Science and Math group: Informal, self-selected teacher development at it’s best by SESIM

Due to a government impasse, SESIM has not been involved in any large activities recently.  We’ve been using the opportunity to focus on our “background” activities, such as GSM, that is Grupu Siensia no Matematika, or Science and Mathematics Group.  Once a week, any teachers or pre-service college students in educational faculties of local universities, or even any high school students who are interested in learning, come together and do pratika in the area of their choosing, using any and all resources we can muster in our new laboratory/science center at 30 August Central Basic Junior High School in Dili, Timor-Leste.

Last week during the science session a small mob of students came with a whole set of questions about physics. One group had built a small generator the previous week and wanted details on how it works and how to hook it up to wind power.  We hooked it up first to the oscilloscope to confirm that the signal it generates is alternating current as the magnets go around inside the coil.  We played with other coils and magnets and saw all the possible arrangements.  Then we just happened to find a an old junked fan blade that easily fit on their shaft.  When placed exactly in front of the fan, it lit the LED.  Success. Here they’re cutting a tube to center the spinning magnets.  The generator is sitting on the workbench beside the hacksaw.


Another group got out our new electrostatic generator and got it sparking away, lighting fluorescent bulbs and happily shocking innocent bystanders.  Nothing like high voltage and low current for good clean fun. We even turned on the AM radio and heard the radio frequency radiation from the sparks loud and clear.


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This same group is trying to build a mini tesla coil, but upon finishing the circuit, nothing was happening at all.  We hooked it up to the oscilloscope too, but all we found was the 50 hertz hum of the wall current, so we concluded the transistor was bad and they’re off to buy a new one for next week.

Meanwhile another group came in with a keen desire for biology.  Mestre Caetano whipped out the microscopes and set up several things to view: mold, stoma from leaves, bones.  He also got several other experiments going on the spot such as chromatography from mashed up leaves.  It’s amazing how well students listen to explanations when they’re the ones who asked the questions.


The bio students will be accompanied by our biology team next week and the physics student have requested activities related to electromagnetic waves and Newton’s laws of motion next week.  Can do, and who knows what else will happen?




SESIM’s Uma Amérika STEM program, final expositions. Part three: fun and more musings

In this final blog on Phase I of our STEM project supported by the U.S. Embassy in Timor-Leste, I’ll give a few more of my thoughts and a last set of photos showing the all around fun we had at the culminating expositions at 5 local high schools in Dili.

During the expos, I thought a lot about my paradigm for learning, my theoretical educational ideal.  It’s rooted in the Original Scientist: the eager individual seeking a greater understanding of the environment she inhabits, approaching a phenomenon with a mind to learn from it, prepared with the skills of observation, questioning and experimentation to forward that goal. To accompany students on the path toward being a skilled and fulfilled Original Scientist is always part of my goal in any work I’m doing.

Preparing strips for the weaving pratika. 
A friendly argument about calendar math.

Often I’ve seen this ideal is nearly impossible to attain from within our educational institutions, leading me to question the very justification of their existence. I’ve heard it said that the Original Scientist must by definition operate outside the public education system, and that the system must concern itself with upholding the structured canon of knowledge already established by other scientists.  Hogwash.  That may be true at  higher levels, but at pre-tertiary schools, the canon should only be a faint background whisper.  If we truly want new knowledge, further discoveries, a continuation of progress in the greater human experiment, we must encourage the ways of the Original Scientist among our youngest students. All should become expert self-learners.

Far from eschewing her, I believe our public institutions devoted to education should hitch their wagons to the Original Scientist. To allow this intensely enjoyable self-interest to power the teaching and learning process is to ensure its success.  With the deep intrinsic motivation every toddler possesses to understand the swirl of phenomena around them, the Original Scientist will herself determine the focus and direction of the learning, and the teachers working to support her have only to facilitate her advancement down that path, and document her progress.  In other words, schools should enable students to grab the reins, take the driver’s seat, and firmly establish their position as master of their own education. Only then should teachers begin teaching.

