Heather Beem is a professor at Ashesi University (Ghana) and runs an NGO for teachers in Ghana, the Practical Education Network (PEN). Heather holds a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. During her time in graduate school, she developed a passion for STEM education and innovation. She co-founded and co-instructed D-Lab: Education in addition to mentoring students from other D-Lab classes, and began developing the Practical Education Network (PEN) with a team of fellow students and others. She has worked with thousands of students and teachers from Boston to Ghana to Peru.
My professional trajectory has not followed a traditional path. After high school I attended a free engineering summer camp that opened my eyes to new possibilities and inspired me to study engineering– first at the undergraduate level and later at the Ph.D. level. Parallel to my graduate research on traditional fluid mechanics and instrumentation, I started looking for other ways to have an impact. I was drawn to education because, as a mechanical engineer, I personally felt the impact of an experiential approach in my classes. This hands-on approach not only helped me do better on exams but also gave me the confidence and can-do mindset that every problem could be solved if I layed out the problem and then went step by step to solve it.
In 2011, I had the opportunity to spend two weeks in a school with connections to MIT in the western region of Ghana, which showed me the possibilities of doing hands-on educational programming in resource-limited environments. Over the next few years, I continued to strengthen links with Ghana at a distance and inquired about what it would take to shift towards a more hands-on educational model. The key, I learned through my discussions, was to involve teachers in the process. After I finished my doctoral thesis, I carried out a pilot teacher training that focused on the use of low-cost locally available resources, such as sticks, stones, and toothpicks. I received an overwhelming positive response from the training with participants continuing to carry out new trainings on their own. Local stakeholders’ passionate response inspired me to create a more systemic approach to teacher training for hands-on STEM learning–a foundation which led to the creation of the Practical Education Network (PEN).
What we have seen in classrooms in Ghana and around the world is that a primary method of teaching is for students to listen to the teacher talk and write on the blackboard. There are generally limited practical hands-on components where students manipulate physical materials as a way of learning a concept. In resource-constrained schools with only chairs, desks, and blackboards, teachers often may feel that they have no alternative. Over 70 percent of teachers we surveyed in Ghana said that their main challenge for teaching science was the lack of resources. However, many have expressed a desire to make classes more engaging. For a lesson plan about acids and bases, all they feel they can do is draw diagrams on the board, which is not interactive or engaging. Our organization is on a mission to break this misconception among teachers in order to bring local, readily available and low-cost materials into the classroom for hands-on lessons.
Our core programming is practical science teacher training where we bring together teachers by school or district and take them through ways they can leverage everyday materials into lessons that align with the Ghanaian National Curriculum. We have now developed integrated science lessons on every topic from primary school through high school, and we have made headway with mathematics lessons as well.
Our practical science training has six stages spread out over two years where we take teachers through different skills and mindsets. In the first stage, we break up the idea that without access to materials, hands-on lessons are not possible. The later stages focus on employing activities in the classroom, creating new hands-on activities, sharing these activities with colleagues and launching new projects that go beyond the national curriculum. We try to model a different way of teaching in our workshops. Instead of having the facilitator show an activity, we try to make it more participant driven by dividing teachers up into groups. We provide them with the materials and instructions for them to figure it out and ask guiding questions. The idea is to model the process and we would like the activities to be carried out in the classroom. We have seen that teachers often replicate not only the content of our training but also the format in their own classrooms.
To carry out these trainings, we partner with low-cost and middle-cost private schools, district education offices, and NGOS that engage teachers in public schools. To date, we have trained 3,000+ teachers as well as 7 master trainers, and 90+ normal level trainers. Our trainings have been concentrated in the region around the capital city, but we have carried out programming in six out of the country’s ten regions. Besides the number of teachers trained, we have also been interested in understanding the impact of the program on students and we have looked at exam scores, students’ attitudes toward learning science, and critical thinking skills. In a quasi-experimental control study, a PEN trainer trained teachers in science activities on a weekly basis in three experimental schools. We compared the results with three control schools and found that the experimental schools had a 97 percent greater improvement on student test scores than the control schools. This was striking to us because our training does not review exam questions or materials; merely by introducing hands-on activities, we were filling a learning gap that exists. Similarly, in a study on attitudes toward science, experimental schools saw students’ attitudes improve. Interestingly, the control schools actually saw attitudes decline, which suggests that sitting through traditional lessons actually negatively impacts students’ attitudes toward science. Our studies regarding critical thinking have yet to turn up substantive results, and we are still working on finding the right tools to measure these skills.
Given what I have seen through our work in Ghana, my advice to educators who are interested in hands-on approaches is for them to get the materials and try out three or four of these activities themselves. This will give them their own personal experience of what’s possible. PEN has come up with a bunch of hand-on STEM activities and simple instructions that people can try out home. Below are four examples:
Due to COVID-19 pandemic and school closures, we also launched the PEN Hands-on challenge to encourage students, parents and even teachers to learn science while at home. For this challenge, we want participants to replicate two of the activities on this page and make a 30-second video of themselves doing the last part of the activity. We welcome you all to participate! Below are two examples:
We really appreciate getting to learn from Heather and all of the great work PEN is doing. If you are interested in learning more please follow PEN on social media at: Twitter: @PEN_ed, Instagram: @practicaleducation, or Facebook: facebook.com/practicaleducationnetwork.