SESIM’s Uma Amérika STEM program, Session 8

Our final session just before the new year had the science crew exploring the wonders of natural indicators.  Many natural pigments turn out to have the ability to indicate acids or bases by changing color.  Timor has it’s share of plants offering this useful quality.  We tried turmeric, banana flower skin, red spinach, purple sweet potatoes, several kinds of flowers and betel nut.  With each material, we blended it together with a bit of alcohol and then tried the solution on known acids (vinegar, lemon juice) and bases (lime water, soapy water).  We saw an enormous range of change in color.  This was beautiful, but also gave us respect for the commercial indicators that change more predictably.




We dipped some paper into the indicator solutions and made our own strips for future testing.


The mathematics crew tried their hand at weaving.  A tremendous amount of mathematics exists in traditional weaving here, and one of the challenges for teachers is to simplify the weaving to the point that students can create some significant product, which they can then analyze.  We set a new goal of making the hexagonal hand fan, done with the rhombus weave, a method used here to make several baskets in daily use. In this weave, the angles are all multiples of 60 degrees.

It turned out to be a serious challenge, even with access to a finished model or a photocopy of a finished model.    Still, many of the students were successful in the course of our session.  We’ll have to decide how to alter this activity to allow maximum success for the high school students we’ll present to in the new year.  As always, the students gained respect for their grandmothers who still have this knowledge.






January will be spent in preparation for our presentations to the high schools, and with luck, we’ll begin these presentations by early February.  It will be a logistical challenge going to 5 different high schools once a week for 8 weeks and meeting during extracurricular time with two different groups of students, mathematics and science.  We’re looking forward to it and will keep you posted.


SESIM’s small science centers: Knua Pratika, homes for hands-on

Before the final session of our Uma America training, the SESIM trainers and I pulled off two seminars for the teachers and students involved in the small science centers we’re supporting in four different districts (now officially called ‘municipalities’) here in Timor-Leste.  The districts are Bobonaro, Ermera, Covalima and Manatutu.

The centers are called ‘Knua Pratika,‘ which translates roughly to ‘home for hands-on, inquiry based learning.’  They are meant to be resources for all science and mathematics teachers at all levels throughout the district.  We are eagerly pursuing continued support for these centers, and would like to open centers in other districts as well.

Support for this project came from a Participation Program grant through UNESCO Paris.  It was a small, short-term seed grant, and we had to wrap it up by the end of this year.

The first seminar was at the Maliana KP, and was given by the four KP staff themselves.  I went with Mestre Caetano to support the event.

We began with sponge activities as students and teachers from various nearby schools trickled in.  We made rubber band launched paper airplanes, and checked for sunspots with the KP’s small telescope.  We found no sunspots, but one eagle-eyed student noticed the newly waxing moon, less than 20 degrees from the sun, a faint crescent in the early brightness.



After the intro, we split into three student groups and one teacher group and rotated among four sessions offered by the four KP.

Manatutu KP presented a look at the xylem cells in plant stems.  Mestra Ivonia set up some microscopes we brought together with the Maliana KP’s microscopes and we all had a look after her description of what there was to see.


A teacher from another school in Maliana happened to have more in depth info than Mestra Ivonia, and presented this during the teacher group’s turn at this session.  IMG_6119Mestre Caetano and I were happy to see teachers openly sharing information without embarrassment or ego issues.  This is what the KP are supposed to inspire.

The Ermera KP presented a demonstration of their simple rope and inner-tube rubber pump. It can pump in both directions and supply two sections of a house from a single well.


Here’s the video.

Then they spent the bulk of the sessions having participants build model houses to check for earthquake stability on the shake table.


They added an fascinatingly simple model of a seismograph made from a spring, a pen and a paper-covered can.  The one in the photo here shows horizontal vibrations; the other model in the background was made to show vertical vibrations.


The Covalima crew did a nice set of activities on density of liquids, starting with eggs floating or sinking in water with varying amounts of salt and oil.


