinced that for a brief moment the LED light up with three lemons whereas the other half are convinced it was all an optical illusion brought on by reflections on the glass of the LED. This question remains unanswered so the next time life throws some lemons at you, forget making lemonade, grab some nails, coins, wires and an LED and let us know how many lemons it takes to light up that bad boy.

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Besides all the experiments and learning process, some time was set aside to discuss challenges faced by science educators especially in the areas of promoting hands on science experience for students. Typical challenges included financial restraints, time limitations imposed by lesson durations, availability of resources and inadequate preparation time. All in all, it was a privilege to have district co-ordinators on this workshop as they could provide much needed insights into the institutional challenges within the education system and also deliver maximum impact on return to their various posts. The need for similar workshops on a more frequent basis was identified and the participants tasked themselves to instil values of hands on science education into the teachers they worked with while also providing support. I may not know how it will all turn out but one thing is for sure, High School science education in Ghana will no longer be the same.

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