Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Learning Experience

The current political situation in Andhra Pradesh is somewhat charged. The western region of the state, called Telangana, comprises 10 out of AP’s 23 districts, and includes the capital city, Hyderabad. Claiming unfair treatment from the state government, the people and political parties of that area have been agitating to separate and form a new Telangana state. It’s true that water and other resources are scarce there, but it seems to me that they are scarce in other areas of the state that I have visited as well. At any rate, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) is the main political party fighting for this separation. They’ve been organizing bandhs, which are basically all-encompassing strikes, for the last year. These strikes happen at least every week, and everything from schools to buses to hospitals throughout the Telangana area has to be shut down under threat of violence if they don’t comply. That’s the background of the situation.

Now, the first week and a half that I was at Matendla, everything was peaceful and calm. But in the middle of the second week, we had some visitors from TRS on the morning of a bandh . Three guys came in to the school and asked Vishnu, the headmaster, to shut everything down. We could see them talking from the opposite wing of the school, and some teachers told us what was going on. The teachers were somewhat tense, because they didn’t want to waste a day of school. Yet they trusted the headmaster to deal with the situation.

Vishnu is enthusiastic and idealistic and cares very much about the students. He is also very good at showing that to other people and infecting them with his ideas. He somehow managed to convince the TRS people that canceling school here in a remote village would not only do no good for the bandh, but would also be detrimental to the students. If Telangana is to get out of its current situation, he argued, it has to have educated people. And they listened.

But they didn’t give up that easily. The idea of the bandh seemed abandoned, but they asked if instead, they could sign the students up for the TRS. Once again, Vishnu used his quiet logic on them. The students are young, but they must make that decision for themselves. But you can talk to them and tell them why you think they should join, he conceded.

nd with that, everybody let out a collective breath of relief. School would not be canceled. The 10th graders were taken into a nearby room to listen to the TRS folks, but the rest of the classes continued as planned.

The thing that strikes me is that this wasn’t a one-off situation. It had happened before and would almost certainly happen in the future again. Vishnu’s argument worked this time, but apparently that hasn’t always been the case. And what if the school had been located somewhere less remote? What of the urban schools in Hyderabad? Hyderabad is the center of the state, and schools there have lost an immense amount of teaching time to these bandhs, because they can’t argue that they are far away. It makes me angry that children and students have to suffer the consequences of this political action. These strikes only happen in the Telangana areas. How could it possibly help your people to deprive them of necessary services (hospitals and public transportation for the many people who don’t have their own vehicles)? All they are doing is setting their own students back.

I think that Vishnu and the teachers must have felt the same way I did. They’ve dedicated their careers to helping kids gain some education in a place where the previous generation was mostly married by 14 and out of school long before then. But they can’t voice their sentiments, because of the potential consequences.

I think that maybe their conviction that the students must be taught to make their own choices plays into it as well. Now that I think about it, I think that Vishnu twisted the situation around and turned it into a learning experience for the students. The students listened to the TRS people, discussed it amongst themselves (with no teachers present), and told them that for the moment, school was important. Those of the student body who wanted to help the TRS would meet them after school to learn more about what they could do, but they would not give up their school time.

So perhaps it’s not all bad. Having a charged political situation that affects them means that the students have to think more about politics. The students will be more interested in how the whole state is working, rather than focusing on their surroundings. Some of them have not been further than 10 km from their village, so this exposes them to issues that affect a much larger area. So I guess whatever the situation is at hand, if you have good teachers and a good attitude, you can make anything into a learning experience for the students.

Friday, September 10, 2010

To the Students:

Now I've had more than a month to think about things since my project ended, and other education-related events have kept me thinking about it (along with, of course, the necessity of finishing my blog record of my practice). So in the end, this is the advice I'd give to the students:

For math, science, etc.: Don't memorize the answers from the guides. Learn the material and the principles behind the material, and you will be able to solve any problem they throw at you. As an added bonus (though it should be the actual motivation), you'll actually be able to use your newfound skills in the real world, when there is no guidebook to give you answers.

For languages: Read. Next to living in a foreign country where you're immersed in the language, the best thing you can do to learn a language is read. It improves not only your vocabulary, but also your knowledge of sentence structures and idiomatic usage. With enough exposure, these things will get shoved into your subconscious mind, and creating your own sentences will be infinitely more easy.

