Tuesday March 19, 2019
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Let’s make our classrooms non-smart and teachers smart

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By Harshmeet Singh

About a decade ago, when Indian parents used to shortlist ‘good’ schools for their children, their most important parameters were the schools building, the playground and if their toppers were among the city’s toppers. But things have changed in the past decade. While parents’ affinity towards schools which produce toppers is still intact, the place of ‘playground’ has now been largely taken by ‘smart classes’. Every third school in almost all major Indian cities now boasts of a ‘smart class’ (an achievement which is often mentioned at the school’s entrance gate!). A typical smart class contains highly sophisticated audio-visual infrastructure that ‘supposedly’ makes it easier for the students to understand ‘concepts’. The concept of smart classes is in line with the common thinking that ‘computers will replace teachers in the classrooms very soon’.

For those who agree with the notion of technology overpowering human intervention in education, the recent OECD study on education can be a heart break. According to the study, even the nations that spent huge amounts of money on introduction of information and communication technologies in schools didn’t witness much improvement in the reading and mathematical levels of the students. Since 1990s, there has been a steep rise in the usage of computers as teaching aids in private and government schools alike. The results of the OECD study are a sign that our education policies must be revisited.

As compared to the Western countries that depend heavily on computerized education, students in East Asian countries like Japan, South Korea, Singapore and China performed much better. These countries boast of a robust teacher training model and holistic education policies. Unlike India, where the internet is seen as the solution to every problem, these countries provide restricted internet access to the students, thus shielding them from the issues internet can give rise to. While these East Asian nations invest heavily in teacher training programs and physical infrastructure, Indian politicians adopted policies such as free distribution of laptops to the students to boost the education standard in the state!

For all the shortcomings in the public education system in the country, the Government responds by filling up the schools with computers, to make them ‘modern’. One major outline of the OECD study is that computers can never replace teachers inside the classroom. With a sea of knowledge available to the students in this age of internet, the role of a teacher is more crucial than ever. Guiding the student to the correct source of knowledge is perhaps the teacher’s biggest responsibility today.

Unfortunately, our education policies of the last decade or so don’t seem optimistic. The schools are run by ‘administrators’ and not ‘educators’, which clearly shows up in the style of operations. While the government has been extremely excited about equipping the schools with computers, there hasn’t been any follow up mechanism to gauge the progress made by the students, if any. A skewed education budget in the country doesn’t make things any easier. During the UPA government, the total spending on education as a proportion of government’s total expenditure was 9.98%, as compared to 11.1% in 2000-01. This number should ideally be over 20%! The 2015 general budget also saw a 2% cut in the overall education budget.

We now have an army of schools with no toilets and libraries, which have a bunch of computers! With administrators (and not educators) forming education policies, a major divide between the reality and assumptions is evident. May be it is time to move back to the ‘non-smart classes’ and focus on preparing our teachers better.

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More Science Careers: African School Of Physics on Mission To Educate New African Generation Through Traveling Program

"Science is increasingly recognized as an important engine of economic growth and societal advancement," she wrote in an email. She noted "increasing numbers of such programs on the African continent, where there is a surging young population entering the workforce."

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Ketevi Assamagan, a particle physicist at the U.S.-based Brookhaven National Laboratory, co-founded the African School of Physics, a training program for graduate students in math and sciences. (Photo courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory) VOA

Africa-born particle physicist Ketevi Assamagan is a man on a mission. His goal is to bring science education to a new generation of young Africans through a traveling program known as the African School of Fundamental Physics and Applications, or ASP.

“Sometimes, people just need some help to be able to find the right resources,” said Assamagan, an ASP founder who works at the U.S. Energy Department’s Brookhaven National Laboratory here on Long Island. “So, together with some colleagues, we decided to create this school.”

Born in Guinea, Assamagan grew up in Togo and earned a doctorate from the University of Virginia in 1995. Gratitude to past mentors fueled his desire to start the ASP, he said.

Positive elements

The ASP program runs for three weeks every two years in a different African country. The first was in 2010 in South Africa, with subsequent gatherings in Ghana, Senegal, Rwanda and Namibia. The next is planned for July 2020 in Marrakesh, Morocco.

Each workshop brings together up to 80 students, who are treated to intensive lectures and training by top-flight physicists.

Physicist Ketevi Assamagan demonstrates how a cloud chamber works. (A. Phillips/VOA)
Physicist Ketevi Assamagan demonstrates how a cloud chamber works. (A. Phillips/VOA)

“We get students from all over Africa [who] have at least three years of university education,” Assamagan said. “The majority of them are usually at the master’s level and they come from different fields: nuclear and high energy physics, medical applications, computing, mathematics and theoretical physics.”

The students’ expenses are covered by roughly 20 international sponsors, including the Brookhaven lab; the International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy; the South African Department of Science and Technology; and Italy’s National Institute for Nuclear Physics.

Another sponsor has been the European Center for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, in Geneva. Assamagan worked on CERN’s particle accelerator for several years while conducting research on the elusive Higgs boson subatomic particle. He left in 2001 to join Brookhaven.

Sustained support

After the program, participants are paired with senior mentors who offer advice on additional education, teaching and research opportunities, both in Africa and abroad.

For Zimbabwe native Last Feremenga, participation in the 2010 ASP workshop served as a springboard to a doctorate in physics from the University of Texas. Now he’s a data scientist with Digital Reasoning, an artificial intelligence firm headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee.

“I sift through large datasets of written text in search of rare forms of conversations/language. These rare conversations are useful for our clients from health care to finance,” the 32-year-old told VOA in an email. He added that he’s using “similar tactics” to those he learned at ASP.

Julia MacKenzie, senior director of international affairs for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says training programs such as ASP are especially important in developing countries.

“Science is increasingly recognized as an important engine of economic growth and societal advancement,” she wrote in an email. She noted “increasing numbers of such programs on the African continent, where there is a surging young population entering the workforce.”

“A potential impact of graduate training is exposure to new ideas and people,” MacKenzie added. “Any time graduate students can come together, it’s likely that new friendships will form, and those relationships can provide support through inevitable challenges and spawn new collaborations.”

application learning
“We get students from all over Africa [who] have at least three years of university education,” Assamagan said. “The majority of them are usually at the master’s level and they come from different fields: nuclear and high energy physics, medical applications, computing, mathematics and theoretical physics.” Pixabay
Hands-on learning

Assamagan says that when he was in high school in Togo, science was taught from second-hand textbooks from abroad. There was no experimentation.

“Direct involvement … in terms of playing with things and getting mental challenge to try to figure it out was not really there,” he said. “We want to resolve that” through ASP.

The 70 or so science teachers at the workshop last year in Namibia learned hands-on experiments that could be replicated with scant equipment and resources.

For example, using only a small plastic box with an aluminum plate, tin foil, Styrofoam, pure alcohol and dry ice, high school students could build a tabletop “cloud chamber” to simulate the detection of cosmic particles from outer space. Another experiment taught physics to elementary school children by way of art. The children could drip paint on a canvas tilted at various angles, then observe the patterns the paint made as it descended.

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“You can then start introducing the idea of gravity,” Assamagan said. “And then relating things falling down to the Earth going around the sun as being driven by the same force.”

Assamagan predicts a bright future for physics research in Africa. He says he sees talent and commitment, but that more digital libraries, along with continent-wide access to high-speed internet connections and the political will to provide them, are needed. (VOA)