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Why Science?

20 October 2016

As an intern last fall, Hannah wrote a brief article detailing the launch of our physical science curriculum for the Grade 6 Science Club at Knar School. One year later we’d like to use a few more words to update you on the more recent accomplishments of our pilot science project, how the program came into play, and importantly, why it’s shaping up to be one of the most compelling extra curricular programs we’re offering.

Microscopes Collage copy

Over the years we’ve had volunteers head out to school with microscopes, baking soda and vinegar concoctions, tin can telephones – you name it – and much to the delight of our students, the way the world works began to unfold in front of their eyes. The students just loved science, and we found ourselves wondering: how does the Cambodian government curriculum address science? How does the lack of a lab facility impact this learning? Is there room in the current learning structure that could provide the opportunity for further exploration? What if we launched a program of our own?

So we began looking at the government science curriculum for Grade 6, where the students are old enough to take in a substantial amount of information and are still studying at school with daily PLF support.

science textbook copy

A lesson from the government textbook on “Natural Environments”

The first thing we noticed is that the curriculum is extremely Cambodia-centric. The food chain, the environment, and husbandry are relevant to students across the globe, but the government curriculum confines these topics within a strictly national scope. It’s pragmatic, but limits the worldview of our students towards the point of isolation. Most of us grew up learning about polar bears even though we’ll likely never encounter a polar bear or any arctic animal outside of a zoo. Why shouldn’t Cambodian students learn the same?

The textbook also turns to human anatomy, a brief section on physical science, four pages on constellations, and a lone page on outer space. But how can you learn about the digestive system without a base understanding of cells or muscles? How can the solar system and the Earth’s rotation fit onto one page? The second thing we noticed is that there is no interactive learning. The government teachers write on the board, the students copy it down, and much of this comes as an afterthought to the reading, writing, and math, that are a part of every class. To the average visitor, a science class would likely look exactly the same as any other class being taught during normal hours.

Plant Measurement Collage

Students implementing the scientific method by observing a plot of land on the school grounds over the course of a week

So we put out the word that we were looking to start a science program, and a trail of experts showed up to help us build a curriculum. Our plan was to build the lessons to follow the order of the government textbook, so as to reinforce the topics the students were already learning, and we wanted to add experiments to build on the students’ understanding of what they had learned. We had nurses working on a human anatomy curriculum, a physicist working on physical science, and a host of other qualified volunteers contributing to lessons on biomes.

The lessons were high quality, but we found that the curricula built by teachers and scientists depended on a level of existing knowledge that the students (and importantly, the teachers) did not have. For example, physical science imagines that you already know about gravity. Teacher Ka’Oun, who has taken over the role as science teacher, was taught that there is a giant magnet in the center of the Earth and the iron in our blood is what keeps us from floating away. It’s an “inventive” explanation, but that was how he learned about gravity.

The curricular style was also different from what teachers were used to, and contained vocabulary that was very hard for a non-native speaker to understand. There is no Khmer translation for tundra, tibia, fibula, or nucleus, so the vocabulary-oriented lessons we learn in the Western world carry little interest at a high level of difficulty for students studying in the countryside. In fact, there are so few scientific terms in Khmer that any Cambodian who wants to become a doctor needs to study French.

Biomes Indigenous Peoples

Okay, that wasn’t quite working. You can’t transplant something that works elsewhere into a completely different place because it just doesn’t work, and we were quickly reminded of that. So we tried it ourselves, and Lori sat down to put the Internet and her years of living in Cambodia towards a second stab at creating a science curriculum. She developed lessons for eight different biomes, we bought Ka’Oun a computer and projector, and we taught him how to use PowerPoint. When we launched the curriculum in late 2015 Ka’Oun came into the office every Sunday to learn, translate, and prepare for the following week’s lessons.

It wasn’t perfect; but it was received with great interest. In the first lesson we had to backtrack when we realized the students didn’t know any geography, and towards the end of the curriculum the students were anxious to learn about how humans could live in these different environments, so we added an additional lesson about Indigenous Peoples.

We chose to offer the class as an optional extra curricular, and much to our delight, the classroom was consistently packed with students both at the desks and peering in through the windows. They consumed this new knowledge of biomes with astonishing enthusiasm, and when it came time to do some sort of exam, we decided to hold a scavenger hunt with plant identifications, hidden clues, and various trivia questions at each station. The students knew every single answer.

There was a time when we were afraid we didn’t have any business at all building a curriculum in the first place, but while many of the previously developed curricula were not viable, something about the curriculum that Lori built was viable in a way that the previously developed curricula were not. We aren’t scientists, but we have experience working with Cambodians in a rural context. On the other hand, teachers and scientists who have a strong sense for pedagogical effectiveness and knowledge of the content have expertise far beyond ours when it comes to building a curriculum.

