Enhancing Science Education in Liberia
Michelle Chan, Amy Pan, Alison Zhao, Edward Zhou
June 18 – July 4, 2015
The I-HELP Liberia Project hosted three Science Bowl tournaments in Liberia between June 18 and July 4, 2015 with the overarching goal of advancing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education in Liberia. I-HELP members including Michelle Chan, Amy Pan, Alison Zhao, and Edward Zhou visited primary and secondary schools throughout the country in which they observed classes and taught lessons themselves. These schools exhibited an overall lack of educational resources, facilities, and funding. However, the students demonstrated a high level of enthusiasm for learning, and those who participated in the Science Bowl competitions displayed a genuine interest in the sciences. The I-HELP Liberia Project donated mobile laboratory kits and buzzer systems to numerous schools in order to supplement their current science curriculum. I-HELP’s efforts in Liberia garnered media attention, as the members were featured on UNMIL Radio, PowerTV, and GNN Liberia. In order to facilitate the integration of Science Bowl into high schools throughout Liberia, I-HELP plans to host another tournament in December of 2015. Financial and logistical support were provided by the McCall MacBain Foundation, Hunter College High School, the I-HELP Liberia Project, and the Liberian Ministry of Education (LiMoE).
[wpanchor id=”intro-21″]2.1 The I-HELP Liberia Project
The I-HELP Liberia Project is a U.S.-based 501c3 organization that aims to improve mathematics and science education in Liberia. Led by Asumana Jabateh Randolph, our faculty advisor at Hunter College High School in New York City and a Liberian himself, the I-HELP Liberia Project has made efforts both overseas and domestically to aid the country’s education system. Following the end of the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003, I-HELP began to organize trips for Hunter College High School students to visit educational institutions in Liberia. Furthermore, the organization has hosted numerous fundraising events within New York City. Most recently, in light of the Ebola outbreak, I-HELP hosted a benefit concert dedicated to the theme of using science education to spread awareness about Ebola, which included a forum discussion led by experts in public health and immunology. In addition, the I-HELP Project at Hunter held a drive for health and sanitary supplies to ship to Liberian hospitals. The organization continues to send aid to schools, such as the Booker Washington Institute, through the shipment of educational materials such as scientific calculators, laboratory equipment, computers, and textbooks.
In August 2013, news spread across the globe that all 25,000 applicants who took the entrance exam for the University of Liberia that year had failed. Upon hearing the shocking news, members of the I-HELP Liberia Project immediately hosted a forum at Hunter College High School to discuss what could be done to address the situation. We also hosted eighteen Early Childhood Educators from Liberia in November of that year to discuss the impact of early childhood education on secondary and higher education. This educational forum aligned with our interests in Liberian early childhood education and paved the way for our visits to elementary schools and pre-Ks during our trip. The I-HELP team planned a trip to Liberia for the following year. However, in February 2014, disaster struck the country again. Liberia was ravaged by the deadliest Ebola outbreak in history, an epidemic that claimed the lives of 11,000 people in West Africa in the months that followed, more than 4,000 of which were from Liberia alone. All Liberian schools were formally closed as a result of the outbreak, leaving the already inadequate education system in shambles. The trip planned for 2014 could not continue due to travel restrictions and safety precautions.
Over a year later, on May 9th, 2015, the World Health Organization declared Liberia to be Ebola-free. I-HELP resumed its plans for the trip, deciding that four students (Michelle Chan, Amy Pan, Alison Zhao, and Edward Zhou) would accompany Mr. Asumana Randolph to Liberia in June of 2015.
[wpanchor id=”intro-22″]2.2 Our Trip to Liberia
During our two-week trip to Liberia, we visited numerous high schools in Monrovia and Ganta, where we observed classes in session and taught lessons ourselves. By observing mathematics and science classes, we were able to assess the quality of education that students receive in those fields, as well as gather information about the student body that allowed us to formulate recommendations to improve the Liberian education system. We also made brief visits to primary schools where we toured the school building and classrooms.