IMG_9458 (2)
Timorese hopscotch, with graphing!
Another paper rocket, out of the park.

Most of my professional life has been spent trying to put into motion situations which inspire and facilitate this ideal of mine for groups of underprivileged youth.  In many cases I’ve found that it is indeed possible to create the conditions that give rise to this ideal, if not within the structure of the institution, then on the periphery, with threads of connection to official curricula and base requirements for students in that system.

That’s what I witnessed at the expositions:   We were opening the door to live, liberating learning for students – who were thirsty for it – while giving a serious nod to the load of somewhat arbitrary information they’ll be required to ingest and regurgitate onto exam papers in order to successfully exit the system.  This could be as good as it gets.

Electrolysis as an ice-breaker.
That’s my neighbor with the million dollar smile holding the batteries.
More electrolysis, more smiles.

It was easy to see unbridled happiness and good times together as the youth interacted with science and mathematics.  This promotes STEM, but I’m also convinced it  promotes general well-being, and a tendency to continue learning about the world around us.  The frosting on the educational cake here is that the U.S. Embassy has strongly encouraged us to apply for additional funding for the program.  We’ll be using what we learned in Phase I to inform our proposal for an even more effective, efficient Phase II.

The U.S. Ambassador to Timor-Leste, Ms. Kathleen M. Fitzpatrick, visited our exposition at 4 Setembro High School. As usual, she went directly to engage with the students and thoroughly checked out every station.  This one is on natural indicators, presented in very respectable English.
Our embassy contact, Mr. Courtney Woods helps the Ambassador fathom the mathematics behind traditional Timorese weaving.
Our coordinating teacher at 4 Setembro, Mestra Isabel (with glasses) stands with the ambassador for a demo of various astronomical events displayed with two balls, large and small, and a focusable headlamp.
The ambassador greets Mr. Shinsuke Nakamura, head of the UNESCO Antenna office in Timor-Leste, and myself (left) with a million dollar smile of her own.

SESIM’s Uma Amérika STEM program, final expositions. Part two: questions and answers

Here are more photos and insights from the week of culminating expositions.  High school students were presenting to their peers the pratika activities that the university students had previously presented to them.  At each station they made a brief presentation, invited participants to try the activity for themselves, and opened the floor to questions.

This may seem natural and normal to you, but here that is a tremendous leap of courage into the unknown.  After all, what if somebody asks a question you can’t answer?

Wave machine and tornado in a bottle.
Airplane on a stick.

Call it the pan-Asian, face-saving culture, or call it generations of societal entrenchment; the reality is that my teacher friends here have an enormously difficult time telling their students they don’t know the answer to a student’s question.  This ends up being a significant rock in the road to doing decent education, so we focused on it with our university students and now with these high school students.  The issue of questions and answers really does get to the very root of learning.

We remind our students that an answer without a question is a thoroughly useless thing.  For example, “48!”  Doesn’t do you much good, eh?  The best you can hope for is that a renegade answer is something of a pleasant decoration for your mind, a bobble to be hung and admired:  “Most banana trees reproduce without seeds!”

Two wave machines.

Not only does a questionless answer beg for its question, it begs for a context in which to link to other answers and other questions.  It also yearns to be verified; only a fool would accept and believe such an isolated answer, even from a trusted authority.  Wisdom requires a reliable, confirmable web of knowledge.  And yet, textbooks are full of answers disconnected and unconfirmed, and teachers routinely require students to memorize enormous quantities of dislocated answers, to be recalled on demand.

Good teachers encourage good questions, even require them. Allowing all questions is also honest; it’s an acknowledgement that we don’t know everything.

There are no stupid questions, but some questions are better than others.  We’ve seen that students are most accustomed to quiz type questions: short question, pat answer.  Thus, sometimes when they ask questions, they unconsciously form the question to this same shallow format.  We helped our groups to broaden the participants’ questions toward real contextual understanding.  “What is the largest number on the Richter scale?” is ok, but better yet would be, “What are the largest earthquakes recorded, and how do they compare in energy and motion to others?”

