Here is a fascinating story of how curiosity led to the development of the inquiry process and a network of science education centers in national governments across sub-Saharan Africa. It is due, in large part, to the leadership and expertise of one of the Collaborative’s Research Thought Leaders, Hubert Dyasi, Ph.D.
What does curiosity have to do with the development of the inquiry process and a network of science education centers in national education departments throughout sub-Saharan Africa? One of the Collaborative’s Research Thought Leaders, Hubert Dyasi, Ph.D., originally from South Africa, and who was instrumental in developing the inquiry process and in setting up these centers, shares his experiences and insights.
What This Has to Do with STEAM
These science education centers, as they developed, were originally inspired by the fact that African teachers kept noticing that their students were curious, an important trait that STEAM addresses across disciplines. But when the centers were first developed, in the 1960s, the African students, like US students at that time, were being taught in the traditional manner that focused on memorization. “All children are intrinsically curious about the things around them,” Dr. Dyasi says. But, school systems in Africa and the US often don’t address that curiosity enough, he says. The solution, he points out, is for teachers to facilitate students’ asking their own questions and finding their own answers, instead of insisting on memorization of given information.
Excellent African Example of Teaching Science Using Students’ Curiosity
Dr. Dyasi points out, from his experience, that in Africa there is an insect, popularly known as the antlion. It was popular with the African children. Normally, the antlion moves only backwards. The elementary students were fascinated with this insect and wondered why it crawled only backwards. So, instead of directly teaching about the insect, an investigation was set up where the children watched it. They discovered that crawling backwards helped the antlion to use its behind to dig the pit where it lives. Then, safe at the bottom of the pit, the antlion can catch its prey, ants, with the antlion pincers located on its front as the ants fall into the pit. Students then were able to reframe their question from “why does the antlion crawl backward” to “what is the advantage to its crawling backward”. And they answered the question through observation.
This demonstrates a commonality among the arts, sciences, and humanities – building on curiosity, using observation, and engaging students in their own discoveries. The Collaborative’s Research Thought Leaders, such as Dr. Dyasi, have emphasized that it is processes such as these that are the most important connections among the disciplines. An especially important commonality between art and science showed up in the antlion example, Dr. Dyasi says, for “the kids were using visual thinking to help answer their science question”. From a science perspective, engaging students in something with which they are familiar and about which they are curious can lead to important learning opportunities for these students, Dr. Dyasi says. This experience with the antlion led to students’ acquiring important ideas in Earth and life science. They also learned that the antlion is the larval stage of a beetle, and that it’s called the antlion because it’s like a lion to the ants it catches.
The Inquiry Process Was Born
Dr. Dyasi, whose focus has been the teaching and learning of science, especially in pre-college education, points out that, as those leading the African science initiative started to address students’ curiosity with inquiry in the 1960s, they had noticed that African students could memorize the facts and repeat them, but they had no understanding of the science concepts. Also, that there were no materials to guide the African teachers in this new science process. So, Dr. Dyasi and his colleagues developed ways to engage the students in their learning. They developed the inquiry process, where teachers facilitate the learning instead of presenting facts for the students to memorize. Studies of these methods revealed that, through the inquiry method, African students developed deeper understanding of the concepts than through traditional memorization. These students also were more interested and excited about science. Interestingly, through this process, the students were learning how real scientists work, he points out. To implement this process in the classrooms, the development team saw that the first step was to educate the African teachers – both teachers in the classroom and pre-service teachers.
Training the Teachers
Like in the US, many elementary school teachers were uncomfortable teaching science. The team developed teacher guides, materials, and professional development programs to help them teach the students about the world around them. In this work, they discovered that it is also important to train school administrators in order for them to understand and promote this method of learning in their schools. “The unit of change isn’t just the teacher,” Dr. Dyasi says, “it’s the whole school.” Then, the persuasive evidence from classrooms can additionally persuade the schools of the effectiveness of this approach, he points out.
Science Education Program in Africa (SEPA)
To take this growing program throughout Africa, the Science Education Program in Africa (SEPA) also was developed in the 1960s. It addresses the students’ curiosity through science education in early childhood through 8th grade. The project was funded largely by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), as an initiative of the US State Department. It was designed to help meet the science education needs of the newly developed African countries. At that time, when African countries were gaining their independence, a consortium of Midwest universities worked collaboratively to help set up universities in those African countries. However, the universities discovered that it was hard for graduating African high school students to have high enough grades in science to be accepted in science degree programs at the African universities. At that time, Professor Jerrold Zacharias, an MIT professor, who was inspired by Rev. Solomon B. Caulker, an African philosophy scholar, was inspired to start this network. Zacharias worked with African, American, and British educators in the planning, for there was no existing model to follow at that time.
Science Education Program in Africa (SEPA), a Pan-African organization, was designed to give these African students the science background to help them enter any college. It is a network of science education centers based in the national government’s education department in each sub-Saharan country. It includes fourteen member countries: Botswana, Ethiopia, Ghana, The Gambia, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Swaziland, Tanzania, and Zambia. Each member country contributes funds to the program and provides materials to meet the curricular needs. There are four associate SEPA members: Ivory Coast, Lesotho, Mauritius, and Cameroon, which pay nominal dues for a two-year familiarization process.
From the beginning, the Science Education Program for Africa (SEPA) was designed to help each member country develop its own science education programs to the point where they could become self-sufficient in developing and maintaining these programs. Towards this goal, SEPA embarked on 3 main objectives: 1) to develop science education materials; 2) to strengthen the science education centers in each country; and 3) to educate specialized science education professionals and education program evaluators to maintain effective science education programs in these countries. Today, all of these countries are, to varying degrees, self-sufficient in all these three objectives.
Dr. Dyasi’s Leadership
Dr. Dyasi, who received his Ph.D. in science education at the University of Illinois, has been professor at the University of Fort Hare in South Africa, at the University of Sierra Leone in West Africa, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and at the City College of the City University of New York, where he taught undergraduate, masters, and doctoral students.
Dr. Dyasi was asked to be the first person to lead the Science Education Program for Africa (SEPA) from Africa. He joined the group in 1966. Dr. Dyasi served as SEPA Executive Director for its first eight years, and later served as Director of Programs for three additional years. It is because of Dr. Dyasi’s leadership and expertise that this program has achieved such success. Thanks to him, science education centers across sub-Saharan Africa promote the inquiry process, which has many commonalities with processes in the other STEAM disciplines.
For more on Dr. Dyasi and his other work, see Research Thought Leader Article.