In collaboration with the Liberian Ministry of Education (LiMoE), we hosted and facilitated the first Liberian Science Bowl Competition in three locations: Monrovia, Sanniquellie, and Ganta. The winning school in each location received a buzzer system and a mobile laboratory kit that included a laptop and a set of probes for experimentation. I-HELP also donated these materials to seven other high schools. Our primary goal in visiting Liberia was to inspire students and teachers to take part in the sciences, and to make the development and improvement of science education a continuous process.
3 Observations in Liberian Schools
The following is a compilation of the observations we made at each of the schools we visited during our stay in Liberia. To preserve anonymity, we have omitted the name of each school.
- The majority of the high schools we visited were private institutions that charge high entry fees.
- The schools tended to have large class sizes and enforced a call-and-response system taught in primary school.
- The quality and teaching style of teachers varied greatly from school to school and between classes in the same institution.
- The students’ level of knowledge also varied greatly; however, there is a general weakness in basic math skills.
- Schools are greatly hindered in the science department due to a lack of resources and laboratory equipment.
School A is has multiple classes per grade, and students take courses that are specialized in a certain field. The facilities at this school were in poor condition; chairs were falling apart, windows did not fully close, rooms lacked chalkboard erasers, and the electricity was extremely unreliable. Furthermore, the library did not appear to be in frequent use as reading materials were dusty and the majority of the books were outdated. Library regulations posted on the wall limited student activity, as they did not permit students to conduct research on their own.
During mathematics lessons with 11th and 12th graders during which we taught polynomial long division and synthetic division, we observed that students struggled with basic arithmetic and algebra. For instance, many students did not understand the concept that when multiplied, two negative numbers yield a positive number. They also had difficulty factoring second-degree polynomials.
We also taught a lesson to 10th graders that involved an interactive activity using trigonometry to calculate the height of the chalkboard. The students were very responsive to this teaching style; the student participation and hands-on measurements featured in this lesson kept the class interested and engaged. Furthermore, the students demonstrated that they had knowledge of basic trigonometric properties such as sine, cosine, and tangent.
In each of the classes, we observed that the students struggled with basic arithmetic. The majority of them had calculators, which they relied on to add two-digit numbers. Typically, there were a handful of students in each class who understood the material well and volunteered to answer questions, while the rest of the class did not participate.
Most students in the school had never taken any science courses except biology. The more science-oriented students were placed in a specialized science class. The level of interest in chemistry and physics was high, but the students seemed to lack the resources to study outside of class. One 12th grade student asked us to explain a physics test question about circuits and Ohm’s Law, and walking them through the problem helped them to understand previously-taught material better.
At School B, we observed that the overall professional level of teachers is higher than that of other schools. The library was clean and well-kept. However, the classrooms were not well-lit; it was difficult to see the chalkboard from certain angles in classrooms.
We observed a chemistry lesson and were pleased by the way in which the teacher engaged the students. He encouraged females to participate, as they were often more quiet than the male students. He was also very patient when students did not understand something and took the time to walk them through specific concepts they had difficulty with. The lesson involved practice problems that kept the class interested. Students also appeared to be very knowledgeable; they understood the properties of the periodic table and knew how to convert from moles to grams.
We also observed a history lesson that focused on the distinction between Marxism and capitalism. The teacher wrote key words on the board as the students took notes. There was a high level of class participation; many students stood up to contribute their ideas. In addition, we also observed an economics class, where the teacher talked about different kinds of censuses.
The library at School C was small, unfurnished, and poorly lit (except for natural light from the windows), and did not have many books available. The I-HELP Liberia Project had donated textbooks and lab manuals to this school in the past; however, we were disappointed to discover that they were not being used.
We taught a lesson on dental caries to 11th and 12th graders. Students participated actively in the classroom discussion. One class of students had already taken biology and had extensive knowledge of the human dental system, including concepts such as anodontia. Students copied down notes and drew detailed diagrams. Students were willing to come up to the board to participate in classroom activities.
We taught a stoichiometry lesson to 12th graders that involved balancing chemical equations, calculating masses of products and reactants, and converting between moles and grams. Students overall had a good grasp of these concepts. We also reviewed physics topics with these students, or more specifically conservation of momentum and calculating velocity after collisions. Students had an in-depth understanding of these topics.