Timorese hopscotch.
Graphing the results of the hopscotch game.
Team hopscotch, 12 November High.

Excellent teachers gather and organize their students’ questions and even subtly transfer some of their own questions to the students. Pratika inevitably generates questions and points the way toward answers.  When questions are out on the table, being fondled and formed and mulled and shifted by the students, learning is on the wing.  The time is ripe for answers.

We don’t embrace the hardcore inquiry model, in which the teacher holds back all information in lieu of facilitating the student to discover for themselves.  When we see students questioning, and we know some answers, we lay them out.  We coached our university students (who in turn coached the high school students) on how to deliver answers:

  • Best answers are short, waiting for additional questions before additional answering.
  • Best answers are verifiable with the stuff right here in front of us.
  • Any decent answer has more questions within it, and encourages further investigation.
Sun – earth – moon model.



Team astronomy, 12 November High.

The way we give answers is inextricably linked to the integral skepticism of science.  The good student of science is skeptical of her teacher and her textbook.  She is aware of the limitations of these two sources of info, and also mindful that she can get info directly from her own observations.

So nobody promised that we would have all the answers. Of course we don’t, and when we can’t answer a question, it’s not a crisis.  Unanswered questions are not useless like questionless answers.  In fact, they can be downright inspiring.  We hold them to be highly valuable, and “plant” them for future growth and production of knowledge.

We focus on this issue with the university and high school students to set them on the right track early. “I don’t know,” is easier, because they are just beginning to delve into this area of knowledge.  It will not come as a surprise to the participants when their peers are not experts, and it will form a habit of honesty in teaching. Much more important than a correct answer is the next step:  to accompany the learner toward more investigation and exploration.  This is the road to life-long learning. This is the path toward student-led education. This is the way to awaken the Original Scientist.

Analyzing the hopscotch graph.
Finding magic squares in the calendar.

I saw this constructive questioning and answering happening again and again at these expos, and my heart sang.  Witnessing the admirable performance of our groups, we SESIM teachers gained cautious confidence that we’re making a difference, however small, in the way learning is perceived and the way teaching is carried out.

Mestre Caetano discussing our snake, which we brought along for the ride.
Earthquake table with model house.
Natural indicators (and a natural teacher).

SESIM’s Uma Amérika STEM program, final expositions. Part one: insights.

Our program’s grand finale – a week of five expositions at five local high schools – came off with all the success we’d been dreaming of. In these last few blogs I’ll share some insights and some of the hundreds of great photos I got from the expos.

As you view these photos, you’ll see groups of students in the midst of interactions.  When viewing in person, I tried to estimate the effects of these interactions.  Even in the handful of cases I witnessed where the information being presented and received was not entirely clear or correct, I think the result was positive.  As individuals and as groups, the students were realizing, mostly unconsciously I think, that they could learn from direct observation of fascinating phenomena, ask whatever questions they pleased, and speak freely with their colleagues to compare notes.  I sincerely believe that the more intellectually bent portion were conscious of this change in learning paradigm, and will hold it ready for future use.

A note on school uniforms:  You can tell the school by the color: Finantil wears white, An-nur wears green, 12 Novembro wears blue and orange, and both Canossa and 4 Setembro wear blue, Canossa’s being slightly fancier.

Five natural indicators in six solutions: find the acids and bases.
Many hundreds of rockets were made and launched and lost beyond the far walls.
Electrolysis powered by a battery charger.

All in all, these expositions were like a big warm welcome mat for science and mathematics.  The key elements were quite simple.  Picture the scene:

  • 16 stations with topics presented in the form of demonstrations or actual hands-on, inquiry activities. Sufficient simple materials at each station to make it all work.
  • 2 or 3 high school students at each station presenting a bit of info about the activities and inviting participants to try it for themselves.
  • 100 to 400 other high school students freely visiting the stations.
  • 20 or so university students and 2 or 3 coordinator teachers roaming around to back up the high school students.