In general: You all work very hard because you really want to learn. Keep that desire to learn, because the number of things you don't know will always be greater than the number of things you do know. Work on being able to solve problems on your own, based on what you know. Even if you can't see the whole pathway to the solution, do what you know, and see if that gets you anywhere.

The system beats creativity out of you, but always try to draw your own links and figure out how everything is connected. Place what you learn into context with what you've learned in other subjects. Make the information you're learning real for yourself.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Campfire Stories

Here's another horror story about the educational system for you. This time, it's about college.

One of the teachers was acting as an examiner in another college for the B.Sc Chemistry students. They were being asked to do a titration. Each would go into the chemical room and come out with a little pile of white powder. When asked the mass, they would reply that it was 23.1457 g.

When multiple students came out telling her the same weight, or similar weights with an odd number for the last digit, she became curious. All the balances her own college had were two-pan balances with the smallest measure being 0.2 mg. So she was curious what kind of balance they were using that could go down to 0.1 mg. Most colleges don't have that kind of balance.

Neither did this one. In fact, this college didn't have any kind of balance. The students were going into the chemical store room, where some guy was handing them spoonfuls of the compound. They knew the number they were supposed to say, and so they said it.

So how did they do titration without knowing the concentration of their solution? Same way. They would do whatever they were doing with their burettes, then come up to the teacher and say, "Ma'am, I got 15.3 mL," which would be the correct answer. There was absolutely no real titration going on.

For the vast majority of the students, this practical exam was probably the second time in their lives they had touched a burette, with the first being probably no more than a week before. All the practicals are often crammed into one week before the test, and then forgotten, if they ever were learned to begin with.

It's ridiculous to even contemplate teaching science this way. No wonder companies don't want to hire graduates that know nothing and need to be trained from the beginning, which makes finding jobs difficult for science graduates, which makes people less likely to go with the science track after 10th which makes for less funding for these colleges. It really is a vicious cycle.

Part of the problem, I think, is that research and teaching have been uncoupled. The electrons (ideas, capital) might be flowing in from the government or industry in the research world, but ATP synthesis (college lab) has nothing to power it. Plus half the protons (money) flow right back out the pores of corruption.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Day 30 - The End

Today is our last day here. And apparently there's a bandh going on. Ummm...I really hope that doesn't mean school is canceled and we don't get to do all our experiments. If the TRS (Telangana Rasthra Samithi), the party agitating for a separate Telangana, gets to the school before first period, it might be. Once school starts, though, the principal won't stop it again.

He has a good argument for the TRS too. Once the cooks start making lunch, it would be a huge waste of money and food to get rid of all they've cooked. And the TRS people around here seem to understand that the RDF is serious about teaching the kids, and that interrupting school is not the best way to advance Telangana's interests.

Just in case, though, we decide to teach the 6th graders first. They've been asking for us to come to their class for days, and we haven't yet done any experiments with them. It screws up the schedule a bit, but we really want to work with them.

I do the same magnetism spiel from two days ago, but simplify. I emphasize the attraction/repulsion a bit more since they haven't really learned it yet. I have each person in the group try to push like poles of the bar magnets together, and they giggle with glee as each successive person fails to touch the two ends. "Arey, adey kaduluthondi!" (Hey, it's moving by itself!)

My mom was planning to just show them electroplating, but she ends up doing it the same way she did it with the other classes, by assigning each student in the group to hold a wire or a coin, or to observe the coin and tell us when it has turned red enough to break the circuit. It gets them more involved, and they feel like science is something they can do, so that's okay.

For 4th period, we do both sections of 9th. We call them over to the lab and demonstrate the iodine clock. I pour everything in and tell them it's the pindi padhartham (iodine-starch test). Then I ask, why isn't it changing colors? About 20 seconds later, I draw their attention back to the tube, and they gasp as it suddenly begins to change to a dark blue. Now it's time to give a cut-down explanation of what's happening in the tube.

Afterwards, we give them a little demo of litmus paper as well, then eat lunch and carry all our solutions back up for the 7th graders. These kids are much more rowdy than the 6th graders. The teacher has brought all of them out here, and since we can only take half the class at any time, the other two groups are sitting by the wall in front of us. But they're so close, and they can't resist getting up and peering over the other kids' shoulders. No matter how many times we tell them they'll get their turn next, they keep sneaking up to look at the magnets and the litmus paper.

