STEM education in early childhood is an essential building block for a successful learning path. Dr. Barbara Filtzinger is Head of Education at the foundation Siemens Stiftung and a member of the Board of Trustees at the “Little Scientists’ House” (Haus der kleinen Forscher), Germany’s largest initiative for early education.
Dr. Filtzinger, children have a natural interest in experimentation and observation. What ’research project’ particularly fascinated you as a child?
The electrical circuit. This simple physical system made of a battery and two wires absolutely fascinated me as a girl and kept me busy. We made circuits for everything we could get our hands on, from simple light installations to flashing toy race cars.
It is in children’s nature to experiment. So why do they need special early education in STEM subjects?
STEM education creates a fundamental intimacy with a world shaped by science and technology, as well as awareness of the resultant global challenges. It is essential for democratic participation and promotes social cohesion. Given this importance, early STEM education is indispensable. The early years make all the difference. Day-care centers and preschools set the course for a child’s individual learning path. Learning through discovery and experimentation is not an automatic process, but one that relies on targeted programs.
The “Little Scientists’ House” is celebrating its tenth anniversary. What is special about the institution today?
There are a whole bunch of positive results I could mention, but I’ll limit my answer to just a few of them. Firstly, it is remarkable that in the ten years since it was founded, the “Little Scientists’ House” has grown into Germany’s largest early education initiative. It is a fundamental component of early support in science and technology education. At the same time, the foundation is continuously reflecting on, reviewing and enhancing the quality of its work. Its impact-oriented approach is essential to ensuring educational quality in pre-school institutions and making sustainable improvements in this area. And finally, I am always impressed at the commitment and determination the foundation shows in its collaboration with other STEM-related institutions and at how intensive its networking activities are. Collaborating with strong partners in committed alliances is key to all STEM education.
You have been a member of the Board of Trustees at the “Little Scientists’ House” and headed Education at Siemens Stiftung for many years now. What is special about the way the two foundations collaborate closely with one another, and how does this benefit STEM education?
One special feature is without doubt the trust and collaboration at national level, which creates a highly beneficial ‘tandem effect’. The “Little Scientists’ House” foundation has now reached 29,700 day-care centers, nurseries and elementary schools, forming an impressive basis for early and primary level education in science and technology education. Siemens Stiftung builds on this in secondary education with Experimento I 8+ and Experimento I 10+. Linking these different levels provides children and young people with an uninterrupted learning path between the ages of three and 18. In my view, the dovetailing of high-quality educational programs all along the educational chain is one of the beneficial factors for STEM education as a whole.
Siemens Stiftung and the “Little Scientists’ House” foundation have been successfully working together in other countries, too. How does this collaboration work?
Siemens Stiftung is committed to high-quality STEM education in Germany, Latin America and Africa. Since we began implementation in different countries, the “Little Scientists’ House” foundation has been supporting our local work with training for multipliers and teachers. It also advises Siemens Stiftung in Latin America with regard to specific concepts and issues and in expert discussions, such as those currently taking place in Berlin as part of an international research week.
You are also responsible for Siemens Stiftung’s educational commitment in Latin America. What needs take priority and what questions are being raised by the reality of modern schooling with regard to early support?
Despite many successes, there is still a need on the whole to push science and technology education and improve its quality. There is a shortage of well-trained educators and well-equipped preschools and elementary schools. Lessons are still very centered around rigid teaching and learning processes such as rote learning from an early stage or sitting in rows. Social barriers to education are also hindering developments on the ground. These include the enormous mix of different population groups and languages. There are more than 60 indigenous languages in Mexico alone. Other challenges involve social inequality. Educational paths are still closely tied to family income in Latin America. Wealthy families send their children to expensive, high-quality private schools, while children from families with limited financial means often only have the option of attending a basic elementary school.
Given this backdrop, how important is it to engage with educational policy to promote early support in science and technology education?
Education changes everything. And STEM education is something that concerns the whole of society and must be on the political agenda. Our work therefore goes far beyond the work we do in the schools themselves. Together with our local partners, we are working to establish science and technology programs and methods using educational policy guidelines. In South Africa, for example, our project partner, the University of Cape Town, offers training on our international educational program Experimento. It can provide certification in line with the guidelines of the South African Council for Educators (SACE). Teachers who attend Experimento seminars at the University of Cape Town and successfully pass the exam receive credit points that serve as proof of qualification to be submitted to SACE. This is a great result.