We took a step back to rethink the program; somehow we needed to merge that competency with cultural relevance.

Phy Sci Exps

Experiments on gravity and motion from our Physical Science curriculum

We built our second curriculum, Physical Science, with quite a few helping hands along the way. Lori laid out a loose structure and scope of the content, a pair of teachers from the US developed the lessons and PowerPoint presentations, and when Hannah arrived last August she took over weekly (and sometimes daily) support as Ka’Oun rolled out the curriculum for our summer school students. There were many video clips and a few interactive activities for Biomes, but Physical Science featured weekly experiments and hands-on learning with which Ka’oun needed an extra level of assistance.

Some topics, like atoms, were also particularly difficult for Ka’Oun and the students to grasp. For someone who has extremely little scientific background, you can imagine how strange it might seem to teach about a weird collection of circles orbiting a bigger circle that is so infinitesimally small. It’s too humid in Cambodia for anyone to have ever experienced a static shock, so when we rubbed balloons on our heads for 20 minutes with no result there were quite a few blank nods. You can show videos of giraffes or walruses and that construct a visual image any student can take in, but it took time to teach protons, neutrons, and electrons in a way that could be taken in from a Cambodian perspective. The students diligently took notes and understood in a literal sense what they were being taught, but when no one else in your village has ever heard about atoms either, there is an element of trust that you wouldn’t necessarily need in a Western classroom that needed to be built into our classroom environment.

Poster Presentations Collage

From left to right: Energy Sources (Wind and Hydro power), Electricity (Solar Power, Thunder and Lightning), Kinetic and Potential Energy

Over the past year, Ka’Oun taught the full Biomes and Physical Science curriculum to the new Grade 6 at Knar. We had a French volunteer supplement our light and optics lesson with a Camera Obscura, additional lessons on prisms and refraction, as well as add in some lessons of her own about states of matter. We also had a teacher trainer from California test-run a range of human anatomy experiments and rework our more challenging physical science lessons to be better targeted to Ka’Oun’s educational capacity. Through the successes of the program, we attracted funding to buy prisms, a human torso model, a micro-slide viewer, stethoscopes, and other experiment supplies. Our students saw videos of caribou migration and narwhal feeding habits, discussed how the price of durian is influenced by the rare fruit bat that pollenates its flowers, built balloon rockets and sound wave machines, and created and presented their own physical science posters to the class at the end of their physical science lessons.

What’s next? In addition to launching Human Anatomy, in the coming year we will develop an Outer Space curriculum and fine tune the details so each curriculum runs at about three months worth of lessons that work with the academic schedule. We’ve got a few sections in Biomes that are too long, we need to add in a few additional experiments for Physical Science, and we look forward to seeing how the Human Anatomy curriculum plays out.

Ka’Oun has learned that body movement comes from muscles, not blood vessels, he’s taught the students that thunder and lighting come from a build-up of electrical charges, not giants fighting in the sky, and slowly but surely they have all opened their eyes to the world and begun to ask why it works. And that’s what is so important – this asking.

Ka’Oun consistently requests videos, additional pictures, and experiments so he can improve his lessons and help his students to better understand just how small an atom is, or how a pivot joint moves. He is extremely curious about “that time when we were monkeys” (read: evolution), and wants to know more about how skin-bleaching products, which are extremely popular in Cambodia, affect the integumentary system. Even more important, his students have followed suit. They are the ones who asked us to learn more about how humans manage life in extreme habitats, they are the ones who are demanding to learn more, and that’s why this program is so compelling.

There is a bridge between all that a teacher would want to teach and what Ka’Oun has the ability to teach, and what’s important about that bridge is that we have worked to make it lateral. We could load every scientific detail onto Ka’Oun from the top down, but we have been able to avoid the pitfalls of vertical relationships and we have levelled that relationship to a two-way street. The students are asking, the teacher is asking, and they are rising from the bottom to meet us on a level where there is a constant and productive exchange of knowledge.

Notebook Collage

Student notes from lesson one of Human Anatomy: cells

So what have we accomplished? We now have three completed science curricula, a teacher who started out from zero and can now teach on his own, proper interactive teaching materials, and a sustainable program that we will use as a template for other locations. 100% of the students studying in Ka’Oun’s science classed passed the Grade 6 National Exam. Graduates from Knar School who are now studying in Secondary and High School are asking if Ka’Oun will teach a second science class that they can join. PLF engineering and medical students who are studying at University are asking to do a guest lecture and help mentor during the holidays.

We can’t wait to share what’s next.

Hannah Najar

Hannah Najar

Hannah has been involved with PLF since 2014 through a study abroad program with Union College. She returned to Cambodia in 2015 as an intern and is now serving as our Operations Director. She hails from Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Hannah Najar

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