The Year in Review

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by Emina Veletanlic

As Pueblo Science members slowly prepare for the 2012 outreach mission in the Philippines, we’d like to take a look back at our first year in operation….

Motivation

Pueblo Science was created almost exactly one year ago with a simple objective: to strengthen science literacy in remote communities of developing countries by providing tools for a more enriching science curriculum. The biggest concern that we wanted to address is the fact that the science taught in elementary and high schools across the Philippines (and certainly many other countries with similar conditions) is ineffective at engaging kids at an age when their interests begin to take shape and can be moulded. The emphasis in science class is on memorization of theory, rather than exploration and inquiry.

But what child wouldn’t get bored and discouraged if constantly made to memorize concepts and theories? Kids are naturally curious and must see, touch and play to connect abstract ideas and principles to the world they know. What makes the matter worse is that such communities don’t have enough science teachers with the right knowledge, skills or training.

But how do you even begin to effect meaningful curriculum changes in villages across the developing world that grapple with problems that go way beyond the classroom? Or in communities that consistently deal with complex issues such as sustainable farming practices, poverty, health, and basic infrastructure for clean drinking water and sanitation? The good news is that science literacy does matter. A lot. Particularly in cases like these! (Stay tuned for another blog post on this topic.)

As we set out to form a strategy last year, we kept a basic premise in mind, that perhaps targeting science teachers rather than students alone could be a more effective way to induce change and that teachers don’t need expensive lab equipment to create interesting experiments and activities for kids. (One can’t underestimate the “multiplier effect” in teaching because a single great or inspiring teacher can simultaneously reach out to 20, 30 students in a single classroom.) Because we were (and still are) based at the University of Toronto, we pulled volunteer scientists from chemistry, physics and engineering departments to help us design science with concepts that can be connected to life in remote villages – and, more importantly, reproduced using locally available materials.

Testing the ground

Pueblo’s public launch came about during the Toronto Science Rendezvous on May 7, 2011which turned out to be a perfect venue. This is an annual festival with more than 2000 volunteers at hundreds of events across the province that is accessible to people of all ages. We sold some of our kits to the general public and used the proceeds to offset the cost of materials for our very first outreach mission in the Philippines later that month.

The pilot program activities took 6 Pueblo Science volunteers (Prof. Cynthia Goh, Dr. Mayrose Salvador, Calvin Cheng, Dr. Yoshinori Suganuma, Dr. Martin Labrecque and Emina Veletanlic) across three different Philippine provinces between May 18 and June 4, 2011. We couldn’t have done this without forming good partnerships with local institutions that were extremely helpful in advertising to local teachers:

  • University of Philippines in Los Baños (Laguna),
  • Holy Trinity University in Puerto Princesa (Palawan), and
  • Mariano Marcos State University in Laoag City (Ilocos Norte).

The two-day workshops at each location gave us an opportunity to interact with nearly100 teachers at all levels of instruction and provide training and hands-on science kits for 15 separate experiments. We encouraged the teachers to not only integrate Pueblo Science activities in their courses but also to continue to innovate in the classroom. Our outreach activities were featured in the bi-monthly newsletter of the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service for the Philippine market (“Pueblo Science empowers local education”) and the University of Toronto Institute for Optical Sciences, July Newsletter (“Pueblo Science conducts first mission to the Philippines”).

The reception was overwhelmingly positive and we were pleased to hear that teachers have continued to use Pueblo Science activities:

“tnx for the time u spent for us, i enjoyed learning with you and your company, sir yoshi, calvin, martin, mam emina, i hope there will be training/seminar again like it in our province. my students were amazed with the mango battery (sir yoshi). more power! puebloscience!!!”

~ From a teacher in Banna (Ilocos Norte)

This trip left us as an organization with valuable take-home lessons. But it was an especially eye-opening experience for members like me who had never set foot in this part of the world. Although one of greatest challenges Philippine teachers face is in finding basic equipment and funds, I am extremely impressed with their ability to make the best of limited resources, infrastructure and money. Some committed individuals even fund activities out of their own pocket. Much more work remains to be done to improve basic conditions and to bridge the gap between public and private schools. Only a long-term and patient commitment can accomplish this. After our successful pilot program, we are excited about extending our mission to other provinces in 2012 and beyond.