They culminated the session by placing red colored hot water and clear cold water together in two bottles, mouth to mouth, first with the hot on top, then on the bottom.  What do you suppose happened?



High school students from Maliana, the host KP, presented the set of three pratika they’d used to win at SESIM’s World Science Day event. Participants had the chance to try any of them.  Erosion and sediment in runoff water were documented in three bottles with different coverings on top of the soil.


Tar, nicotine and various other crud was collected in a filter atop a bottle ‘smoking’ a cigarette as the water drained from its base.  The resulting crud was viewed under a microscope to inspire people to avoid smoking.


And finally a frame of nails was strung with strings to show how large number multiplication can be done without using the familiar algorithm.  Strings’ intersections are counted and summed to give an accurate answer.


The following week, we brought 5 teachers from each of the KP to our central lab here in Dili for the final seminar of the program.  The thrust of the seminar was to spend the remaining supply money and use the resulting materials to prepare pratika for their students.

National Director of General Secondary Schools, Manuel Gomez de Araujo opened our seminar, calling for the coordinating teachers to make their KP a vibrant model for good education in their districts.


We then opened and tested some of the devices. Here Mestre Caetano, SESIM’s leader of the Knua Pratika program, is showing the teachers how to use the blender and laminating machines.



The KP sites also got chick incubators, multi-function printers, solar panel systems, power supplies, laminated posters of the planets and the periodic table, safety glasses, air compressors, long extension chords, and a bunch of other smaller materials.

The main project we constructed with them was a rocket launcher for paper rockets, described in an earlier blog. It turned out to be a massive project involving wood, PVC, various fittings, and compressed air hoses.  Everyone learned a lot and the second day ended with successful launches from all four newly-built rigs.





It was a happy mob collecting all their new treasures to head back and show their fellow teachers.  We hope their administrators will also be pleased with the haul, and help support this project into the new year.


SESIM’s Uma Amérika STEM program, Sessions 6 and 7

Session 6 found the science crew investigating the workings of transportation and transpiration within plants.  We’d tied plastic bags around tree leaves a couple days before and now the bags contained varying amounts of water.



Back inside we rolled out all our microscope muscle, mostly used ones received from good donors in Australia, to try and see the special cell pairs called stomata that are the ‘mouths’ for the gases coming in and out of the leaves, including water vapor.


We also got the classic experiment going where the plant stalk sucks up colored water and you can track its time and path.  We cut sections out of the stalks and saw exactly which tiny canals the colored water was moving up: the xylem.


Mestra Jenina was holding forth at our single video micrsoscope, and then as usual took observations and fielded questions, of which there were plenty.



Meanwhile the mathematics crew was measuring things at a distance by means of similar triangles and then also trigonometry. If you hold a ruler at arm’s length and align the top end with the top of the object you’re trying to measure, then grip the ruler with your thumb on level with the bottom of the object, you’ve got its height at a miniature scale.  Your buddy can then measure the distance from your eye to the ruler, and you’ve got two lengths.  The third one is easily measured from your eye to the object, and the fourth – the object itself – can be figured mathematically, and then measured directly for confirmation.




Back inside Mestre Julio led the analysis of the resulting triangles.


At the next session, the mathematics side of the room played games!  Many games here have mathematical elements, and we chose two.  One is a sort of hopscotch in which the rock is tossed back over your shoulder and the two players claim the squares one by one.  A simple line graph can be drawn that shows the progress of the players throughout the game.





The other was a stick tossing game called Ai-manulin in which scores are tallied by measuring the tossed stick’s distance using various informal measuring units.  We didn’t have time to actually play the game but we calculated hypothetical scores from different scenarios and then graphed them as well.


The science side of the room was playing as well, building three toys based on a small DC motor. One was a whirlpool in a bottle. The motor is fastened to the base with the shaft sticking up through a hole and fitted with an impeller to get the water moving.




Here’s the video.

Another was a wave machine powered by two motors facing each other and twirling a string between them. The rotating string takes the shape of waves in half-wavelength multiples.



Here’s the video.

The other was an airplane on a stick, balanced on its center of gravity, that goes around and around when the motor is connected.



