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Imagine this - Carrying out practical science with ninety children with limited English for three hours with, basic apparatus, no gas, no running water and sporadic electricity. It’s not easy. Working in a lab which at best is not fit for purpose by western standards is certainly very challenging.
This is the situation I, a science teacher and Christine Forbes, a chemistry technician, found ourselves in during our first day demonstrating practical science in the Kabale School, just outside of Bukoba, Tanzania. It was inferred by the British Tanzania Society (BTS) that although the school had 3 laboratories and the school had been donated some practical equipment the staff found it difficult to carry out practicals on a regular basis. Which considering the conditions is hardly surprising. We were expecting some scepticism. You could almost imagine the staff room conversation: We’ve got two Europeans coming to rural Africa to show us how to carry out practical science – under the conditions we work in, now this really could be fun to watch!
The school has seven hundred pupils and seven teachers , About one third of the children are orphans, a large percentage walk ten miles to and from school and most of them only eat one meal a day after school has finished and they drink no water during the day because the school has no pump. Pupil absence is high and continuity is therefore difficult. Teachers are often called upon to attend family events such as weddings and funerals in far flung villages so staff absences are frequent and often last for a about a week. Transport to the village is unreliable and staff rely on motorcycles to negotiate the dirt tracks, which during the rainy season is not safe so when staff do turn up they are often late. The school budget is miniscule and the head teacher’s entire time is taken up with administration tasks.
So on the first day, We had gone prepared with plenty of empty film canisters; we sourced vinegar, sodium bicarbonate, balloons, straws, card, piping and a bicycle pump from the local market. We ransacked the bins at our hotel for empty 2 litre drinks containers to make bottle rockets, which meant we then had everything needed to demonstrate controlled, stable, directional thrust and flight. We were given 200 pupils to demonstrate rocket science in the equatorial midday sun. The teachers sat back for about an hour waiting to see how the session would pan out. After a further 30 minutes the staff wanted in on the action and pretty much took over explaining the scientific principles on my behalf.
There was no shortage of bananas in the village, so we suggested we show them DNA extraction techniques the next day, so it was back to town to pick up some methylated spirits and salt.
We pulled out all the glassware they had been donated and made some beakers and funnels of our own out of 500ml plastic water bottles. The school had an immersion heater which we “made fit” our extension cable and, again we had everything we needed. We were then met 120 pupils in a lab designed for 40. It wasn’t until we had our first precipitation of DNA after about one hour that the Biology teacher actually believed that it would work. She asked us to run the experiment again that afternoon.
It was our plan that any help or assistance we give the school is recorded on video so that any funding or charitable donation we receive and send to the Kabale school is recorded for all to see. We showed the head of science how to use a £30 video camera from Argos and windows movie maker, on an old donated laptop. We then made films using Milo and Marvin cartoons from the Institute of Physics. We hadn’t
appreciated that most of the pupils had never seen a video camera or a laptop, but we also didn’t realise how adaptable they were. All the pupils were able to explain scientific principles to a camera. Some pupils needed to shown where the lens was. The pupils are taught about light travelling in straight lines in the Tanzanian curriculum but took some time to understand that if you stand in front of the experiment the camera won’t “see” the image. The same evening I took the head of department, Mr Innocent Paul down to an internet café in Bukoba where I showed him YouTube.com to show to show what other schools are doing with film and also where his films will be shown to the world. He knew the internet existed but was taken back by quite how much it has to offer African schools and education.
On day four and five we made more films of the pupils carrying out experiments of their choice. On day five we had accomplished what we set out to do - establish what the Kabale school needs and train them up in techniques that will show potential donors and other schools what they are doing with the items that the wider community of The Thomas Hardye School donates to them.
It is worth noting what has happened to other donations: Ten shiny new Bunsen burners were useless as I don’t think that there is a piped gas supply within 1000’s kilometres of the school; the burettes had at least 2 years worth of dust on them and the microscopes were the cleanest I have ever seen, considering the dust in the lab.
We went with no pre-conceived ideas on how we were going to best help the staff and pupils. Over lunch at the end of the school week the science teachers decided that it would be best if we could send them one box a month to enable them to carry out a science experiment for a class of 80 children. Over the space of two years we hope realistically to provide them with between 15 and 20 boxes. This will enable the school to build the resources they need, over time, to carry out practicals that best suit their curriculum, the facilities (or lack of) and their class sizes.
The teachers were very proud that each child carries out a food test practical during their time at the school. As a result they have requested visking tubing to demonstrate digestion and osmosis to build on their pre-existing strengths. So the first box, which is already packed and ready to go is not much more that visking tubing with instructions on how to use it to demonstrate osmosis in digestion and a memory stick. By doing this we have successfully doubled the number of biology experiments taking place at the Kabale school.
It is not only the pupils from Kabale school that will benefit from this programme. Pupils from the Thomas Hardye School and its link schools will be involved in putting together boxes based on the Tanzanian curriculum. Our pupils will need to understand the science behind the requested practicals to best put together resources that match the needs and requirements of the Kabale school.
Mr Morgan - Science Outreach
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