Teaching science using the ordinary!
I have taught science for almost 12 years in schools & kindergartens in Norway, at the 94-year-old Science Museum in London (visited by nearly 3.3 million people annually) & the last few years in communities and schools across Pakistan from Skardu to Larkana.
In my work across Pakistan these last 5 years, one experience reinforced in me the importance of using the ordinary to engage communities with science. During the school lockdowns in 2021, my social enterprise, Science Fuse partnered up with the School of Scholars based in Khuzdar Balochistan. It is run by the incredible Sumera Mehboob I met during our 2018 Acumen Fellowship.
We had been deliberating for quite sometime before the pandemic arrived on how to work together. Sumera was keen to improve the quality of science education & engagement at her school. Being a small enterprise, we felt that this was an endeavor that required considerable funds to travel back & forth to Balochistan, something we couldn’t afford at that time. When the pandemic arrived, we received a small grant & a bolder sense of imagination arrived with it!
For the first time in three years, we had no choice but to pause how we engaged with children, families, teachers & schools and think of new ways to connect with them. This wasn’t all easy. During the first few months, we kept wondering how on earth could we possibly engage children in hands-on science learning from miles, cities & even continents away.
We decided to work remotely & digitally with Sumera Sahiba’s school as well as three more schools, two based in Lahore & one in Karachi. The challenge that greeted us in Balochistan was one we hadn’t anticipated. Female teachers at the School of Scholars (which is an all-girls school) had limited digital literacy skills & were not allowed access to mobile phones because of gender norms. This meant that we couldn’t possibly connect with school teachers who were our only means to reach students. There was also limited digital access in their area. This issue would have stayed unresolved if we hadn’t been working with a strong community leader like Sumera. She leveraged the trust she had built in her local community to convince families of the importance of equipping female teachers with digital devices & skills, especially at a time when children were facing critical learning losses.
With this issue resolved, we initiated a 2-month program called ‘Scientists of Tomorrow’. For it, our writers started penning down stories based on the lives of remarkable female scientists & intriguing questions that would nurture children’s curiosity. I remember that one of the first stories we wrote was based on the question — ‘Are viruses alive?’ And then came stories of Marie Curie, Jane Goodall, Tasneem Zehra, Nergis Mavalvala, Katherine Johnson, Valentina Tereshkova & many more women who have shaped our understanding of the universe & how it functions despite the gender barriers that they faced. This library of stories on scientists, phenomena & questions grew to a total of 120 within two years.
These stories were scripted in Urdu & English, their podcasts recorded (at times with fun sound effects), and were accompanied by follow-up activities that allowed children to wonder, investigate, create & have meaningful conversations with their peers, family, or community members. Once the scripts, recordings & activities were ready, we started sending them off to teachers in Khuzdar at Sumera Sahiba’s school & then later shared them with hundreds of government & low-income private school teachers across small cities in Punjab. The teachers would connect with us using Zoom for frequent training sessions (lasting 1–2 hrs) during the 2-month program. We used WhatsApp as a tool to send these lessons, receive reflections & helped teachers problem-solve. They were given training & tasked to engage students in their schools & communities every week using these stories as science lessons.
Since we were engaging students via local teachers, this allowed us to nurture ambassadors who even after the program ended would be well-equipped to create learning resources on their own & continue meaningful science engagement within their communities.
Apart from writing stories, we gave birth to Gul Rukh, a 10-year-old science enthusiast from Pakistan who likes to do science using the ordinary, anywhere & everywhere she goes! She dons a printed mustard-coloured shalwar kameez with sneakers & isn’t afraid to get her hands messy! Gul encourages readers to explore the world around them. Titled Gul’s science adventures, we started writing recipes of experiments, here instead of giving cooking instructions, she tells her readers to use kitchen ingredients to inflate balloons without blowing air into them, design rockets using recycled materials, make instant ice cream using salt instead of a freezer, concoct delicious candy on their stoves, guess anyone’s birthday using the power of mathematics & do so much more!
Gul Rukh’s adventures were recipes that we then scripted & also video-recorded to be used directly by children aged 7–14 yrs, parents & teachers. This meant that we could now send Sumera’s teachers video lessons & scripted lesson plans with step-by-step instructions. These allowed them to teach science using hands-on experiments that were playful, culturally relevant, and investigative. These resources can also be used by children & their parents who can act as facilitators to encourage the process of discovery & cultivate wonder.
After a year of working closely with the School of Scholars, I spoke to Sumera Sahiba on Zoom. She told me that our intervention had helped transform science education in their school on a shoestring budget. They had always dreamt of building a science lab at their campus she said but did not have enough funds to do so. They thought that improving the quality of science engagement for their community would have to wait until they could raise considerable funds. But after a year-long partnership with Science Fuse, they knew better. They now had tools, expertise & teaching resources to continue building a strong science identity amongst their students. And most importantly they knew that this could be done with limited resources. With more, one could do more, but now they knew that they could introduce great teaching practices in science even with less by using the seemingly ordinary things found in their local environment.
When it comes to science engagement or education, you don’t always have to rely on big wow moments that require fancy science laboratories & expensive materials. On the contrary, sometimes using these materials can alienate children from marginalized groups & communities from STEM. Indeed, children & grown-ups are easily fascinated by big telescopes & fancy robots. These take the viewer’s breath away. But is it good that these are the only elements that come to mind when many stakeholders (think educators, policymakers & government officials) think about ways of engaging children from disadvantaged communities with science?
The big wow is, and always will be, impressive in the moment. But good science engagement will create a wow moment that children can extend at home & continue the learning experience independently beyond the four walls of the classroom. Most of the time, the big wow moments alienate people from science because they can’t see how these are relevant to their lives.
What about the ordinary things around us? What do you think could be the advantages of using simple, inexpensive & accessible materials to teach science both inside & outside classrooms?
To be continued…