Teaching science with a heart

“We as science teachers are feeling really tortured”, says Demetria Swai, a Biology teacher.  She’s one of only four science teachers at Moshono secondary school in Arusha: of the others, another teaches Biology, one Physics and one Maths. The school has 1000 pupils.

To fill the gaps, temporary teachers are brought in where possible. But in the meantime, Mrs Swai spends two days a week teaching at a neighbouring school – which has no Biology teacher at all.

Science education is in a bad way in Tanzania. Yet the issue that brought Swai to Dar es Salaam was not the lack of teachers but the methods they were using.

“In most cases [teaching science] is difficult simply because we don’t have the materials.” Teaching aids are rarely available, and are often expensively manufactured ones that can break easily and therefore rarely used by children.

So Swai and her students began making their own – a project that got them a place, along with 300 other Tanzanian pupils, in the first ever Young Scientists Exhibition, held this week in Dar es Salaam.

Three Moshono Secondary School pupils show off their work: brightly painted and carefully-labelled papier mache models of the human heart, the digestive system, a fish.

“When students are taught by aids they do not forget easily,” says one of the pupils, Rehema Akwilombe. Her teacher, who has already convinced her headmaster to have a team of “modellers” working on making the aids during break times, has ambitions to provide these models to many other schools.

Teaching methods isn’t the only factor behind what the Tanzanian Government calls “avoidance syndrome”: the fact that most students choosing social science/arts subjects from Form 3 onwards, rather than natural sciences.

The Young Scientist Exhibition – modelled on the long-running Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition in Ireland and brought to Tanzania for the first time this year – aims to encourage more interest in the subject. Projects were selected from around the country; from each school represented, three pupils present their investigations on health, energy, waste, social behaviour. One group finds that the traditional practice of eating soil while pregnant can be harmful; another that a treatment of banana-leaf ashes can help heartburn; another builds an non-electric fridge.

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Some are concerned with social science issues. One school from Ilala district, Dar es Salaam presents the results of their study: “Why do students dislike science subjects?”. Lack of facilities, they say: their own school has one laboratory which is not equipped. “I’ve never even seen a Bunsen burner!” says Happiness Haule, one of the pupils.  They borrow equipment from neighbouring schools or go there to take classes. Working conditions of teachers are a big factor too. Their school has just one Chemistry and one Physics teacher for 1000 pupils, says Happiness. “If you teach 1000 pupils in one day, would you be motivated…? The government should support teachers more, increase their salary.”

The issue is particularly severe at Government schools, increasingly recognised as failing students and creating a “lost generation” of graduates.

The poor quality of science education at higher levels further discourages students to even risk studying a subject they know is not well-taught.

Doing something about this seems to fall to ordinary citizens. Moshono Secondary School are now looking for funding to buy a machine to shred the paper, so they can make models faster and start providing them to other schools. In the meantime, says Mrs Swai with a smile, “we’re working on a model of the human skeleton”.

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