On display at each station were fascinating phenomena to discover and tools with which to discover them.  Questions arose naturally, like bubbles from the electrolysis cups.  Some questions were answered, others were discussed without answering.  Kids had plenty of space and time to focus on whichever topic most interested them.  Enough adults were around to keep good supervision of the happenings.

The commercial human body model sitting in back shows all systems, the homemade one on the wall only the digestive tract.
Sun, moon and earth, currently eclipsed by a head.
Canossa school had a vast majority of girls teaching and learning together.

This “expo” format is familiar here, and we capitalized on that.  We gave each school only $500 for food and the schools did all the coordinating and inviting and preparing.  We had met with our groups the week before to prepare the presenters of each topic, and clear up misunderstandings.  On the big day, we just showed up with our materials to add to the ones the high school students had already prepared.

Those are disposable plates, but they’ll be washed and reused.
Weaving mathematically was intensely attractive to many students.

The university students had the choice opportunity to see what the high school students had actually learned from their teaching over the last two months: a presentation is the ultimate chance to evaluate. But it was a forgiving evaluation, because the university students could smoothly step in, add a bit of missing info, correct any false statements, and then pass the group back to the high school presenters.

Some schools had the stations spread out, one or two to a classroom, and started with set groups of students at each station, later rotating the groups.  Other schools had it arranged like a fair, with stations outside where students could freely mill about.  I noticed different results among these two arrangements.  The classroom set-up was conducive to deeper discussions and longer engagement, whereas the fair made it clear which topics were more interesting to the participants.

Working to get the Pentaminos to form a 6×10 grid.
Measuring distance with similar triangles and/or trigonometry.
More rockets!
Pounding the flowers to make natural indicators.

Limitations we faced were mainly two: time and expectations.  Time is always limited in any educational setting, and even in life. We could have done more with more time, but we took what we could get.  Expectations formed a sort of intrinsic limitation for presenters and participants.  In most situations of presentation, such as classrooms, the expert is supposed to hold forth with a stream of information, given as undeniable fact, for the listener to lap up.  In contrast, we did our best to invite participants to come and investigate for themselves.

Sometimes the participants were not satisfied when the stream of info bits was not forthcoming.  Sometimes our high school presenters couldn’t resist holding forth a bit.  In both cases our pedagogy was compromised; we struggled to reach the ideal.  It’s a delicate question how much you explicitly discuss your pedagogy and how much you just do it.  In some cases, explicitness seemed useful:  “We’re not going to lecture to you today, so don’t wait up for it.  We want you to come play with this stuff and we’ll discuss what you find!”

Learning the rules to the Towers of Hanoi puzzle.
The weave we taught only had two or three moves, but they give rise to a large diversity of possibilities.
Learning about the magic squares and other mathematical patterns in a common calendar.

Finally, there is a deep seated expectation that every question has a right answer, able to be simply stated and memorized.  Reality is considerably more complex. This is a battle my colleagues and I estimate will continue for years to come.  The next blog will be about the extreme importance of questions, their use and misuse in our program. You’ll see many more lovely photos as well.

Motor projects: step right up and connect the batteries.
Platonic solids with sticks and bits of flip-flops.
The jolly crew of presenters after a successful expo at Finantil High!


SESIM’s Uma Amérika STEM program, High School Presentation #8

For our final presentations, the university students showed the science groups the wonders of natural indicators while the mathematics groups wove palm leaves into shapes with unique angles they then analyzed.

The process for the indicator activity started with preparation of 6 common plant materials: red onions, turmeric, purple sweet potatoes, banana flower, and two kinds of decorative flowers.  Each of these was reduced to a pulp with a grater and/or an improvised mortar and pestle: a cup and a wooden stick.




After that a bit of alcohol was added, the solids were strained out, and a sort of tea was made from the material. This was the indicator.  Each of 6 groups prepared one of the indicators, and then introduced it into 5 different solutions with different pH: tap water, vinegar, dilute battery acid, soapy water and lime water.