School D was one of the few schools that had whiteboards in classrooms, and all students had notebooks. We observed that some classes had printed packets of notes and exercises that could be used to review for exams. Homework was mentioned, though it may not have been strictly monitored. The school had a grading system in place, and teachers collected lab reports and quizzes. In addition, the library had a large selection of books that were actively being used by students. In fact, when we visited, younger students were studying together and quizzing each other independently in the library.
School D’s laboratory was spacious, well-ventilated, and had long tables suited for experimentation. There was a small adjacent room for storing chemicals and laboratory equipment and for performing demonstrations. The physics teacher explained that demonstrations were done by the teachers and observed by students due to lack of sufficient equipment for students to perform them on their own. However, despite the clear lack of materials, the teachers were extremely resourceful and were able to create functional models out of what was available. For example, the physics teacher had created a pendulum out of basic materials that he used to demonstrate periodic motion. The lesson plan for the 10th grade physics class was written on the chalkboard. The students were learning about rotational motion, torque, and other complex topics that are commonly taught in 12th grade AP Physics in the United States.
School E has classes that range from pre-K to middle school, with children aged 3 and up. The students had an incredible amount of discipline. As soon as we walked into a classroom, they would stand up and greet us in unison. We asked the children in each class to raise their hand if they wanted to become a doctor, lawyer, or engineer in the future. An overwhelming majority of every class said yes. The lessons appeared very structured; they were all conducted with students repeating after the teacher. For example, some classes were learning the alphabet, and others were learning the names of the counties in Liberia. The students also demonstrated immense discipline and gratitude when they presented us with two letters of appreciation at the end of our visit.
At School F, we observed an 8th grade literature class in which the students were discussing a book titled The African Child. The teacher engaged the students very well by discussing African culture and explaining the differences between respect and disrespect, and how this can be manifested in their daily lives.
We also observed a 7th grade mathematics class that was centered on addition and multiplication of fractions. The teacher did not seem to be well-qualified for the position and made several severe errors himself. For example, in a lesson on fractions, he was converting the improper fraction 28/15 into a mixed fraction and divided correctly, but announced the answer as 13 1/15, which we corrected as 1 13/15. He also made errors in the addition of fractions. The students themselves did not question the incorrect answers. Our experience in this class demonstrated the reason behind the difficulty with basic arithmetic that we observed high school students to have.
We also observed a lesson in a 10th grade classroom. The students seemed to be confused about what period of class they were in, and when it was determined that they should have geography class, the teacher did not show up. The students were excited about math, so we taught a lesson on factoring instead, but found that they were weak in fundamentals like multiplication and addition involving negative numbers and the concept of variables in algebra.
School G was large compared to others that we had visited; it featured outdoor school grounds with 1-story buildings for offices and classrooms. The school was relatively spacious, with an open auditorium in a centralized location. Electricity was typically not available for use in classrooms; however, we were able to obtain electricity for the Science Bowl tournament. Since the school is located in rural Liberia, there were fewer resources and facilities. However, the students were attentive during lessons and interested in learning about science. In particular, they responded well to our message to ‘learn science and apply it in real life observations.’
School H is sponsored by the international community, and therefore had the best facilities and was the most modernized out of all the schools we visited. Classrooms were organized, clean, and spacious, and each room was supplied with whiteboards and markers. In addition, each classroom had an adjacent bathroom equipped with mirrors and running water, a luxury almost unseen in Liberian schools. There were cardboard trash bins in each classroom, which we did not see in any other school. Several rooms had air conditioning, such as the indoor cafeteria and teacher’s lounge. The students were encouraged to take neat notes and maintain good penmanship from an early age. There were educational posters on the walls of most classrooms. Also, the teachers were dressed very professionally and took pride in the quality of education at their school.