Are there any areas to focus on that you think are particularly important for the future?
No country today can stand alone when it comes to science and technology education, since this is the key to solving mega issues such as the climate, energy, nutrition and mobility. In my view, expanding early support in science and technology education internationally is therefore absolutely central.
In Mexico, Siemens Stiftung is partnering with the non - profit organization Innovec, an initiative to improve teaching and learning methods for STEM subjects.
Ms Everaert, your SEVIC program is all about independent experimentation. Why have you opted to work with Siemens Stiftung's Experimento as well?
Experimento is an extremely well-structured program that complements our own. The topics are not identical, but even where there are similarities, there are differences in how they are handled. The experiments in the Experimento program are designed to be completed in shorter time period and are mostly self-contained. With SEVIC, however, experiments take place over a longer period.
Pilot projects were started at four schools at the end of 2014. Where are these schools located?
Two are in the city of Querétaro, about a hundred kilometers north of the capital and home to a number of international firms and important universities. But many of the pupils belong to the indigenous population and are children of poor families. Two schools are located in Guanajuato in central Mexico. A rich and attractive city, it's a World Cultural Heritage Site and boasts its own university. But poverty is rife in the shanty towns surrounding the city, and this is where our two schools can be found. Both cities have a deficit in well-trained workers. Up to the end of the year, we had trained 24 teachers. These are working with around 700 elementary school children from the first to the sixth grade. We have started to use Experimento I 8+ for pupils from the third to the sixth grade. Teachers report that the material is of high quality and not too complicated. The children are motivated and enthusiastic, not just memorizing things by heart but understanding what is going on.
Have there been suggestions for improvement?
Yes, we have received a few suggestions. The teachers believe that the experiments should be more rigorously categorized according to age group. They also need to be better adapted to the curricula defined by the education ministry.
What can you do to remedy this?
We have set up a working group to adapt the Experimento program for teachers in Mexico. For the most part, Experimento will target children in the sixth grade, and the program will deal with topics from the areas of environment and energy. Thematically, these lessons will fit in better with ministry guidelines. There will be more experiments following on from one another and these will go into greater detail.
Won't Experimento simply become a copy of SEVIC?
No, they complement each other and have the same objective: the training and continuing education of teachers. Our work at Innovec focuses mainly on teacher training. We believe it makes a radical difference whether teachers are well- or poorly-trained. Teachers in Mexico have been undergoing performance evaluations since the last educational reform. For both SEVIC and Experimento, all teachers underwent several days of training in the use of the materials at their schools. We then went into the classroom with them, observed their lessons and made any necessary adjustments.
Doesn't this mean that know-how is disseminated in a slower fashion?
Yes, extremely slowly, but quality is guaranteed. We're also proceeding extremely carefully with the pilot project for Experimento. Innovec currently only reaches out to around ten percent of the Mexican population. We want to find ways to impact science education for everyone. To do this, we need to go digital and develop effective online programs for teaching staff.
INNOVEC is a non-profit Mexican civic organization that aims to help improve science education of children and youngsters fostering development and innovation educational projects under the inquiry and experiential approach.
Its work focuses on public education, from kindergarten to middle school. Through this pedagogical approach the students pose questions, conduct experiments to find solutions to the problems, make predictions and draw conclusions based on the results of their inquiry activities. So they develop a logical and critical thinking that allows them to make informed decisions about themselves and their relationship with the environment, to favour a better quality of life and perform successfully in the XXI Century Societies.
EDUCATION CHALLENGE AFRICA – Spreading the educational program Experimento in Africa through social entrepreneurship
How can Experimento be implemented in Nigeria and other African countries? Can the education program be put into practice by local entrepreneurs? The participants at a three-week innovation workshop staged in Berlin in mid-November tackled those and similar questions. The almost twenty-strong group, mostly academics from Africa, had been invited by the two initiators, Siemens Stiftung and The DO School, as part of the “EDUCATION CHALLENGE AFRICA.” The Group’s core task was to develop strategies and concepts for implementing the education program Experimento as part of social entrepreneurship. All participants had previously dealt intensively with the issue of social entrepreneurship. Nyokabi Njuguna from Kenya, for example, has founded an NGO focusing on strategic development and launched various school programs. The computer expert Nissi Chibuzor Madu from Nigeria works for “Intellucent,” an initiative that aims to inspire school pupils and students for mathematics, while Lawrence Afere is building a mentor network in Nigeria. With this commitment and know-how, they managed to win through in a multi-stage selection process involving around 800 other entrants.
