Young Scientists Tanzania 2015

Winners of YST 2015: Edwin Luguku and John Method with H.E. Ambassador Fionnuala Gilsnean, Former president Mr. Ali Hassan Mwinyi and Mr. John Ulanga (BG Tanzania)

Winners #YST2015: Edwin Luguku & John Method with Former president Mr. Ali Hassan Mwinyi, H.E. Ambassador Fionnuala Gilsnean & Mr. John Ulanga (BG Tanzania)

In August 2014 I had the immense privilege of spending around ten days in Tanzania and of attending the 2014 Young Scientists Tanzania exhibition in Dar es Salaam. Supported by a travel grant from the Ubuntu Network the purpose of my visit was to consolidate links between the Education Department in Maynooth University and the Young Scientists Project and to encourage further potential collaboration between educators in Ireland and Tanzania. While I was there I had the opportunity to act as a judge of some of the Social Science projects.

During the visit I also wrote about my travels around Tanzania and my experience of the exhibition. I felt then, and continue to feel now, that YST was unlike any other educational event I have ever attended and meeting Tanzania’s Young Scientists in Dar es Salaam last year made a profound impression on me. The stories of those students’ projects have stayed with me throughout the past year and I have tried to share them with others in different ways since then.

Although this year I could only attend the YST Exhibition via Twitter, the excitement and energy of the young people have once again been awe-inspiring! YST is decidedly student-centered, celebrating quality scientific research among second level students, and providing a meaningful outlet for their interests and ingenuity.

The pictures posted on social media reminded me of the efforts of preparation, coordination and the logistics that go into making the event happen. I continue to be flabbergasted at the monumental achievement of the YST team who gather teachers and pupils from across a country that is ten times the size of Ireland! Anyone with any experience of travelling in East Africa will appreciate how massive that achievement is in itself!

But educationally what YST achieves, with a relatively small core staff of mentors and organisers, is so much more compelling: instilling a love of Science among young people in a country where, to date, there has been a relatively low uptake up of Science and Technology subjects in higher education, is nothing short of phenomenal! A recent article for The Citizen newspaper by H.E. Irish Ambassador to Tanzania, Fionnuala Gilsenan, provides great insight into the significance of YST for Tanzanian education, development and society in general.

In the article Ambassador Gilsenan points out that “why?” (kwa nini in Swahili) is the most important word in any language. Reading it prompts me to ask why it is that YST makes such a profound impression. Why do the stories of the young scientists resonate so strongly? Why do I think it is so important that news about the achievements of these young people be known more widely?

One reason, among many, is that it contradicts the usual, and rather lazy narratives of despondence, dependency and outright desperation that are conveyed in the media regarding Africa. It is not often that stories of students’ working out ways to combat poverty make the headlines, although when you stop to think about it, these are precisely the stories that should! It was refreshing to see the reports aired this week by RTÉ’s Education Correspondent Emma O’Kelly who, along with cameraman Colm McCaughley travelled to Tanzania to meet the Young Scientists. Their reports give an insight to the projects and the motivations of these young Tanzanian scientists and convey also how articulate and sophisticated they are.

As I reflect back on last year’s trip, I think that, for me, the real value of my own trip to Tanzania will only fully come about when our hoped for links between teachers (and student teachers) in both countries are strengthened and developed. One way this can become a reality in 2016 will be through the addition of the Professional Master of Education (PME) course onto the Irish Aid Fellowship Training Programme. This programme is administered for Irish Aid by the Irish Council for International Students (ICOS). With Maynooth University’s PME now added to that register we hope to welcome candidates from Tanzania (and indeed from any of the seven countries eligible to apply for that fellowship).

So further opportunities for us to work together will ensue! In the meantime we look forward to welcoming Edwin Luguku and John Method, the winners of YST2015, to Ireland in January 2

016 for the BT Young Scientists Exhibition in Dublin and we wish Joe and Co-Director Dr. Kamugisha Gozibert and all the YST Team in Dar es Salaam the very best for next year’s exhibition and future plans for the initiative in other countries in East Africa.


Why I am voting YES on May 22nd

It will come as no surprise that I know a lot of teachers! Some readers will be even less surprised (some, more so perhaps?) that many teachers I know are lesbian or gay. The bit that will surprise no one at all, I think, is that of the many lesbian and gay teachers I know, very few feel they can be out at school. Those who are out at school may not have chosen to be and are (or think they are) only out to their colleagues.