4 Science Bowl Competitions
[wpanchor id=”#sci-intro”]4.1 Introduction
One of the primary goals of this trip to Liberia was to introduce and integrate the Science Bowl Competition into Liberian high schools in order to supplement their STEM program. Science Bowl is an academic activity widely practiced in the United States that involves two teams of four competing against each other. The competition consists of individual and team-based questions that cover various fields such as physics, biology, chemistry, and mathematics. Science Bowl not only tests students’ knowledge and speed, but also motivates participants and observers to engage in the sciences and fosters the development of inquisitive minds.
Prior to our trip, we determined that we would host a Science Bowl tournament in three locations: Monrovia, Sanniquellie, and Ganta. In order to prepare the participating schools for the competition, we sent each school a set of rules and practice questions. This would allow the students to familiarize themselves with the format of the competition and become accustomed to the level of difficulty and style of questions asked. We were told that some of the subjects incorporated in the practice questions, such as calculus and astronomy, were not taught in Liberian schools. Consequently, we made sure to exclude these subjects when writing questions for the actual competition. We also provided every participant with a customized Science Bowl t-shirt that we designed and purchased in the States.
The winning school of each competition received several prizes, including a buzzer system and mobile laboratory kit. We chose to donate these materials to seven other high schools as well because our goal is to maintain Science Bowl as a continuous activity throughout the year. With the buzzer sets, students will be able to practice whenever they choose to, which will also inspire younger students to become interested in the sciences. Furthermore, the laboratory kits that we provided will serve as valuable resources to the development of science education. Each kit included a laptop and a set of Vernier probes, which together can perform over 600 different experiments. Vernier probes, known for their quality and durability, allow for active, hands-on experiments that captivate students. We believe that hands-on activities are capable of motivating students more so than ordinary lectures, and can spark a passion for science in those who may not have been remotely interested in it before.
The following are observations we made during the three Science Bowl competitions we hosted.
[wpanchor id=”#monrovia”]4.2 Monrovia
During our commute to the Monrovia Science Bowl Competition hosted at the College of West Africa (CWA), we experienced many traffic-related issues. There was lack of traffic signals, street signs, and road markings, which led to confusion when driving on busy streets. In addition, the heavy rain and Ebola walk that was occurring that day resulted in further delays to our commute. The competition’s start time was also set back due to electrical issues in the school building that we encountered upon arrival.
While the electricity was being fixed, we held a meeting with the moderators to explain the rules of the competition. We recruited native Liberians to be moderators in order to avoid difficulties in comprehension that would have occurred if we had read the questions to the students ourselves. Instead, we served as floor judges, timekeepers, and scorekeepers for each of the three tournaments.
Once the electrical issues were resolved, we commenced the practice rounds. These rounds proved to be crucial, as we discovered that a majority of the students and coaches had misinterpreted the rules that we had sent to them and therefore often disagreed with our judgments during the rounds. In particular, there were many arguments over blurts, acknowledgments, and stalls, which play key roles in Science Bowl.
During the official rounds of the competition, we observed a large distribution in the students’ levels of knowledge. Overall, however, the scores were relatively low, especially given that we had written the questions with the intent of making them easy for the students. One team, which had not been achieving high scores in the rounds, claimed that the questions were not similar to the practice questions we had sent them because they were too easy. However, this explanation for their scores did not seem plausible to us. We noticed that many teams had difficulty in answering basic math questions, such as one that involved addition of decimals. Furthermore, throughout the entire competition, no team answered the following probability question correctly: “If a fair die is tossed twice, what is the probability that a 6 is rolled both times?”
Despite facing difficulty with the questions, the students had a high level of enthusiasm and excitement for Science Bowl. Their dedication and obvious preparation for the event makes us believe that this activity will continue in the future and motivate even more students to participate. The winning school was J. J. Roberts, second place was CWA, and third place was Muslim Congress. At the end of the competition, we distributed medals to these three teams, as well as a trophy, buzzer set, and laboratory kit to J. J. Roberts.
