Outside the Classroom: Teaching Science in Matenwa
The Matenwa Community School is located on the island of la Gonave, off the main island of Hispaniola. We flew into Port Au Prince and then rode down the coast to las Angeles to catch a ferry. The signs of the earthquake were still apparent, with low crumbling houses and tent villages speckling the landscape along the highway. What was more apparent was poverty not caused by a natural disaster, and difficult living conditions that long predate the devastation of the 2008 earthquake. There were two options for the crossing between las Angeles and Anes le gas: a familiar-looking large steel ferry with a diesel engine, and a wooden sailing ship that most English speakers refer to as the “pirate ship.” We selected the more costly and safer diesel ferry and made the one hour crossing below deck with our requisite life jackets on in the crowded hold while we listened to sermons given by different passengers (it was a Sunday and one of the pirate ships had sunk a few weeks prior). Once off the ferry, we boarded a truck to begin the climb up into the mountains; with the cab full, we elected to ride with our bags and school supplies in the truck bed. It’s safe to say the mountain roads were the worst I’ve ever been on; the unpaved rocky trails were seemingly created more by erosion than by any intentional act. Occasionally, we’d pass other trucks on the side of the road forced to stop and make a few quick repairs before continuing on the brutal roads. After a bumpy hour or so we were in Matenwa, where we were excitedly greeted by a group of the community in Creole. The houses were small, varying from one to four rooms, and were made of cinder blocks with corrugated iron roofs. All of the cooking, washing, and toiletry needs were done in designated areas outside. The school was a real center of the community, made up of a few buildings with classrooms for different ages, crafts, woodworking, music, dance, and a library, as well as electrical outlets (by way of a solar grid) used by many to charge their cellular phones. We settled in with our host families, ate, and prepared for the days ahead. I had decided that, given my interest in science and because I am studying engineering, science was the best subject for me to teach. It was a bit of a daunting task; I was told that most people had very little background in science. I wanted to give functional knowledge that would help people understand the world around them without the information being so in-depth that it would be inaccessible or lost in translation. I planned ten or so lessons, covering some major subjects of science as well as some fun hands-on activities that I have enjoyed over the years. I stuck with what I knew and carefully selected demonstrations that were small and durable enough that I could leave them behind for the teacher to use in future classes.
In the first week, I went into a few summer school classes and taught a lesson that I am now calling “What is Science” to introduce the idea of the scientific method and, generally, how you can apply it to everyday things. We made and tested a simple hypothesis of what size glove would be the best fit for the most people in the class. We came to a consensus around a hypothesis; each student measured their hands and we then calculated the class average (a prerequisite of which was me explaining what an average was, an explanation I’d never given a whole lot of thought to before). Ultimately, it went well and, as luck would have it, the class hypothesis was very far off, allowing for a good discussion about the importance of testing a hypothesis.
I also got the chance to run a camp activity for students whose ages ranged from around eight to sixteen. I gave it another generic name like “exploring science,” and started out making Popsicle stick bridges. I talked a little bit about how bridges work and different types of bridges and what they look like, keeping in mind that most of the students had never seen a steel truss bridge. Then I set them loose and they started to tape Popsicle sticks together into bridges. I had planned to do a different activity every day, but my lack of discipline led to me allowing everyone to make their own bridge and stretched the activity for most of three days. As the days went on, the complexity increased and I showed a few people how to make more complex suspension bridges out of Popsicle sticks.
After the camp activities, the students would all get together in a big circular room to reflect on the day before being dismissed for lunch. The school provided lunch, and for some it’s the only good meal they get in a day. The food was always interesting, and we usually ate with the teachers before working with them in the afternoon. In the afternoon, we split up the time and each gave a lecture to the teacher on our topic of interest. It was always a pleasure to talk to people that have such an excitement to learn. I taught about electricity, magnetism, chemistry, and physics, just scratching the surface of so many topics, hoping to ignite an interest that they could take further and use to explain just a little bit about the world around them. As much as I enjoyed doing the science demonstrations (always my favorite part of science class), the questions asked by the teachers were my favorite part. After my lesson on electricity, one of the teachers asked me, “if I take two wires from a generator and put them in a bucket of water, is it safe to touch that water?” to which I responded that it wasn’t and provided a quick explanation. He followed up with another question, “what if I take the wires out? Do I have to throw the water out?” I was taken aback–water being safe isn’t something I’ve ever thought about.
Traveling to Haiti was an incredible and eye-opening experience. I’ve traveled internationally before, but this was my first experience with true poverty. The generosity of the people and willingness to integrate us into the community was amazing. Working with the students and teachers was inspiring and reminded me what I like so much about learning, and also highlighted the importance of the accessibility of good education. I am thankful for the financial support given to me by the Northeastern Honors department that helped make this trip a reality.
-Duncan Freake, Mechanical Engineering