Here’s the video.

These high-interest toys open the path to discussing circuits and many aspects of mechanics such as fluid dynamics, angular motion, wave properties and balance. Perhaps more important were the skills the students learned constructing the toys and the familiarity they gained of the different materials employed.

One more session left, and then we begin preparing for our presentations at the schools!

SESIM’s Uma Amérika STEM program, Sessions 4 and 5

Two more sessions have passed now, with great interest in creative pratika.  In session 4 the science crew delved into the physics of rockets.  SESIM recently constructed an air-rocket launcher and bought a mini air compressor, enabling us to launch paper rockets more than 50 meters in the air. The rockets are constructed by wrapping scrap paper around a PVC tube, then putting on a nose cone and fins.



Each group made 3 rockets in order to test two factors, for example weight, length, or the size of the fins.  Then each one was launched at the same angle and the same pressure, around 35psi.




We discussed the results and then geared up the same rockets to check one more factor of their choice.  In physics, nearly every aspect of mechanics can be touched on with this activity: force, velocity, acceleration, pressure, gravity, simple motion equations, angular motion, free fall and terminal velocity.  It’s really one of the all time choice pratika for teaching mechanics at any level.

Meanwhile the mathematics group was working on deciphering the Towers of Hanoi puzzle.  A stack of discs with diminishing diameters are threaded on one of three poles.  Your job, should you choose to accept it as did the Vietnamese monk of old, is to move them to another pole.  The catch is  that you can only move one disc at a time, and you can only put a smaller disc on top of a larger one, not vice-versa. The solution set of moves has an elegant relationship to the powers of 2.  We made our own base boards and discs with scrap materials and the tools in our little shop.



The 5th session saw the mathematics group working to understand a set of ‘secret’ number cards, with which you can guess any number within a range, for example, someone’s age or the calendar day of their birthday. The target person chooses which cards have the number, and which don’t.  The secret has close links to the factors of a given number, with each card having numbers that are only multiples of certain factors.  Thus, if you know the secret, and your multiplication tables, you too can determine the number in question.



The science crew worked on astronomy, particularly the earth-moon-sun geometry that gives rise to day and night, eclipses, moon phases, and seasons, among other critical occurrences.  We constructed little globes with plastic soccer balls, and made ping pong moons revolve around them.  The sun was represented by a remarkably complex little headlight available here for $3, with the capability to focus at a distance of 1 to 10 meters.





Some took the commercial globes we’ve got and put them into the model.  This way Timor-Leste is not a dot marked in, but visible as an actual half-island in Southeast Asia.


This topic always  raises as many questions as it answers, a situation we view as positive for ongoing learning.  It’s one of the topics that’s been proven impossible to learn without putting your hands on a working model, however out of scale it is (and we point out the proper scale as well, first separating the earth and moon by  30 earth diameters, as is the real scale).

Until recently, this sort of teaching was simply not done in schools here leaving the bulk of the population uncertain about the orientation of the celestial lineup.  But this group of future teachers has now had the authentic experience of learning directly from this pratika and there’s good reason to hope they’ll offer the same to their future students.  It’s a new dawn for STEM education in Timor.

SESIM’s Uma Amérika STEM program, Sessions 2 and 3

At our second training session, the mathematics crew explored the numbers present in a calendar month.  Move vertically and the numbers are separated by 7 but what if you move diagonally?  And when you sum three dates diagonally, and then again on the other diagonal, you get a form of magic square.  Putting it all into algebraic expressions is a great exercise.




At the other end of the room, the science crew was hard at work making models of  human body systems: the digestive system, the excretory system and the circulatory-respiratory systems. We rolled out all the interesting junk and materials we could find and the students created the models on poster paper.




When finished, they presented their models to each other the best they could, then Mestra Jenina filled in the details of various parts and their functions.





At the third session, Mestre Dani showed the science students how to do electrolysis in a water bottle.  We used 6 or 8 D batteries as the power source, and tested various electrode materials (spoons, aluminum can bits, galvanized nails, stainless steel bolts) and various electrolyte solutions as well (vinegar, salt, bleach, lime).