The workshop started with an introduction to the science and technology education program Experimento. Dr. Washington Dudu and Lilo Maclachlan, multipliers and pioneers of Experimento in southern Africa, presented its special concept and methodology and explained the experimentation materials and instructions. The group then devoted itself to the actual subject of the workshop and focused on developing concrete concepts and strategies.
Local know-how is a must
It soon became clear that education projects cannot be implemented solely by local entrepreneurs due to the lack of financial income for them. The participants also recognized that it was vital to integrate local educational institutions. After three intensive weeks, they presented their concept for implementing Experimento in other African countries at the closing event on December 4. It is crucial to integrate local educational institutions and strong partners, whether private individuals or companies. In that way, the projects of local entrepreneurs enjoy the goodwill of government authorities and have a sound financial footing.
The workshop delivered a further result: When weighing up various measures, precise knowledge of local circumstances is a must. Local requirements, conditions, rules and laws must be taken into account to ensure projects can be implemented. That is why Siemens Stiftung and The DO School also decided to look specifically for experts who boast such know-how. The young entrepreneurs who were invited contributed this specialist knowledge and turned EDUCATION CHALLENGE AFRICA into a project from Africa for Africa. The workshop was a resounding success for them, too. They had the opportunity to expand their knowledge, forge contacts and incorporate their visions in detailed concepts. “We not only solved a challenge, but also learned a great deal for our own companies from this three-week seminar,” was the enthusiastic summary by Nissi Chibuzor Madu.
Linking commitment to education with experience in supplying basic services
The project can get underway at any time. During the workshop, participants established initial contacts with a Nigerian university. In addition, two-thirds of the young entrepreneurs would like to play an active part in implementing Experimento in Nigeria. EDUCATION CHALLENGE AFRICA offers Siemens Stiftung the opportunity to link its commitment to education with their experience in supplying basic services. The foundation has been initiating a wealth of entrepreneurship projects around the globe for many years, promoting personal initiative and the entrepreneurial mindset, and offering seminars and training courses. The cooperation with The DO School, which specializes in innovation and entrepreneurship, is a first step in that direction. In addition, Siemens Stiftung’s engagement in the field of open educational resources (OER) means that all Experimento experiment kits can soon be adapted to local needs by the teachers and made available to third parties. The same goes for the experimentation instructions, which can be downloaded free of charge from Siemens Stiftung’s Media Portal. They are also under open license and so can be adapted, combined with users’ own content and disseminated as desired.
Educational researcher Manfred Prenzel talks about enthusiasm for the natural sciences and how education can succeed.
Mr. Prenzel, you have worked intensely with the pedagogy of the natural sciences. Was there an experience in your own time at school that had a long-lasting impact on you?
I was always really interested in the natural sciences, but the lessons were usually pretty mundane. I remember one time when the highlight of the lesson was dissecting a cockroach and then observing the left leg under the microscope. That was pretty exciting for us! (Laughs) But a key factor was missing in that example: no research questions were asked, by the teacher or by us. No one asked why we were doing that or what we were supposed to learn.
Given that context, how would you define a good classroom lesson?
That is best described by starting at the end. A lesson is »good« when the students learned what the lesson plan and the teacher had hoped to teach, when the students understood the materials, when they are excited, and when they can transfer the lessons and results to their day-to-day experiences and create a connection to their lives. The results are what matter, and there are almost always different ways to achieve them.
Is that what it comes down to?
Yes, absolutely. From my point of view, clearly defined goals are especially important. The students should be told at the beginning what a lesson will be about, why it is important, and what they will understand and be able to do at the end. Secondly, it is important that learning is continually accompanied. Teachers have to keep their eyes open to see when students are having problems with the subject matter. Accompanied learning is also tied to social conditions. The students should feel accepted and respected, even when they might not quite be able to do something. Finally, it is important that teachers support the initiative of their students to learn on their own so they are able to take matters into their own hands to some extent.
Education is said to be the key for innovation. Can innovation be encouraged through education?
Education is a necessary condition for all kinds of innovation, but not the only one. Education that emphasizes independence and creativity fosters better conditions for innovation than a tightly prescriptive and dogmatically construed version of education.
Can education itself be a social innovation?