A couple of them even manage to knock over the (dilute) sodium hydroxide solution. Oops. Well, there's still a little left in the glass, but they have to be careful not to touch the tablecloth for now. Luckily, a later group knocks over the acid, so the tablecloth is neutralized and deemed safe once again.

By the time the last group comes up, they already know half of what I'm going to tell them because they've caught glimpses during each of the other 3 groups' turns before we chased them away again.  It's okay, though, because it shows how interested they are. If I were a normal teacher and this were an everyday occurrence, it wouldn't work, but we're only here until this evening, so it's okay. At least they're paying close attention (and helping to clean up the iron filings they've spilled all over the place).

Okay kids, it's been fun, but we have to go know. Keep that curiosity burning! You guys are great.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Day 29 - Confusion

Today is Sunday. On Saturday morning, we were told that there would be school today because Vandita madam (the CEO) was bringing up some visitors. When that happens, there tends to be some sort of exhibition at school on Sunday and Monday becomes a holiday. They try not to rearrange the schedule too often, but they do it from time to time. On this particular day, Vandita madam's visitors could not make it that day, and school was canceled. This was known by Saturday afternoon.

Unfortunately, nobody realized we had been told there would be school, so nobody realized they would have to tell us there wouldn't be school. So we wake up and get ready for breakfast by 8 as usual, to find the place deserted.

Ah well. We have the key to the science lab. Might as well use today to test out some experiments.

As we stroll through the school gate, our eyes fall upon kids playing in the volleyball court and the area near the science lab. We ask, why are you here on a Sunday?

They answer, we're here to use the library and the computer lab. They open at 10, but we're here (an hour) early.

Okay, we say, that's good. And we go in to the science lab to work on some experiments. My mom is playing with some of the lenses, utilizing the contrast of the dark inside with the bright light from outdoors to make pretty pictures. I once again attempt the iodine clock reaction.This time, I use only the tiniest pinch of KI and a slightly larger pinch of Na2S2O3. The H2O2 seems to be rather dilute, so I use a lot more of it than I did before. And this time, I find a funnel so I can add everything at the same time.

Here, we turn around and find a gaggle of kids at the windows and doors, watching us dole out small measures of chemicals into various test tubes. Everyone that was waiting outside is now waiting by our window. Most of them say they're 6th/7th graders, which makes sense, since we haven't done many experiments with them yet, and they've been asking when we'll come to their class. Tomorrow, little darlings. Tomorrow is your day.

They skip off, not because we've told them we'll be working with them tomorrow, but because the teacher has just opened the door of the computer lab and is working on the lock for the library. So I turn back to my iodine clock and toss everything down the funnel at once.

Lo and behold, it works! Since I have no balance (there is a very good two-pan balance, but it's locked away in a glass cabinet, and looks like a treasured possession rather than a usable scale), I can't really calculate and set the clock for a certain amount of time. Still, I've got it working within about 20-40 seconds, which is perfect. By afternoon, my mom's found some litmus paper and made some dilute acid/base solutions, so everything's set for tomorrow. Time to relax a little.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Day 28 - DNA, Electroplating, and Magnets, Oh My!

Today, we have scheduled a simple DNA extraction demonstration for the two sections of 10th class. There have been a few changes since I tried this in Matendla. Instead of onion, we're using a banana. The two reasons for this are as follows:
  1. The inside of a banana is pretty sterile. You don't really have to worry about dirt and things that will break up your DNA into pieces too short to spool.
  2. It's much much easier to mash a banana inside a ziploc bag than to find a mortar and pestle (a.k.a. a roll, which is used in cooking in India) and grind an onion with soap solution. Especially when the science lab is isolated from the rest of the school and you have no idea where all the teachers are because you're testing it out after school.
The DNA precipitates at the soap/ethanol border, and even allows itself to be spooled onto a clean pipet, but it's very gel-like. I suspect a high level of protein contamination. Maybe some pineapple juice would help next time? Ah well, the kids are asking why we used soap and why we used ethanol, etc., so it's all good. They're interested and curious.

Afterward, we take electroplating to the 8th graders, and to keep more of them occupied at any given time, we do magnetism as well. The 8th grade classes are located at one end of the second-floor labyrinth, and we would definitely not have found them were it not for our student guides/helpers who carried the materials all the way over.

