A group of nearly 20 teachers has arrived in Timor-Leste to carry out a short training with fascinating and simple experiments and demonstrations. They are from the Korean Science Teachers Association, and this is their 10th year coming to Timor-Leste. A few are new, but most have been on this voluntary mission of support and educational solidarity at least once before.
Their main connection here is Padre Palomo, a Filipino priest who has lived in Timor for decades. He works with both Catholic and public schools, supporting their teachers and programs in many ways. He has also set up what is essentially Timor-Leste’s only science center: a treasure-filled room for the exploration of mathematics and sciences of all kinds.
I will not be able to attend the training next week, so I took part in the ‘training of trainers,’ in which some top Timorese junior-high and high school teachers spend two days with the Koreans and learn their activities, in preparation to work side-by-side with the Koreans when the bulk of the local teachers show up for the training.
In this joyful effort, communication is a challenge, mostly carried out though the activitiesthemselves, together with whatever English both sides can muster and the occasional Tetun phrase learned by the Koreans. I’ve seen this sort of haphazard communication work quite well, because it is rooted in concepts that both sides are passionate about, concepts expressed in simple, surprising, and universally attractive pratika activities.
I spent time with each concept group, helping a bit with translation and gathering up all the great ideasthe Koreans shared. All their pratika employed simple materials, however in several instances, I saw that a certain item, though common in Korea or my native U.S. and perhaps in the capital Dili, was simply unavailable in the districts of Timor. In these cases we brainstormed together for substitutes and in most cases were successful.
To use simple materials for pratika is critical, even if schools happen to have enough money to buy commercial lab kits. When students learn a concept, electricity and magnetism for example, from a commercial, turn-key kit, they may learn the concepts well enough, but they also learn that in order to explore this concept the first step is to obtain one of these fancy kits. Thus, when the kit is not available, the learning stops. If instead the student tears apart a transformer or the broken alternator of a car and extracts the varnish covered copper wire, numerous fascinating pratika can be done leading to all the same conceptual insights as the kit offers, with the additional understanding that this is all present in every transformer and alternator found in daily life. That is to say, the student learns that life is a laboratory, ready and waiting for the creative scientist.
In fact, Padre Palomo is not so concerned about the individual pratika going on. His primary goal is to have the Koreans ‘infect’ the Timorese with their highly contagious love of science and the fun of teaching science. I could see that this desirable contagion had already taken hold of many of the Timorese participants.