If everybody has access to the type of education I just described, I see that as a social innovation. Education should also take into account the people and their talents. In Germany, for example, children who thrive in handicrafts or creative fields tend to have a tough time in school because our schools strongly emphasize analysis. But schools should be open for varying talents. Most importantly, education should highlight the social dimension of learning. Discoveries are rarely made by some secluded scientists. Research builds on the knowledge of others and is a team effort to a large extent. The only way to answer questions, engage in controversial discussions, and create results is by working together. Once the power of collaborative effort is experienced, it creates a new perspective on the social side of things, on living and working together. That is really why education and social innovation are closely linked to one another.
The Intshayelelo Primary School is a public elementary school in Western Cape, South Africa, with over 1,200 pupils. It’s also one of the many different sites visited by Nathalie von Siemens during her trip through South Africa this fall. The focus of the eight-day stay in the provinces of Eastern Cape, Western Cape, and Gauteng was the personal contact and direct exchange with several partners who work with Siemens Stiftung to promote modern science and technology education. At the core of these activities is Experimento, the international education program of Siemens Stiftung, which has been active in South Africa since 2011. It offers materials, methods, and guidance to educators and teachers based on the principle of experiment and discovery-based learning. The subject matter is tailored for local lesson plans by working with teacher training institutes and local universities.
On the right track
Science and technology education is a key factor for the personal development of young people and affects their perspectives for the future and their participation in society. Of particular importance for a successful education is the role of educators and their ability to impart science and technology subject matter. Currently in South Africa, around 270 teachers and over 20,000 pupils work with Experimento – a successful development that is steadily progressing. In the last few months at the Science Competence Center in Johannesburg, for example, teachers and student teachers have received training in the teaching tools of Experimento. Now, the results are starting to show. “The experience here taught me to set aside my uncertainty about science and technology lessons and to trust the materials. I’m very proud of that! I’m a young teacher of science education and I’ll show everyone,” she says with confidence. Her colleague adds: “With the collaborative teaching methods, my 55 pupils in the class now have the chance to grasp knowledge of science and technology using the various experimental materials. That’s a great experience!” It’s a great experience for Siemens Stiftung as well: the growing inquiries to Experimento and the positive feedback from the field show that Experimento’s concept and implementation are clearly on the right on track.
Traditional knowledge paired with modern teaching methods
The fact that this future-oriented method would also draw upon and convey traditional knowledge was the focus of a conversation between Nathalie von Siemens and Keith Roy Langenhoven, Director of the School of Science and Mathematics at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). Indigenous knowledge – local, usually traditional knowledge about medicine, agriculture, religion or rites – plays a large role to this day in many regions of Africa, but is falling more and more by the wayside. With Experimento, this traditional knowledge can be transferred and combined with modern teaching methods, and water filtration provides a good example: A cut-off piece of sugar cane served not only as a conventional drinking straw, but also as a traditional method for water treatment. When drinking from pooling basins and streams, particles stick to the fibers of the sugar cane and are filtered out, thereby achieving a purifying effect on the water. A similar principle of water filtration is explained in the scientific experiment from Experimento I 10+. By using sand, coal, paper, or certain membrane filters, water can be purified to varying degrees. Embedding indigenous knowledge in the lessons creates a bridge between the cultural identity of learners and the practical implementation of the natural sciences.
Experimento doesn’t only connect conventional wisdom with modern teaching; it also supports interdisciplinary knowledge. The Mthatha Excelsior High School, for example, is a public secondary school in Eastern Cape, South Africa. The young 10th graders in a physics class are concentrating on their work with Experimento I 10+ on the topic of “water as a thermal store.” It is about water’s solid, liquid, and gaseous states of matter. Sixteen-year-old Zola reports eagerly, “I know this already from chemistry class.” This is how students are encouraged to transfer their knowledge.
Key to impact-oriented education
In addition to discussions that brought partners closer together and fostered an exchange on the substantive development of Experimento, a dialogue with educational experts was at the forefront of the trip through South Africa. One of the central questions in conversations with Dr. Jonathan Clark, an education researcher at the University of Cape Town and director of the university’s School Improvement Initiative (SII) and Schools Development Unit (SDU), was identifying which structural measures were relevant for developing long-term and sustainable impact-oriented educational processes. His motto: efficient school management is the key to successful educational development in South Africa! School management includes all efforts that contribute to the organization and optimization of the school and school-related processes. That includes central aspects such as leadership, development of lessons and the school, addressing conflicts and problems, possibilities for human resource development, administration and organization as well as functional workflows and the allocation of resources. “Successful school management is not just a crucial task in South Africa, but in every country today. The conditions for that are different for each country and the implementation is different for each individual school, but the decisive questions are the same for every school: how can we organize our school to create an ideal environment for our educators? And how do we achieve optimal learning and developmental conditions for our pupils at the school? These questions are being addressed by experts and practitioners in South Africa, Germany, and Latin America all the same,” reflected Nathalie von Siemens on her trip to Cape Town University after an experience-rich week in South Africa.