I think many lesbian and gay teachers only think they are not out to their students: I have enough experience of teaching teenagers to know that little escapes their notice! Whether they are or are not interested in their teachers’ lives and loves, very few of them these days care at all about the gender of a teacher’s significant other. For most teenagers in 21st century Ireland their teachers’ sexuality is just not an issue!

But at this historic moment in Ireland the vast majority of school-goers are too young to vote in the forthcoming referendum on Civil Marriage. And yet many lesbian and gay teachers are still hesitant about campaigning for a YES vote in this referendum. Many of my friends, for example, fear the implications in school if they are to do so … what about ‘next year’ when they are looking for a job? I hear this and I think for all the progress in terms of diversity and equality, what has really changed since “my day” as a secondary school teacher two decades ago?

I have had occasion to think about this a bit and to try to figure out what kind of society we would like future generations to grow up in in this country; about the kinds of conversations that might be possible in schools and what it may mean to young people, whatever their sexuality, to feel valued as they grow up.

As teachers, we have – and have always had – a fundamental role to play in ensuring that open, honest and caring conversations can occur in schools. As a teacher educator I have ‘come around’ (as though I’m gaining consciousness, maybe?) to the responsibility I have in encouraging this conversation. I think maybe by sharing my own story with students, as they begin their teaching careers, we can all contribute to lifting the silence about gender stereotypes, homophobic bullying and so on that still pervades schools, especially Catholic ethos schools, in this country.

I have recently had the opportunity to put some of these ideas in writing in an academic context. I am offering some of that in this blog. Episode 1 is a short and true-as-far-as-I-remember-it-story, while Episode 2 is an entirely imagined piece of what you could call “wishful thinking”!

I invite you to read these (in order ideally) in the hope that these may prompt further thinking about the kind of society we would like to leave to future generations.

Episode 1: A short story where the narrator looks back in time and finds herself wanting
Episode 2: A short film script in which the narrator looks forward in time and finds what she wants

Should you wish to read these “vignettes” in their academic “frame” … be my guest:

I welcome comments if you’d like to engage in that conversation via the comments on this blog (or by email if you prefer). Comments are moderated, so your comment will not automatically be made public.

Go Berserk!

I started this blog as a way to help me recall, reflect and share the ideas that I would encounter on the US Embassy Ed Tech exchange. When I began I’d been thinking in terms of the people, places and projects that I would encounter in the USA.

However, it didn’t occur to me that one of the richest aspects of the trip would turn out to be learning from my Irish and Northern Irish fellow travellers. But from the moment I met them in Dublin Ariport it was clear that they were going to be excellent companions for the two weeks. And so it turned out to be that I have learnt so much just from the conversations in the planes, trains and automobiles we took between January 11th to 25th.

So to redefine the purpose of this blog then, and to keep it going over the next few weeks, I would like to share some of the insights I have had from those conversations.

I will come back to some of the US meetings as well as I haven’t finished reporting on those.

First up then is Gareth McAleese (no relation to Mary, apparently!). Gareth is a classicist whose day job is in the IT support of Allstate, a large international insurance company in Belfast. (It seems that jobs for scholars of Latin and Ancient Greek are much less in demand these days!). As part of his company’s corporate social responsibility Gareth had been volunteering to teach IT skills in primary school in Belfast. This video tells the story of the development of Go Berserk! the book he co-authored with Ian Simons from Stranmillis College, which teaches 8-year-olds how to create their own websites using raw HTML code.

The title ‘Digital Hero’ suits Gareth very well, but the video doesn’t mention the very significant results from an evaluation that was done on the outcomes of using Go Berserk! in schools in Northern Ireland. Ian Simons’ evaluative research found that 8-year olds were the most receptive to learning HTML and better at this indeed than older children. There were no differences in the girls’ and boys’ interest in a capability in leaning. The research also concluded that children with special educational needs, particularly those with Autism, were particularly receptive to learning code. Children identified as “low achievers” in the class or with special educational needs actually become the best coders and teach the rest.

The impact on teachers consequently and understandably has been that their view of their pupils’ capabilities was greatly enhanced and in fact an increase in the children’s self-belief and aspirations comes through in the findings as well.

Other recent news for  Go Berserk!is that they were runner-up in the Start-Up Learning Provider of the Year category of the prestigious London-based Learning Awards.

Gareth is currently writing a follow-up book (after demand and suggestions from teachers in Northern Ireland), which teaches 8 year olds how to make their own games with HTML5 and Javascript. Both books have been accredited with an OCN Level 1 Award so that for the first time ever 8 year olds can earn a recognised UK certification usually reserved for 14 year olds.

