Engineering Education Abroad – Allen McTernan Memorial Fund Report 2

The Allen McTernan Memorial Fund at Heriot-Watt University supports projects that broaden students’ experience. Grants are intended to support educational, scientific, cultural, and recreational activities of an extra-curricular nature but must not be directly related to University studies. Projects are especially welcome where the local community is involved or international co-operation is envisaged.

Over the next few weeks, we will be highlighting some of the recent stories from recipients of the fund.

Project DIEM, Ghana – Lauren Bain

Ddiem3uring this summer I took part in an eight week placement in Ghana as part of project DIEM – Developing Intermediate Education Materials. As a team of three engineers which also included two colleagues from the University of Edinburgh – Kathleen McGill and David McKean – we spent our time teaching engineering and science in five local schools. This placement acted as a continuation of DIEMs’ work from last year. Our aim was to fully involve the teachers in our practical lessons resulting in an improved, practical and fun way of learning for the pupils.

Over the past academic year, there was a team of four students from Heriot Watt DIEM working on lesson plans – Katie Guttridge, Kenneth Foggo and Denis Venkov. At every meeting we would approach a new topic within the Ghanaian syllabus, from here we worked to improve the theory and create fun and interactive experiments. DIEM only uses sustainable materials that are easily sourced from within the focus country (Ghana, in this case) therefore, enabling the positive work completed to progress without our presence. Our team was able to test the final lesson plans with thanks to Musselburgh Grammar School. DIEM used these lesson plans to teach first year science students; this allowed me to gain valuable teaching experience and to identify, and later adapt, flaws within the workshops.

The workshops we took with us had to be flexible as the materials available would differ. My colleagues and I adapted the lessons to use only locally available and sustainable materials. As we neared the end of our placement, one school asked us if we could create a lesson on surface tension. Using the skills developed during the placement and DIEMs’ methods we produced a new workshop that was flexible and completely suited for the materials in Ghana. It involved very few resources and all of the information from their science textbook. All of this made the workshop easy to reproduce for the staff.

diem1The pupils were always eager to learn, however we struggled with the language barrier. DIEM taught in five different schools; two of which were public and the rest private. As a team we noticed the language barrier was more prominent in public schools. The pupils’ understanding was essential to ensure the project could work to its full potential and have a positive and permanent impact within the communities. I was able to discuss the lessons with all age groups in my host family, allowing me to discover and practice the best ways to present the topics.

The students were sharing their experiments and new knowledge with other teachers and family members, sparking curiosity and involvement.

The initial lesson theory was presented by DIEM and the teacher would be involved in the experimental group work, taking charge of a group. Gradually over the weeks the teachers became more involved: asking to be informed of the lesson theory before class to contribute and enquiring about other lessons we would hold. Our most promising school was in a small village near Bontrase – Akrabong Junior High School. The students were sharing their experiments and new knowledge with other teachers and family members, sparking curiosity and involvement.

The Akrabong science teacher, Amos, shared valuable local knowledge during a workshop. We were struggling to explain friction: examples such as snow and ice are redundant in Ghana. Amos stepped in and explained to the class:

‘Remember when you are sharpening your cutlass at home on a rock; you cover the blade in water. Why do you do this? To help stop the metal heating up.’

From this the students quickly grasped the explanation of friction and began throwing examples at us. This was the first step we were looking for in our project aim during the placement. The final lesson with Akrabong was a quiz with questions from all of the previous lessons and experiments. The teacher conducted the whole class in an interactive and educational manner; the results were positive and showed an overall 73% grade for the class.

diem2The private school education allowed for more in depth discussion about workshops. For example in our workshop on levers, the goal was to build a functioning lever and a challenge set to each group to see which could lift the 2 water sachets using the least amount of water (energy) in the bottle.

The class were given:

2 Water sachets

10 Sticks

Rubber bands/String

1 Water bottle (to test)

Initially I taught the theory to the class about levers and the principle of moments. All schools were able to lift the water sachets; some had more efficient levers than others however, only Your Faith, a private school, had the understanding to allow us to go further. We were able to explain simple moment calculations:


Thus, enabling the class to calculate the moment of their own levers.

DIEMs’ workshops and methods can be applied to everyday problems, giving communities and developing countries the ability to tackle real life problems on their own. We aim to help fill in the missing gaps in education which allow the positive improvement to continue once the placement ends. This year we developed contacts within all of the schools we visited. DIEM will continue to correspond with the teachers: providing workshops and advice on the workshops they develop.

I learned the most effective way of teaching pupils, how to involve teachers in new methods without making them feel undermined and also how best to approach educational development. This placement has been an incredible experience. I plan to take my Physics degree into teaching and so the techniques I have learned here will be extremely valuable. I now have a greater interest in International Development and I look forward to working with DIEM again this year.

Students have until the 15 May to apply to the fund – click here for more information.

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