The man with science in his suitcase: Dieter Arnold trains teachers all around the world in the Experimento concept
Dieter Arnold takes some unusual luggage with him on his travels. One half of his suitcase is typical enough: a pair of jeans, shirts and a small wash bag. The other half contains items that have raised the eyebrows of many customs officials: cables, propellers, balloons and solar cells to name just a few. The places he visits are diverse and colorful – just like the people he meets there.
Arnold is a trainer for the educational program Experimento. He shows teachers all around the world the principle of learning through discovery and, since 2010, has already visited Germany, South Africa, Kenya, Chile and Peru. The question has been the same everywhere: How can I inspire children for science and technology topics and even encourage them to pursue their own ideas and projects using what they have learned?
No fear of experimenting in the classroom
In four-day workshops, the trainer shows teachers how to prepare exciting experiments with simple equipment and implement these in science and technology teaching in an educationally appealing way. Experiments enthrall not just children, but teachers too, as is evident from the frequency of missed coffee breaks and voluntary overtime once they get started. “Many teachers first have to learn how to experiment themselves. In many cases, their training at school and university had few practical components,” says Arnold.
“By using simple, readily available materials and showing them interactive methods, we want to take away their fear of experimenting in the classroom. Many of the teachers are amazed: 'What? You can explain such complex topics with these simple things?'” A firm favorite, for example, is the homemade model of the lung: an empty plastic bottle, a small tube, two balloons and some sticky tape. That's all it takes to make a demonstration aid for biology lessons.
Sharing enthusiasm and experience
Arnold could have retired long ago, but after 35 years as a chemistry and sports teacher, his passion for science and teaching was only growing further. Since then, he has traveled to the most diverse of countries in Africa and Latin America to hold teacher training workshops. His motivation? Science is close to his heart. “I want to play my part in getting scientific topics across to students and inspiring them. I enjoy passing on to others the experience I gained in my years of teaching,” says Arnold.
His immediate inspiration was his work as a teacher at the German International School in Cape Town from 1991 to 1999. “I got to know teachers there from the nearby townships and discovered how limited the options were for learning through discovery given the resources that the schools had. Together, we thought about how we could substitute simple, cheap materials for expensive equipment in chemistry and physics,” recalls Arnold. “That was how I came to give my first teacher training seminar.” Since 2010, he has been working as a trainer for the educational program Experimento and helped to develop the experiments for the Experimento I 10+ module.
Inspiring people to take their own approach
Arnold puts intensive preparation into all of his workshops. The Experimento manual deliberately leaves room for him to work with local partners and integrate additional practical examples into the program that reflect what is distinctive about the region. “The principle of electric circuits is the same everywhere, but the possibilities for using them are endless,” explains Arnold. “In Kenya, for example, we talked about how to use a simple device for measuring the depth of a well. That's a practical example which teachers can use in their lessons and then even build together with the children. In Chile, meanwhile, the learning unit on electrical circuits is linked to the geography curriculum. “Together with the workshop participants, we made a device for an electrical quiz game, which involves correctly identifying the different countries of Latin America and teaches the students about their region of the world,” says Arnold. “It is precisely this local and extremely practical relevance that motivates the students to engage with science and technology outside of school.”
Bridging global and local knowledge
“In South Africa, we combine the study unit on water purification using hollow fiber membranes with techniques that have been handed down for generations. Sucking dirty river water through a small piece of sugar cane before drinking is essentially the same principle,” explains Arnold. This bridge between global and local knowledge fascinates him. “It's not about replacing the knowledge that has been handed down, but integrating it,” he emphasizes. “That's something that benefits everyone involved.”
Arnold sums up the project: “The Experimento program is ultimately only a catalyst. The methods imparted by the workshops encourage teachers to think beyond the instructions provided to them. New and creative approaches are born – a completely different type of teaching.”