There are two tables set up on the balcony outside, and we decide to take advantage of that. My mom sets up the electroplating materials on the right table, and I set up my magnets and iron filings on the left. This way, we can do two groups at once, keeping half of the 30-member class occupied at a time.

I begin by ascertaining how much they know about magnets. Opposite poles attract, like poles repel. A compass points north. They've got all that, but I figure it's useful to have a quick refresher, since lessons on science topics are so ridiculously spread out across the years in the curriculum.

So I move on the magnetic field, which I know they haven't yet covered. They don't need to know it yet, but it's a memorable demo. Place a magnetic field under a piece of cardboard (in this case, the lid of a box) containing iron filings (these are actually shavings taken from some iron/steel mill - I've sifted out the big, sharp pieces and kept only the fine iron dust). Nothing really happens. Give the box a few taps, and all of a sudden, the iron filings align themselves along the field lines, revealing a pattern.

Next up is induced magnetism, in which a non-magnetic piece of iron becomes a magnet itself when it is stuck to one end of the bar magnet. As soon as you pull the magnet off, the iron filings fall. The kids seem to enjoy playing with this one, and I sometimes have to take back the magnets and redistribute them so everyone in the group gets a chance to try.

After giving this spiel on magnetism 8 times, I think I've got it down pretty well. But my throat is getting tired of the constant talking. Time for some water and some rest before we head over to the junior college for dinner.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Day 27 - Gotta Follow the Procedure...or Change Your Plans

Plant pigment chromatography worked so beautifully in Matendla. Well, it's not working here. To be fair, we don't have enough time in the morning to prepare before class, so we can't get tamalapaku leaves crushed with ethanol by a mortar and pestle. Instead, my mom tries to crush some badam (almond) leaves by hand. Yeah, that doesn't really get the chlorophyll out.

The experiment worked well in Matendla because we did a quick demo, then had the students get into (four large) groups and do it themselves. They got to play with it and do something with their hands, and they had lots of questions afterward.

Here, we can't find enough beakers, so the class has to sit for 20 minutes, watching the acetone slowly creep up the filter paper from 20 feet away while we try to explain the principles behind an experiment that is not showing the result it's supposed to.

We've learned our lesson. Instead of taking the second section of 10th class immediately afterward, we ask if we could have one period extra to prepare. Hurrying back to the lab, we make a change of plans. Who needs plant pigments? That would relate much better to bio, but these kids have never even seen paper chromatography. So we borrow some markers.

A quick test shows us that mixing red, green, and blue markers in a line along the bottom of the filter paper strip results in a very nice separation. We hunt through the cabinets one more time and find a couple of glasses to go along with the beakers. A poor washrag that has the misfortune of being nearby gets torn into 5 pieces to act as a cover for the beakers. We pick a couple of solvent systems and get some students to help us carry all the equipment back across the grounds and up the stairs to the school.

The second section of 10th gets a much better lesson. We call groups of 6 kids outside one group at a time, and demonstrate what they need to do. Then we hand them the scissors, filter paper, markers, tape, and beaker with solvent system (water, acetone + water, or ethanol + water), and send them off to a corner of the balcony to begin their test.

As we check the groups, we find that for some, the green color has disappeared and yellow has appeared! So in the spirit of science, we assign those groups a second task now that their first chromatograph has finished: try it again with just the green.

After everyone's marker pigments have separated out clearly enough, we return to the classroom to talk about the principles. We draw a little color-chalk diagram of each group's results on the board and compare them. We ask everyone, where did the yellow come from? And then we suggest that perhaps the green marker was actually made up of yellow and blue, and show the extra chromatograph to prove that this is indeed the case.

All in all, it's a pretty successful lesson. But the first section of 10th didn't get it. So we go back to their classroom after lunch (the teachers are very accommodating since this is a short-term project) and repeat the better version of paper chromatography with them.

Perhaps it's because we gave them freedom to work in groups, or perhaps because the experiment is really working, or simply because the teacher is not sitting at the back watching them, but the kids are much more enthusiastic this time around. One group even carries out a little experiment of their own: they try it with regular notebook paper.

Obviously it doesn't work, but they ask why in the discussion afterward, and we're able to explain about the qualities of filter paper that make capillary action work much better. But they're thinking about it themselves and trying things, and that was really the goal of this whole exercise. Science is not something you just learn and memorize from a textbook. Science is something you do, and think about, and keep on doing.