Sometimes the solution would turn a nasty yellow and form layers of crud within it, but other times it would remain clear.  Most times a stream of bubbles would come off the negative side of the batteries, and sometimes another stream of bubbles came off the positive side as well.  We tried burning the resulting gas, and sometimes got a small pop, proving that it wasn’t nitrogen, helium, argon, or other inert gases, so it just may have been hydrogen, which would fit well with the theory. Mestre Dani laid the chemical equations on us so we could see the theory of what was happening in our bottles.


On the mathematics side, we explored the secrets of pentaminos.  These are shapes made from 5 squares fastened together in forms a-la Tetris.  There happen to be exactly  12 distinct possibilities, a fact the students discovered themselves, and then these 12 pentaminos can be fit together into various rectangles with an area of 60 square units.  This turns out to be quite a challenge, and was given as homework to most groups that didn’t get it in the 3.5 hours we meet together.





Courtney Woods, our man from the US embassy, showed up at this session to see what we were up to, and brought his colossal  camera ready to catch the spirit of our exploration.  Turns out he’s been a teacher too in another life.


Stay tuned for more pictures and stories of pre-service teachers doing pratika!

Uma Amérika: SESIM’s newest project

Early this year, we applied for funding from the US embassy here in Timor-Leste to support STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) in local universities and high schools.  This funding was offered through Uma Amérika, one of the ‘American Spaces’ that US embassies around the world set up to support English language learning, distribute information about education in the US, and provide access to various books, publications and electronic data bases.  Housed at Timor-Leste’s National University, Timor’s Uma Amérika has been running for a year now, and is quite popular.

The goal of our project is to train pre-service science and mathematics teachers on a set of 8 pratika, that is, hands-on and inquiry-based activities, and then facilitate them to present these pratika to extra-curricular groups at 5 local high schools.  The final hurrah will be the high school students in turn presenting the pratika to their peers at a mini exhibition. This blog will document our progress.

We spread the word and distributed applications at 3 local universities that have education faculties and departments of science and mathematics.  We got plenty of applications and interviewed all that seemed qualified in one marathon interview session at Uma Amérika.


We selected 30 students in mathematics and 30 from the various sciences, of which more than 50% are young women.  The following week we held one more session at Uma Amérika in which we introduced ourselves and the logistics of the program.


The eagerness on their faces was inspiring, and entirely understandable: education with pratika is still a rare thing here in Timor-Leste, and STEM students know that their education is not complete without it.  Thus the stage is set for a great project with them.

At the introductory session we gave them homework: two puzzle questions to work on.  For the mathematics students, we gave the classic problem of how to measure out 4 liters if you only have one 5 liter bucket and one 3 liter bucket.  We had the science students think about why when you hold up a finger in front of your face and look at a distant object, you see 2 fingers.  Focus on the finger, and the distant object becomes 2.  We’ll give little puzzle problems like this each week to show that there is interesting complexity in the simplest of situations.

At the first session, held at SESIM’s new Central Laboratory (described in this blog), students came forward with their solutions to the puzzles.  Here a young woman is demonstrating one of two ways to get 4 liters with the 3 and 5 liter vessels (actually 400ml from 300 and 500ml vessels here, for convenience.)


We then cut straight to the action.  The mathematics crew made the set of 5 platonic solids with toothpicks, kabob sticks and bits of flip-flop.



They generated the 5 unique forms without models, but rather from their basic characteristics.  For example, a tetrahedron is formed entirely from triangles, and each vertex has 3 edges coming together.  The dodecahedron in turn is formed entirely from pentagons, also with 3 edges converging at each vertex.


The vertices, faces, and edges of each were then counted and put into a table.  When the table is completed, an amazing unexpected symmetry emerges, and you begin to realize why the ancient Greeks viewed these forms as sacred and mystical.


The science  group made model houses to test on our simple shake table.  A sizable rock has to be held 30 cm from the ground with only 20 bamboo skewers and 20 rubber bands.