In specialized training seminars focused on the Experimento concept, educators learn how to teach science in a child-friendly way. In addition to Fundación Chile, an important partner in this effort is Pontificia Universidad Católica. An interview with Cristián Cox Donoso, dean of the School of Education, which annually trains more than 1,500 students for the teaching profession.
Mr. Cox, the current PISA study ranks Chile 51 in a comparisonof 64 countries. Are you disappointed with this ranking considering that your university trains teachers?
You need to compare those results with those from the PISA study in 2000. Much has happened since we first took part in the study. The most recent findings show that Chile is among the countries to have developed the most over the past ten years.
That may be the case but middle- and upper-class parents still send their children to private schools. The only options for children from poor families are district and municipal schools whose teachers are often poorly trained and underpaid.
That’s true, unfortunately, but it used to be even worse. During the Pinochet regime, teachers earned the equivalent of just 200 euros a month. That was just enough to survive. Under Pinochet, tuition-free studies were abolished, and education was privatized and decentralized. Our education budget is seven times higher today than at the end of the 1980s. Two-thirds of these dramatically improved public funds for education go to teachers’ salaries.
And has that investment paid off?
Significant improvements have been made, for instance, in the enrollment ratio in preschools and universities. There are more scholarships. And the material conditions have improved dramatically – better schools and more books and computers. One example: while two hundred children had to share a computer in 1995, that number is down to 13 today. Back then, school time was broken up into shifts: half of the children went to school in the morning, the other half in the afternoon. Today, Chile has only full-day schools for everyone. It took ten years to build and equip new schools. Now we need to improve the quality of instruction.
Chile apparently lacks enough qualified teachers. What is the basic problem?
Qualified teachers are key pillars of the knowledge society! They are crucial to a country’s continued development. Only recently have our government officials seriously acknowledged this fact. Even though the Education Ministry has been providing considerable resources for the past 15 years, only now are these grants linked to nationwide conditions, and agreed targets have to be reached. Only those who offer high quality and show progress receive funding; otherwise, the tap is turned off.
How can you improve the quality of teaching at universities?
We are changing the previous study program that was defined by individual experts because it could hardly be applied in practice to schools. And that is exactly what we need for teacher training. In our degree programs, we offer 65 new courses that deal with the interaction between field of study and teaching skills. What distinguishes a qualified teacher is the ability to delve into a subject in the classroom and convey it skillfully.
What does that mean in practice?
Every semester, we send 400 students into schools in Santiago, where they must work together with a teacher in each school and an assistant professor from the university.
It’s a challenge to work harmoniously together as a trio. It’s also a permanent challenge in teacher training to blend theoretical and practical knowledge.
Why? Is the problem the students or the teachers?
It’s also the professors because the world of academia struggles to engage with heart and soul in the school world. But universities need to; otherwise, they can’t educate teachers. Here is where Siemens Stiftung comes into play. We need new concepts, ideas and tools. To that end, our professors are going abroad. We’re in contact with centers of excellence in Canada, the United States, and other industrialized countries. In this context, we view the partnership with Siemens Stiftung as a gift. This is especially true for natural sciences where not only we in Chile but also other Latin American countries are poorly positioned. Experimento’s playful principle is an invaluable aid particularly in this area. It turns children into little scientists and helps teachers and students overcome the limitations of frontal instruction.
Why did you introduce Experimento in the small town of Villarrica in the south and not in the capital Santiago?
Villarrica is in a rural area where teachers are eager and enthusiastic about continuing education. Here in Santiago, teachers react rather skeptically to new methods. But it’s only a matter of time before they will realize that new teaching approaches help both them and their students. The Experimento partnership with Siemens Stiftung that began in our regional campus in the south is now coming to Santiago – to one of the oldest educational faculties in the country. We would like to cooperate with more partners like Siemens Stiftung in both teacher training and continuing education.
Were you initially skeptical about Experimento or convinced from the start?
Experimento aligned in every respect to the previous efforts of the Chilean government in the area of education. I knew it was the right approach – away from frontal instruction to more common experiences and discovery. That applies not only to the natural sciences but to all other courses as well.
Would you care to predict how Chile could rank in the PISA study five years from now?
Five years are too short a time for big changes. I’m convinced that through the pressure on institutions and practitioners, we will improve not in leaps and bounds but steadily. Chilean society is aware that we need a quality education system. The government has responded by making demands and offering support – the exact mix is constantly discussed.