[wpanchor id=”#sanniquellie”]4.3 Sanniquellie
On Monday, June 29, we held the Sanniquellie Science Bowl Competition at Nimba County Community College (NCCC). We began to set up the auditorium after receiving a tour of the campus. Although four teams were scheduled to participate, only three showed up; we therefore had to amend our program for the day. We decided that there would be a total of three rounds; each team would observe a round and participate twice. Upon beginning the competition, it quickly became evident that there was a lot of confusion regarding the rules of Science Bowl. Teams in particular did not understand the concept of stalling (buzzing in without providing an answer within five seconds). However, once these issues were addressed, the competition was able to continue smoothly. We ended our program with a brief ceremony during which Mr. Asumana Randolph spoke about the importance of science education towards the development of Liberia’s future.
[wpanchor id=”#ganta”]4.4 Ganta
Prior to the competition at Ganta Public School, we visited several classrooms to introduce ourselves and teach various topics. We set up four sets of buzzers for the elimination rounds, as well as one set in the auditorium for the semifinals and finals. Out of the three tournaments that we hosted, this one was the most efficient. Furthermore, the students at this location appeared to be the most prepared and were able to answer the largest number of questions overall. Team members, coaches, and friends were all enthusiastic about Science Bowl; we had large audiences for each round and a full auditorium during the finals. After a long day of competition, YMCA was declared the winning school.
[wpanchor id=”collaboration”]5 Collaboration with the Liberian Ministry of Education
[wpanchor id=”LiMoE”]5.1 Discussion at the LiMoE
On June 22, we visited the Liberian Ministry of Education to discuss our activities with the Deputy Minister of Liberia. She was highly interested in the notion of integrating science laboratory experiments into classrooms to a greater degree than what currently exists, and was extremely supportive of I-HELP’s efforts to emphasize science education as the key to the development of the country. We also had a discussion regarding her proposed idea of creating mobile laboratories, or what could be referred to as “science-on-wheels.” She suggested the creation of a vehicle containing ready-to-use laboratory equipment that would travel from school to school to provide students with the opportunity to perform experiments. There were many arguments both for and against this idea. Positive aspects noted of such vehicle were that a larger number of students would become exposed to laboratory experimentation, the experiments would not be limited to what is available in the classroom, and the vehicle would require fewer materials to sustain than providing every school with the equipment. Negative aspects discussed were that the vehicle would need a large amount of funding to maintain, equipment in the vehicle could easily break due to poor road conditions, and a large number of buses would be needed to provide all schools with this service on a regular basis. We also questioned how feasible it would be to implement more technologically-advanced science equipment in a car or bus. A more thorough analysis of the logistics of “science-on-wheels” would be needed before a decision is made. However, whether the mobile laboratories are implemented or not, it is evident that Liberia is taking steps in the right direction to highlight the importance of science education towards the country’s future.
[wpanchor id=”teacher-training”]5.2 Teacher Training Workshop
On June 23, we made a second trip to the Liberian Ministry of Education to host a training workshop for teachers. We demonstrated how to use the laboratory kits that we donated to the winners of the Science Bowl competition, as well as seven other schools. Using the laptop and Vernier probes, we modeled various experiments that the teachers could easily replicate within minutes in a classroom setting. For instance, we demonstrated the effect of friction on temperature, Beer’s Law of concentration and absorbance, and performing an electrocardiogram. We hope that the passion for science we observed in teachers at this workshop will translate into an excitement about science in students as they begin to utilize the equipment we have provided them.
[wpanchor id=”publicity”]6 Publicity
[wpanchor id=”UNMIL”]6.1 UNMIL Radio
We participated in a radio interview hosted by the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), on the radio broadcast “School Days.” During the interview, we emphasized the need for resources in Liberian schools as well as the development of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) program. We were asked to describe our first impressions and observations of Liberia and its education system, and compare it to that of the United States. During the one-hour interview, we also discussed Science Bowl and the benefit of introducing schools to this form of academic competition.
[wpanchor id=”power-tv”]6.2 Power TV
On June 26, we were featured on Power TV, a television and radio station popular throughout West Africa. As we did with UNMIL, we discussed the challenges facing the Liberian education system that we observed as we visited high schools in Monrovia. We also discussed how Science Bowl and laboratory equipment would be an asset to science education and how we plan to continue our work in Liberia in the future.