Now, I plan to talk nicely to Gareth to get a copy of the book for the Education Resource centre!

Ninja in Boston

Our other official meeting of last Monday was with the Consulate General of Ireland in Boston. We met the Consul General Breandán Ó Caollaí and colleagues and were treated to a warm Irish welcome in 535 Boylston Street. (The Consulate is located very close to the finish line of the Boston Marathon).

The meeting gave us the opportunity to discuss our impressions of our trip to date. Since we are all about game-based learning we summarised our experiences and impressions by means of a simple game.

If you are following #edtechie on Twitter you might have seen the Gotcha Ninja who has accompanied us throughout the trip. Passing him among us, and using the letters in NINJA, we discussed things like: N for Networking, I for Inspiration and the International dimension of education and even the first two of the letters together in NI for Northern Ireland and colleagues outlined ideas for cross-border links that could emerge from this exchange programme. The second N evoked the idea of ‘Never Give Up’ where perseverance and what Americans call ‘grit’ were seen as being key to successful learning and enterprise. We also talked about this being an on-going learning J for Journey. From the letter A we discussed Assessment and how data-driven, personalised learning that can be drawn from carefully designed game environments. The letter A also prompted a reflection on the word Aspire where STEM subjects can be accessible to everyone regardless of their background so long creative approaches to learning are adopted. Indeed, the word STEM has also been refined to include A so that STEAM is the new acronym with Art, Craft and Design included in the equation.

Finally, in a last minute twist to the rules of our Ninja game (because you can always change the rules!) Tony re-named the Ninja Conor and talked about C for Connections: the many multiples of which we are making with each other and with our American hosts that is making this a very enriching experience for all of us.

Leaving New England

I’m drafting this blog post on the train as we travel from Boston to New York. The weather, which had been quite mild during our first week in DC and Seattle, has taken a turn for the sub-zero and the landscape outside is Christmas card beautiful. It remains to be seen of course whether it will seem so lovely when we get to NYC! Some of our meetings may not go ahead due to the uncertainty about the weather inland to the north-west.

Anyway for the update: we flew to Boston from Seattle last Saturday and with Sunday free and Monday a national holiday the schedule calmed down a little giving us time to recover and get our bearings a bit.

January 20th marked the 51st anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. The day is designated as a day of service to honour MLK’s legacy. Many thousands of volunteers take part in initiatives that are aimed at empowering others and creating solutions to social problems. Unfortunately, as the forecast was so ropey and the Many Helping Hands service activity that was lined up for us would have been outdoors and our Boston host thought better of risking us getting frostbite! Instead we were taken on a tour of South Boston, a last bastion of the kind of “Irish America” you see depicted in films like The Departed. It was, shall we say, a thought provoking experience (or maybe just provoking!) that highlighted the continued need for bridge building in a community that is undergoing rapid social and demographic change.

In spite of the holiday, however, a number of people did take the time to meet us on Monday. We began at LearnLaunch, an Ed Tech incubator which talks about “expanding the education innovation eco-system” and provides scope, space and networking opportunities for educators and entrepreneurs to interact with each other across New England. While their office space appeared more conventional than the funky designs and salvage furniture in 1776 and Betamore, it serves a similar purpose as those in linking up like minded people to create synergies and critical mass among entrepreneurs and educators. Read more on the growing trend of Ed Tech Incubators.

Our discussion at LearnLaunch centred on the mechanisms they use make meaningful links between the two communities such as their conference and monthly meet ups. LearnLaunch also operates an accelerator programme for ed tech start ups called LearnLaunchX. The full list of companies housed in LearnLaunch is impressive. Some of them that caught my eye were: CogniiDoInk Animation, eduCanonGradeableStoryBoardThat, TinkerStories. I also spotted that if you were to knock on GreenDoorLabs you might find Cody Coltharp whom we’d met just a week ago in Artlab+ in Washington DC. New world: small world!

No excuses, just solutions

No excuses, just solutions is the motto of McKinley Technological High School, located in a disadvantaged area in Northeast quadrant of Washington DC. It evokes very well the ‘no nonsense’ attitude of the teachers and students there. So far McKinley is the only school we have visited and unlike some of our other meetings that have been between an hour to two hours long, we had the luxury of having more time in the school. Consequently, we got the chance to talk through the ways the school is addressing STEM education and it also meant we could meet a number of teachers, visit lessons and chat with students. McKinley appears to be used to visitors. The current principal, Dr. Louise Jones, continues to promote STEM and good results continue to be achieved by the students.

