PEN lesson philosophy

PEN grew out of our experiences teaching science and engineering at secondary schools in Ghana. We found that the majority of students lacked a proper practical education; their science was taught by echoing the blackboard, and experiments (when they occurred) focused on following instructions to get the ‘correct’ result.

We think that any student can be empowered by designing her own solution to a local challenge, and by building something that directly impacts her life and community. This is particularly true in countries that import the majority of their technology.

The core PEN curriculum, then, is trying to achieve two things: first, building “creative capacity,” or the confidence and ingenuity to tackle real challenges; second, to teach students what they need to design energy solutions from electricity generation to wind-powered waterpumps.

What follows are some guidelines for PEN lessons, most of which resulted from long discussions about the surprising effect of a lesson we’d taught. A given PEN lesson does not have to incorporate all of these guidelines (for some types of lesson, this would be impossible), but it is very important that every lesson fully follows at least one of them.

Make and do things that are useful

The Ghanaian students we've taught don't tend to find a useless item (even if it elegantly demonstrates a scientific principle) as interesting as something practical. They want to build things or do experiments that are either useful to them outside the classroom or can be used as tools in a follow-up lesson.

For example, a low-voltage battery (made with salt-water or a nail and copper foil), can become a tool for explaining the difference between parallel and series– thus leading to a more “useful” electronics project. The battery lesson is a means to an end rather than a sort of final project.

Use local materials

Though it may sometimes be unavoidable, try not to bring in materials unavailable to students. We want students to understand that science, engineering and design are not just things that happen in a classroom, but apply to everything in the world around them. We also want them to be able to keep building and experimenting outside the classroom if they want.

For any given location, which materials are available locally will vary widely; because of this, materials lists should use functional descriptions rather than specific items. Instead of requiring “a Styrofoam cup” to build an anemometer, the lesson will ask for “something curved to catch the wind” and provide several different suggestions.

(In places far from a Radio Shack, many electronic parts can be ripped out of e-waste or cheap products like flashlights. If you do this, show students how to get them out!)

Instead of telling, ask; instead of showing, describe

One of the key principles of design is that there are many possible solutions to a given problem, not just one “right answer”. However, many students – as a result of school curricula being heavily test-based – will still have the mentality that there is a correct answer they are expected to produce.

This means that if you tell students how generators work, they may remember the details but likely won’t think critically or ask questions. A better method is to make something that demonstrates the important principles, then ask the students how they work. Make it clear that this isn’t a test and there aren’t any wrong answers. Be liberal with hints, but don’t give explanations without requiring some thought from the students.

Similarly, when presented with a device and asked to make something like it, students will be tempted to think that your demo is the ‘right answer’, and you may well end up with a class of identical-looking projects. Instead, use sketches or break the design into components, and explain each component’s function and constraints.

For lessons where making something (as opposed to using it) is the primary goal, make sure there is a part where students have to decide for themselves how to build something or how to do an experiment. One tactic is to provide a “grab bag” of random materials (though familiar and locally sourced!) or to send students out between lessons to source materials themselves, rather than providing each student with identical materials.


Anna, 2011/09/01 16:15

Very nice explanations! I added a few concrete examples and minor grammatical changes.

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