[wpanchor id=”conclusions”]7 Conclusions and Recommendations
Based on our experiences at the aforementioned eight schools, we have determined that the primary obstacle to the development of science education in Liberia is a lack of resources and technology and secondarily due to the uneven standard of Liberian educators and educational facilities. We believe that the atmosphere and attitude taken by Liberian students and faculty is highly progressive and largely effective in its current state, and one of the greatest current assets of the Liberian education system. The desire for almost all Liberian students to go to college should be encouraged, and every effort should be taken to increase the accessibility of higher education in Liberia.
For the most rapid progress in the advancement of science education in the Liberian education system, we have recommendations both given the current state of educational resources and in the pursuit of the expansion of technological resources. In regards to the former, we believe that student proactivity in petitioning their administrations and personal action to improve their study environments will be key in bringing about change in the foreseeable future. Additionally, a mindset of scientific inquiry should be encouraged in the classroom — we believe that prompting students to ask questions of “why?”, “how?”, or “what if” in response to their surrounding environment is just as important as the factual knowledge provided by a standard science curriculum, in terms of generating a genuine interest and appreciation for the sciences. Simple science experiments that can be conducted with everyday materials, such as observing the parabolic arc drawn by the center of mass of an irregular object or measuring the droplets of water that will fit on a penny, are superb jumping points to get students to begin observing the world around them in a scientific manner. With regards to the latter, we recommend that the pursuit of additional technological resources for science education currently be limited to mobile laboratory kits which we introduced in various Liberian schools, as the single laptop and set of probes which it is comprised of can offer a nearly limitless amount of laboratory experiments to the school which possesses it, at a relatively low cost.
[wpanchor id=”budget”]8 Budget Statement
A budget statement has been prepared and submitted to the secretary / treasurer of the I-HELP Liberia Project
[wpanchor id=”photographs”]9 Photographs
[wpanchor id=”visiting”]9.1 Visiting Schools
[wpanchor id=”sci-bowl-2″]9.2 Science Bowl Competitions
From left to right: Michelle Chan, Amy Pan, Edward Zhou, Alison Zhao, and Asumana Randolph greet the participants in the Monrovia Science Bowl Competition and distribute t-shirts to team members
[wpanchor id=”acknowledgments”]10 Acknowledgements
The I-HELP Liberia Project would like to extend sincere words of appreciation to Abraham Jabateh and Joel Cholo Brooks. Without the work of these two individuals, our trip to Liberia would not have achieved the success that it did. Both provided us with transportation throughout our stay, and served as valuable guides to the land and culture of Liberia. Furthermore, both accompanied us when we traveled from Monrovia to Sanniquellie and Ganta of inner Liberia. We would like to thank Abraham Jabateh for acting as our guardian and striving to make our stay as comfortable as possible, as well as providing us with an ample supply of bottled water and a phone to communicate with our family in the States. He is currently the backbone of the I-HELP sector in Liberia. We would also like to thank Cholo Brooks for his dedication to the publicity of the I-HELP Liberia Project. Mr. Brooks is the CEO of Global News Network, or GNN Liberia, and with his assistance, I-HELP’s work in Liberia during this trip was featured in several news articles and shared with the online world. We truly appreciate the commitment these two individuals have shown throughout the years of I-HELP’s mission in Liberia.
The I-HELP Liberia Project would also like to give special thanks to the Liberian Ministry of Education for the support it has shown towards Science Bowl and the efforts it has made to improve science education in Liberia. It was a pleasure to work with the LiMoE this past summer, and we hope that our collaboration continues into the future. Finally. I-HELP would like to thank all the coaches, administrators, and supporters of Science Bowl, whose participation and dedication were integral to the success of each tournament. With their help, we were able to embark on an ongoing process of advancing science education for Liberian students.
Additionally, we would like to acknowledge Mr. Anthony Drew and his team at the HCCS Computer Department for making our 10 mobile lab work, and Mr. Kevin Scott from Hunter College High School for facilitating our benefit concert every year.
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Or visit our website at www.ihelpliberia.org