Domingo is 14 years old, the best in his class and the second-youngest of twelve siblings. His parents own just a narrow strip of land they farm around their little wooden house by the river; the money they earn is enough to survive, but hardly to give so many children an education. Yet Domingo knows what he wants to become: an electrical mechanic. "Since we did the experiment with the electric circuit and the bulb lit up."
"Do you actually know what air sounds like?"
This morning the teacher Cristina Navarrete begins the lesson at the Rayen Lafquen elementary school with an odd question: "Do you actually know what air sounds like?" Twenty children's faces light up with curiosity and are then full of enthusiasm after each child has blown up a balloon and let the air screech as it exits through the mouthpiece. A wonderful racket reverberates through the classroom from the demonstration of how sounds are produced by air pressure.
That game is one of many in the Experimento kit: It contains simple materials such as filter paper, straws, bulbs, glass beakers – and, of course, brightly colored balloons. Surprising what can be done and learned with these things. For example, when you can mess up water with all sorts of muck and then look at the residues you have collected using a coffee filter under a magnifying glass.
The Experimento kit is already part of the furniture
The school where the kids can make a lot of noise and mess consists of a wooden house in which four teachers teach around fifty pupils from the Mapuche Indian tribe in the south of the country near to the town of Villarica. Like the cast-iron stoves used to heat the four classrooms, the Experimento kit has been part of the furniture since the summer of 2013, when it was introduced by the teacher Cristina Navarrete. In the past year she has attended four seminars on this program staged by Siemens Stiftung and the Catholic University PUC in Santiago de Chile. "There I experienced the same as my pupils: Scientific experiments are fun and give kids an immediate sense of achievement. Now we think up ones on our own, for example a phone that's just two plastic beakers connected by a piece of string."
In 2011 Ulrike Wahl, at the time Managing Director of Siemens Stiftung, now working for it as a consultant in Latin America, embarked on a search for suitable partners and locations for Experimento in Chile. Three regions were chosen: First, the city of Santiago, where among other things the schools of the Sociedad de Instrucción Primaria are situated in districts where there is a high crime and unemployment rate. Second, the Antofagasta region in the Atacama desert in the north of the country, where people generate a lot of wealth for Chile in the copper mines, but where there is an urgent need to catch up when it comes to education. And finally Araucanía in the south, the home of the Mapuche Indians, who live far flung in the hilly, densely forested region. The key issues here are integration and intercultural dialog. To guarantee an education for every child, there are countless one-room schools with just a single teacher and ten or twenty children of different ages.
Around 400 teachers have already been trained
In the first phase, seventy of around a thousand schools in Araucanía have now been integrated in Siemens Stiftung's project. Siemens Stiftung and PUC have together trained four hundred teachers, who return to their schools as multipliers with new didactic approaches and the Experimento kits.
Last week Cristina Navarrete's class dealt with the question as to what material is suitable for conducting electricity. The children eagerly tried to conduct electricity from a battery via rubber bands, matches and strips of plastic to the bulb from the Experimento kit. In vain. Initially without success. Only Domingo realized right away that only metal can conduct the electricity between the small clamps and immediately explained it to his class mates. The joy was huge when a screw, a floor plate and even the stove proved to be suitable media to let the bulb light up.
For more than 20 years, Patricia Matte Larrain has been involved in improving school education through the program Sociedad de Instrucción (SIP – Society of Primary Education). Her role model in the program is her ancestor, Don Claudio Matte Pérez. The educator, university dean, and philanthropist established local elementary schools in the 19th century to provide an education to children from low-income neighborhoods. Patricia Matte continues to manage the successful and highly respected program in his tradition.
Señora Matte, do you still remember the first word you wrote?
I just turned 70! I don’t remember that anymore.
Don Claudio Matte Pérez, one of your ancestors, wrote a spelling book for school beginners in Chile a hundred years ago. The first word in it is Ojo, or eye.
Yes, that’s correct. He was the brother of my great grandfather. There were few schools back then. Chile had just won its independence.
Don Claudio died in 1956 at the age of 98. Did you know him?
I was 13 when he passed away. I remember him being very ambitious and always encouraging us to learn.
Apparently he inspired not only you, but many Chilean children as well.
That’s right. His mission in life was to build a school system. In the mid-19th century, about 80 percent of all Chileans could neither read nor write. That changed after the Sociedad de Instrucción Primaria was established and Don Claudio began to build one school after another.
President Salvador Allende nationalized the schools in the 1970s.