It seems Public Schools in DC (and presumably this is true across the United States) are not known for their high academic achievement.  McKinley in contrast is very successful: it has a selective intake of students and is know colloquially as a “magnet” school. It has a very flexible curriculum as well as a gradually expanding internship programme run by Robert Holm who places students in high tech companies in DC at different times in the year and over the summer.

Students have a range of subject options in technical education and they take industry accredited assessments. Subjects included Computer Science, to Graphic Design, CISCO systems classes and Cyber Security (it is Washington DC after all!). In addition to the technical stuff for Cyber Security they were reading America the Vulnerable by Joel Brenner.

In most lessons students were in mixed aged groupings. In the computer science class, for example, students were aged anything from 14 to 17 in the same lesson, and were being taught algebra via the racket computer language (or is that the other way round? Either way it was new to me!). In another lesson a small group of students presented their thoughts to us about what they were learning (3D game development using AutoDesk Maya) and we had a brilliant discussion with them about their future career options. Interestingly not everyone in the class was looking to work in a STEM career but saw what they could get out of learning the skills involved in that class.

Finally, in a Graphic Design lesson two students presented their graphic design projects to us, while everyone else got on with their work. In this lesson I was blown away by the confidence of both students. They were as articulate as they were self-aware. In particular 16-year-old Diamond, who was sporting a bright rainbow belt and a pair of rainbow-coloured long, fingerless gloves to her elbow, quite literally wore her identity on her sleeve. It’s pretty clear that the Safe Schools programme that was pioneered in Massachusetts in the early 1990s, has left a very important legacy for schools in America. This is certainly one of the areas I think we still have a lot of progress to make in Ireland. No excuses indeed!

Staying the pace

It is definitely very difficult to write up or even have time to reflect on the many places we are being taken to during this exchange programme. Since leaving the Artlab+ space on Tuesday morning we have been to McKinley High School, Washington and then to a non profit organisation called Change the Equation that ‘is mobilizing the business community to improve the quality of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) learning in the United States’.

Early on Wednesday morning we flew to Seattle (via Denver) and even with a three hour time difference had just enough time to get to the EMP Museum (wow!) and the Space Needle (double wow!) before they closed. On Thursday morning we had a series of very interesting discussions in University of Washington where we met colleagues working on the Minority Scholars Engineering Program and later in the Center for Game Science.

Following that we had a further roundtable discussion with the educational team in the Pacific Science Center and a super-quick tour of the facility. Then, yesterday evening, we were given an insight into the work of Entertainment Game Developers Bungie (creators of Halo) who also generously hosted a very fine meal for us in a really cool restaurant located in their building.

This morning we were taken to the Microsoft Briefing Center and treated to a gorgeous breakfast and a series of brilliant presentations about different aspects of Microsoft’s work in what keeps being called “the educational space”.

Finally, for this week, this afternoon we met creators of such games as Portal, Half-Life, Left for Dead and Dote among others namely  VALVe Software.

Alas I may not be able to write in depth on each of these visits but I will cover some of my impressions of some of the sessions for sure.

The first will be the visit to McKinley High School in the next post as the students there made a profound impression on me. Like all of the hosts to all of our meeting the colleagues in McKinley gave generously of their time and hospitality. It was a privilege to be taken around the school to see lessons and chat with students and teachers.

All of this has been seamlessly managed by Cultural Vistas and it has been an absolutely fabulous and fascinating week!

Mot du jour: Homago

Colleagues and students reading this blog will already be aware that I have a particular fondness for acronyms, so I was delighted to be introduced to yet another one on Tuesday morning. Homago describes three of the ways that teens tend to engage with technology: they hang out (ho) mess around (ma) and when they get really into something they geek out (go) completely. Coined by Mizuko Ito and colleagues in the University of Berkeley in 2008, homago emerged from research they did concerning young people’s engagement with digital media production.

Homago, we discovered, is the philosophy that informs practice at Artlab+ and we had the good fortune to meet with Amy (Manager of Digital Learning Programmes), Dawn (Lead Mentor – Photography, Poetry, and Makin’) and Cody (3D Modeling, Animation, and Character Design Mentor) who showed us around and gave us an insight into what teens get up to when they come to the centre. This video gives a good overview of what a typical day in the centre looks like. Although this one is better for showcasing what they produce when they are there.