The completed houses were then fastened to the shake table and the rock was mounted on top.  The shaking was slowly amped up by connecting more and more batteries to the motor with the offset weight. You can see our slick and simple battery holder made from paper, into which you stab a nail to connect to as many batteries as you like.  IMG_5615

Many groups were successful, and the critical role of triangles in construction was demonstrated. The group shown above ‘cheated’ by using a piece of cardboard, which contains many triangles within its plane, just as the wall of a house does.

Four teacher-trainers from SESIM are working with me on this. Here you see Mestra Jenina in front who does biology, Mestre Dani at right, a chemistry teacher, and Mestre Julio and Mestra Amelia in back, our mathematics team. IMG_5965

They are cleaning up our little workshop corner in the Central Lab.  We prioritize getting students’ and teachers’ hands dirty with tools and materials for creating pratika and classroom demonstrations. Becoming comfortable with tools is a great confidence booster as well, especially for the young women.

All in all, it’s shaping up to be a great program, with a win-win-win structure that I’ve seen to be wildly successful in my native California.  I’ll keep you posted on our progress.

Curt ‘Gabriel’ Gabrielson

Farewell for now

This will be the final post on this blog for the near future. Here at SESIM, we’re wrapping up this phase of work and making plans for future projects.

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Happily tinkering teachers at a recent SESIM seminar led by our colleague Manish Jain from India. SESIM is supporting these teachers to gear up small science centers in their districts.

To summarize, over the last two years, SESIM, the Center for the Study of Science and Mathematics, under the umbrella of the Timor-Leste National Commission for UNESCO and the Timor-Leste Ministry of Education, has carried out three week-long trainings for all of the more than 1000 junior high science and mathematics teacher in the nation.  SESIM teacher-trainers are also nearly finished visiting all these schools – nearly 300 – to monitor and mentor the teachers. SESIM has done seminars for extracurricular science and mathematics groups in most of districts of the nation, and supported the Ministry to carry out pilot sessions with Teacher Working Groups in four districts as models for ongoing teacher support in the area of Science and Mathematics.

It’s been a pleasure to briefly document our progress over the last year on this blog.  I hope I’ve offered enough detail in my portraits for outsiders to reach some understanding of the challenges we face developing science and mathematics education in the young nation of Timor-Leste today.

Needless to say, these have been the views of myself and SESIM.  We continue to work closely with the Ministry of Education.  Recent elections will result in various changes in educational policy and programs, and we’ll be doing our best to make them changes for the better.

Some have asked how they can support our efforts here in Timor.  If you’re Australian, you may find a Timor-Leste Friendship group nearby you to help guide your efforts; many are focused on improving the quality of education here. Katrina Langford in Melbourne is highly knowledgeable on Timor issues.  She runs , teaches Tetun and sends out periodic information on Timorese education by email; contact her here: timorlink AT hotmail DOT com .   If you’re planning a trip to Southeast Asia, stop by and see us: there are direct flights to Dili from Darwin, Bali and Singapore.

If you’re interested in supporting SESIM’s ongoing efforts financially, you can contact Ms. Lizia Santos, the chief finance officer at our parent organization, the Timor-Leste National Commission for UNESCO, here cedeliziasantos AT yahoo DOT com.

Here at SESIM, we’re still working on good systems for getting out the news of our many activities.  We have a Facebook page “Grupu Siensia no Matematika” for our Science and Mathematics Group, an informal gathering of pre- and in-service teachers in Dili that meets most weeks at our new laboratory to tinker together on the topic of their choice.  Beyond that, we haven’t got any regular way to post news but I’ll post again here if we come up with something more consistent or if anything momentous happens.

Feel free to contact myself ( curt.gabrielson AT gmail DOT com ) or the Timorese chief of SESIM,  Luis Nivio Soares, ( fire_nivio AT yahoo DOT com ) by email if you need any more information.  Thanks for following the blog; you can still sign up on the side bar there for email notification whenever it is resurrected!

Curt Gabrielson