Monday, 24 November 2014

Making Science Education More Practical in Ghana, The PEN-GAST Experience

Brainstorming session ongoing at a recent science workshop in Accra
Science is commonly viewed as a process of obtaining knowledge through experimentation and observation. This means that scientific knowledge is generated through extensive interaction of learners with the physical and natural world. It appears that the role of the teacher, therefore, is to provide students with the requisite tools to embark on this journey of discovery, filled with adventure, curiosity and wonder. Once interest is stimulated and maintained, the rest is history.
Yet in Ghana, especially at the basic school level, lack of basic laboratory materials and equipment interfere with the ideal of teaching science using a hands-on approach. Without proper practicals or demos, students find it more challenging to understand topics taught in class. This may partly be responsible for the general poor performance of basic school pupils in their end-of-studies examinations.

Thankfully, the above situation may soon be in the past as the educational paradigm shifts towards more engaging instructional approaches. One such proposition is low-cost science practicals, designed and run using very cheap readily available resources. A recent workshop jointly organised by the Greater Accra branch of the Ghana Association of Science Teachers (GAST) and Practical Education Network (PEN) introduced district science coordinators and some selected basic school science teachers to some of these activities.

Indicator being extracted from some flowers

The workshop was facilitated by Heather Beem of PEN and MIT D-Lab, while Saddik Mohammed and colleagues from GAST coordinated the logistics. Thomas Tagoe, Habib Sumaila, and myself played various supporting roles over the three days. The workshop covered basic science activities for selected topics in the Junior High School (JHS) curriculum. Apart from performing pre-set experiments, Heather introduced a framework useful for designing new science activities, and solving problems in general. This was well-received and tested by the educators. Feedback from the participants, the facilitator, and the organisers was positive. The science coordinators promised to transfer their experiences to the teachers in their districts through follow-up workshops. The workshop blog and GH Scientific covered details of what transpired.

Heather explaining the design cycle

All in all, being part of the PEN-GAST workshop was a useful experience as I learnt some cool science tricks I would be likely to try out some time. More importantly, I connected with many people influencing science education at the basic level in Ghana, namely science coordinators and teachers. We discussed how some of their own projects fit into initiatives such as Global Lab Ghana, Ghana Educators Network and GH Scientific. There are many opportunities for further collaborations! Finally, I shared some online tools, communities and resources that could be useful for their future learning and work.

Learning science should not only involve memorisation and reasoning, but also performing activities and developing skills. The PEN-GAST workshop demonstrated that cost cannot always inhibit science in action. Teachers can take advantage common low-cost materials to give school science a new twist. This will go a long way to contribute to raising competent innovators and problem solvers of the future.

What are your personal experiences learning science? In what ways can teachers make studying science more fun and engaging? Views welcome!

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