The range of resources in Artlab+ was impressive. Although, having said that, it did not seem excessive or exorbitant. Leaving aside the hardware, including, admittedly, some very nice stuff such as Wii Rockband, a 3D printer* and an occulus**, I was actually more taken simply by the sheer amount of space available. I was particularly impressed by the number of tables and chairs to allow participants to work together (very high-tech!).

Teens who drop into Artlab+ have the opportunity to get certification for various multi-media skills and applications and Amy, Dawn and Cody, among others, provide them with guidance and mentoring, sometimes in areas that they themselves are encountering for the first time.

The space provided for a nice range of different possibilities for teens to be creative and they can hang out, mess around and geek out regardless of the other activities taking place there at the same time. I also noticed, at the back of the open-plan area, a performance area with tiered seating, which I also thought was a great idea!

The Wii Rockband and screen were set up in a nice living room style space in the main area and Irish delegation on the US programme were able to  indulge in the best Freddie Mercury impersonation we could muster!

So we there you have it: we got to hang out, mess around in a creative and inspiring place. Sadly, however, we had too little time to totally geek out! The morning flew but I have to mention that I hold them responsible for being unable to get Bohemian Rhapsody out of my head ever since!

* 3D printer: check #edtechie on Twitter for the on-going story of the Ninja cloning experiment initiated in Artlab+!
**occulus: best if you get your letter to Santa in now!

National Academy of Sciences

Second on the schedule for Monday morning was a visit to the National Academy of Sciences. Established in 1863 by an Act of Congress that was signed by Abraham Lincoln, the NAS is a private, non-profit society of distinguished scholars, 500 hundred of whom are Nobel laureates! The Academy’s mission is to provide ‘independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology’ and the building we visited houses also the National Research Council (est. 1916) the National Academy of Engineering (est. 1964) and the Institute of Medicine (est. 1970)

Following an overview of the NAS given by Jay Labov we heard a short presentation from Margaret Hilton who shared the findings of a report she co-edited with Margaret A. Honey called Learning: Computer Games, Simulations, and Education and published by the National Research Council. The study sees games and simulations as lying along a continuum but having slightly different emphases: both are based on computer models and allow user interaction. Simulations allow users to explore the implications of modifying parameters, while games incorporate goals and rules and provide feedback.  Players’ actions affect the state of play.

The study’s initial hypothesis was that games had the potential to support science learning and allow learners to see and manipulate representations of complex natural phenomena. The findings concerning simulations showed promising evidence that well-designed simulations enhance understanding of targeted concepts. They found moderate evidence that simulations motivate interest in science and science learning.

Margaret highlighted a number of examples including PhET, Surge and Whyville. In Whyville, for example, players (whyvillians) can get struck by a nasty case of whypox. The symptoms of this are that the avatar’s skin becomes covered in horrible red pustules and they sneeze so much their online chat gets interrupted as words are replaced by ‘achoo’. The children playing the game wanted to recover from this in order to continue to socialize and chat more freely.

The authors found that while games had enormous potential in assessment this would not be useful until tasks were embedded effectively and unobtrusively. Margaret noted that the research on how to effectively assess learning in games and how to use the information to support learning is still in its infancy so we can expect the NAS to continue to explore this area.

I plan to order the report for the library in Maynooth and I look forward to reading it in more detail. It is also wonderful to have discovered the rich source of material in Science development and education that can be found on the various sections of the NAS site not to mention having had the honour of meeting Margaret and Jay  in person.

Molly and Ned

The first meeting of the US Ed Tech exchange programme was scheduled as a formal meeting in the State Department. For it we would need to show our passports to gain entry, to dress well and the schedule noted that the ‘speaker’ would be Amy Storrow. So it was reasonable perhaps that our collective assumption was that we’d hear a welcome speech or formal presentation about our programme.

Introductions over, however, it became clear that Amy had no intention of making a speech. Instead she invited us to play a game called, Molly and Ned, where in two teams we could take turns asking Yes/No style questions until we worked out what the rules of the game were. This was no mere ice-breaker but proved to be the opening up of a fantastic discussion about the dynamics and even ethics of game based learning. The enigma of the game played out in a way to that managed to be fun and frustrating, absurd and meaningful, competitive and collaborative all at the same time and led us into a very open and rich discussion about potential projects and ways we can collaborate in the future.

Molly and Ned needs to be played to be understood (not very helpful I know) but suffice it to say the ludic approach succeeded in disrupting all our assumptions about meetings in the State Department!

But as visitors we were not alone in having assumptions since one of our hosts (perhaps Amy or perhaps another of the four women we met there) had assumed that our group would all be young people! Glad to have disrupted that particular chestnut too!