But not ours because we always had representatives of all parties in our administration and our teaching was recognized as effective. Our government funding was reduced, however. That changed when Augusto Pinochet came to power and mandated subsidies for all schoolchild independent of the school they attend. This mandate still applies today. And we remain fully autonomous.
Today, Santiago has 18 SIP schools, especially in the poor city outskirts. Should there be more?
Yes, but in regions, not cities. The problem in many regions is not a lack of schools, but the quality of education. The local municipal schools, the Colegios Municipales, have a number of shortcomings.
The schools are bureaucratic and inefficient; they are trapped in a rigid system that pays teachers poorly and is unable to dismiss underperforming teachers. And why are there so many underperforming teachers? Even if you have poor high school grades, you can still pursue a teaching degree at about 60 universities. Just ask Cristian Cox, the dean of the Catholic University in Santiago, which educates many teachers.
The Catholic University has the highest standards for teaching degrees in the country but Cox sees the same problems as you. But they can’t be solved overnight.
But it’s high time that something changes. And we’re seeing new approaches: Teachers are not only better paid, but also more thoroughly assessed. However, it’s taking far too long to implement the changes, in my opinion. That’s why we have organized our own teachers’ training within our own network.
Do you work with Experimento?
Yes, of course. This Siemens Stiftung program is very important to us. We immediately introduced it in three schools, and it has worked right away. Now we finally have an additional instrument to help us follow our policy – and the opportunity to extend this vigorous learning and teaching approach to other subjects. I think we should introduce the program in pre-schools. And here, too, Siemens Stiftung could be a big help.
You have four children and 15 grandchildren. Who will follow in your footsteps?
I will never stop. Even when I retire as president of SIP, I will continue to visit schools and offer support. I owe that to the children of my country and Don Claudio.
Ms. Matte was interviewed by Uschi Entenmann. While in Chile, she conducted several interviews with representatives from the education sector, which will be published on our website as well.
In Soweto, Alfridah Bilankulu livens up her physics classes with Experimento.
Everyone is in a good mood with the holidays just around the corner. Alfridah Bilankulu has decided to conduct an experiment today with her 10th grade class. Alfridah is a teacher at Musi High School in Soweto, short for “South Western Townships,” which is a district of Johannesburg. For a long time, it was considered as an underprivileged satellite town but since the end of apartheid, it has experienced a slow but continuous upswing. Education has played a key role in that.
Practical training in teacher workshops
Since the mid-1990s, curricula and teacher training, which were strictly divided during the apartheid era, have been aligned step by step. Only recently have experiments become required in the curriculum. For Alfridah, this meant hard work because she had to learn how to perform and teach the experiments herself. She found support in the Experimento advanced training session, which she attended last year.
Experimento is the name of the Siemens Stiftung international educational program. It provides didactic and methodological approaches to classroom experiments. The aim is interactive, real-world classroom instruction that inspires students to discover science and technology and improve their future career prospects. The contents have been adapted to the specific needs and educational curricula of each country, in cooperation with teacher training institutes and local universities.
“The best thing about the Experimento seminars is that you can go through the steps of the individual experiments together with other science teachers. That gives you confidence,” says Alfridah. “Until recently, I was the only physics teacher at Musi High School and wasn’t able to consult with anyone. Through the Experimento workshops, I met another teacher in the area, and we now discuss regularly.”
Learning natural sciences through discovery
While Alfridah still looks for the materials to perform the experiment, the students have already begun to study the instructions and discuss how to set up the experiment. “We need three cups of water – one with table salt and another with citric acid,” says Masego determined. She knows the experiment because her class has already conducted it. The experiment uses various steps to show students how chemical batteries function. “We always need a zinc and a copper nail,” responds Sannah. “Then, we hold them in one of the three cups, and check the voltage.” Everyone stares at the multimeter. Nothing happens – dozens of faces look puzzled. Something seems to be wrong with the measuring instrument.
Thami, who remembers the experiment exactly, offers an explanation. “I can tell you what actually needs to happen,” he says. “Current can flow in all three experiments; the liquid, establishes a connection between the differently polarized nails.” “That’s the biggest advantage of experiments,” explains Alfridah. “When children are able to try out something themselves, they don’t forget the experience so quickly.”
Alfridah’s students have already begun to clean up after the experiment. Suddenly, the door opens and in pops a colleague holding up the multimeter in the air. “I just opened it and there’s no battery inside,” he jokes and everyone laughs. Now it really does work.
The hour is over. Everything is packed away. And the holidays can begin!