The range of colors that resulted was astonishing. One by one the groups showed their colors to their colleagues, and then set them in order on a table in front. IMG_8544


Left to right the columns are soapy water, lime water, tap water, vinegar and battery acid.  Top to bottom the indicators are banana flower, red onion, turmeric, purple sweet potato, and the two flowers.  Among other things, it was fascinating how some indicators showed yellow for base, and some showed yellow for acid.

The mathematics groups concentrated hard to get the base move down for the simple weave.  There are really only a couple of motions, but each time they must be done just right.




After everyone was on the right track, we got out the protractors and had them measure the angles they were making.  Amazingly enough, nearly all the angles turned out to be 60 or 120 degrees.




It turns out this particular weave is in some of the most common baskets the Timorese use on a daily basis, and the angles almost all follow this same pattern.  Just the idea that the baskets that Grandma makes have a load of mathematics within them can be inspiring and empowering.  We certainly saw the students take a great interest.

Next week we’ll meet one last time to prepare for the expositions, during which the high school students will present to their colleagues, with the university students backing them up. It should be exciting!

SESIM’s Uma Amérika STEM program, High School Presentation #7

At our second to last presentations, the topics were not our most photogenic, and my colleagues’ photography skills are still under development.

Mathematics groups used a set of seemingly mystical number tables to divine a random number someone had chosen.  Far from magical, it was the powers of two again, and the concept is that every number can be built using a unique set of the powers of two.  It’s an interesting introduction to the base-2 number system that computers use.






Science groups studied transport and transpiration in plants.  They grabbed the leaves they had bagged the week before and analyzed the water in the bags.





The considerable water that had collected in the bags – sometimes more than 50ml – was evidence of the process of transpiration, water coming up from the ground and out the stomata of the leaves.  So then we looked for evidence of this inner-plant plumbing system, and found it in various local plants, both decorative and food crops.  I’m afraid we compromised the flower beds of the schools we were at, but it’s still the rainy season, so I’m sure the flowers will bounce back. When we put them into the colored water, within minutes we found the colored water had moved up the stalk through tiny tubes called xylem.






(Check out the students’ art/science work on the walls of that classroom at 4 Setembro high school.  It’s mitosis and meiosis modeled with construction paper, colored yarn and bits of plastic.  Well done, 4 Setembro teachers!)

Next week is the last of our presentations, and after that, the expositions!  Stay tuned!

SESIM’s Uma Amérika STEM program, High School Presentation #6

Big news:  The U.S. Ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, Ms. Kathleen M. Fitzpatrick, visited our program at Finantil High School.  The school’s vice director was there to receive her, and she gave a short speech in Tetun that encouraged the students, especially the girls, to apply themselves to learning in the STEM fields. She took a few questions and then observed as our program proceeded as usual.  It was an excellent opportunity for the students to talk to a U.S. representative, and for her to have a first hand look at the program the U.S. Embassy is supporting at this local public high school




This sixth session brought the science sections back to the motor projects, a topic dear to my heart, having written a book entirely about projects with a hobby motor. It was one of the more complex activities, with many more materials and tools than normal.  Success was found in all 5 schools and the high school students learned what there is to learn from making small circuits to power little motors and cause interesting things to happen: airplanes fly around in circles, a hanging string forms into waves, and a container of water turns to a whirlpool.






A video of the planes built at Canossa high school is here.

Meanwhile on the mathematics side, they were exploring the towers of Hanoi: 3 stacks of disks, of which a larger can never be on top of a smaller, and which can only be moved one by one.  First order of business was building them. IMG_8159


Next was to figure out the progression for moving the disks according to the strange rules.



And finally, the data was taken for how many steps it takes to move a tower with a given number of disks.  The resulting formula is quite closely related to the powers of 2.


Before we left, we had the high school students tie plastic bags around tree and bush leaves to see what happens in preparation for next week’s biology activity.