- Interactive Problems
- Plot Summary
- Music and Media
LakeHub has been churning steadily along; we had our third event on Saturday, and it was quite successful according to me and everyone else I've talked to. We've settled on a basic format for the time being, with an event happening every Saturday from 1-5pm. Half of the time these are big group-oriented events with demos and big inclusive activities, and the other half of the time they're 'hang-outs' where people get together to work with other tech-oriented people nearby, and to check in with ongoing study groups.
Lately I've been spending a lot of time in matatus - the stupidly overpacked minibuses that travel between cities in Kenya - visiting students I'm working with in a few far-flung communities. I'm trying out ideas around teaching students to become self-motivated learners, through the medium of teaching computer programming. (Hypothesis: People who know how to learn independently can go further than those who need teachers. Evidence: Pretty much every effective tech person I've met in Kenya.) Programming, of course, is a very hands-on skill, one that you mainly learn by doing it, a lot. So in these three locations, I've been giving some basic overviews and leaving the students with resources to work on, and coming back after a week or two to see what kind of progress they've made.
The question is how to transform students into self-guided learners, given the cultural expectations of lecture-based, teacher-driven classrooms. With the math camps, we've been attacking the 'lecture-based' part of the formula, by introducing fairly radical beyond-curriculum activity-based methods. But the camps are still ultimately teacher-designed and teacher-driven. In the math camp context, we're seeking to change attitudes around math education, so that's fine. But there's a real question of what happens after the camp ends, and the students go back to the same-old same-old. How can we best foster and facilitate independent learning amongst our students?
Over the last few weeks I've been helping out a group of technologists in Kisumu who are interested in starting a new tech-hub. There are a number of such hubs in Nairobi; the most famous is the iHub, which provides a space for developers to work and connect with businesses that need their skills. Kisumu is actually a pretty sizable place, and when one considers the universities in the area - like Maseno and Masinde Muliro - it's a bit surprising that there isn't more happening on the technological front.
Thus comes the LakeHub concept.
The plan is to create spaces to encourage the technological sector in Western Kenya by helping local techies build up relevant skills, encouraging local businesses to make better use of technology, and connect those same businesses with the tech people for envisioning and implementing new business ideas. It's been a really great opportunity to put my community organizing skills to good use in the local context; the on-the-ground work has felt eerily similar to work on building (and saving!) cooperative housing spaces back in Davis, California.
As an educator, I'm hopeful that such a space will help change university students' expectations as to what they are learning in their degree programs, and to provide better opportunities and outcomes for those that passionately engage in the sciences.
Consider the KCSE, the national exam taken by hundreds of thousands of Kenyan graduating secondary students each year. It is the sole determinant of whether a student will go to university, which in turn determines whether the student has a chance at a good job and a healthy life. Because of its centrality, the secondary school system in Kenya is almost entirely oriented around trying to cram information from the exam syllabus into student's heads.
But this approach has two major problems. The first is that no one can force a student to learn. The second is that a single standardized test gives the illusion of a fixed body of knowledge that people need to understand in order to succeed in life. This simply doesn't reflect the world we live in. The economy of Kenya and the world in general is changing at an incredible rate, and those graduating under the current academic regime simply aren't getting the skills to compete. And worse, even if the curriculum were to drastically change, it would quickly be obsoleted again. How do we address this?
The picture at the left is a prototype voting machine built by Maxwell Collins, a guy in a small town in Western Kenya. He graduated some months ago from secondary school, but didn't score high enough on the Kenyan national exam (KCSE) to qualify for government assistance in covering post-secondary costs. He's an excellent example of the kind of talent that slips through the cracks of Kenya's education system.
To convince you a bit of this, let's have a look at the machine. It's been built entirely out of recycled parts, taken from dead televisions, cars, and whatever else could be found. As far as I can tell, Maxwell learned electronics entirely on his own. You can't see it in the picture, but the machine has an electronic locking system - powered by a nine-volt battery - which reacts to some touch-sensitive metal bits, which, when swiped int he right order, causes a metal arm to release the top of the case.
The machine itself has the base function of collecting and tallying votes. It can handle two candidates at a time; a robotic light sensor (driven by a converted CD-rom) registers your vote when the candidate of our choice is lit by some LED's. To give some security, your hand is stamped as you vote with an ultraviolet ink; before you are allowed to vote, your hand is scanned for the presence of this ink. Additionally, each voter is to be given a voter chit which is punched and rendered unusable during the voting process. Maxwell has also built in a voice detection system to allow voting for the disabled. And more! He's apparently been working ont he project for three years now.
I've finally been making some progress towards building a Sage-based 'problem server,' as we were talking about way back in January. It's clear that the tools developed have a wide scope of use. Before building something that gives open questions and reacts in really interesting ways to input, a stepping-stone is to build something that serves up individual math problems and asks for an answer. In some sense, such things are already done by Webwork and Moodle with varying degrees of success, but building a nice implementation would allow some new directions.
Now, I should stress that I think WeBWorK is pretty awesome, and has some really transformative potential. I've been encouraging its use in Kenya, and it's been extremely interesting seeing it used in service courses in Strathmore University and now Maseno. Basically, these are places with ever-increasing class sizes, and a well-designed online homework tool promises to greatly improve student comprehension of the course material. (I should be putting together an education paper on this in the near future.) The big database of existing problems in WeBWorK is also really helpful; there are over 26,000 problems in the Open Problem Library. There are three issues with WeBWorK that a new implementation could/should address:
- Modularity: WeBWorK is a pretty monolithic piece of software. It includes three essential components: a problem server, a problem database, and a learner management system (LMS). Basically, these should be busted out into three genuinely separate components. Breaking out the problem server allows easy integration into Moodle or another well-thought-out LMS, or else integration directly into things like online textbooks.
- Modernization: The WeBWorK codebase was mainly developed some time ago, and new versions are slow to come out. (The last stable release is from December, 2010, over two years ago.) The interface is also decidedly... Clunky. There's a natural question of how one could improve the system using modern AJAX-type tools. Better interactivity will lead to a much better user experience. Things like one-button signup with Google or Facebook accounts is one thing I can think of off the top of my head that would greatly improve the user experience.
- Ease of Writing Problems: Currently, WeBWorK problems are written in a highly idiomatic version of Perl. I was interested in writing problems a couple years ago and got the feeling that it was, in the end, a bit of a black art. The documentation is a bit scant, and most mathematical objects have their own idiomatic libraries. Switching to a python/sage framework would mean that writing problems should become much easier: Sage already recognizes all of these mathematical structures. And if the problem definitions are in python, we're really using the same syntax as our Sage work. This should make it much, much easier to pick up a bit of Sage and then start writing problems.
The math group in Bahir Dar was incredibly hospitable, and, as mentioned in the previous post, has some really interesting outreach projects going on. They have a couple-few research groups getting started, one working on fluid dynamics, and one working on lattice theory (as in posets, not -modules). One of the really inspiring things about the visit was that, in addition to having an awesome and enthusiastic staff, they are also receiving quite reasonable support from the University (and by extension, the government) for advancing their research and outreach projects. People involved in project work can apply to have reduced teaching loads, giving them equal pay but plenty of time to advance the projects. Meanwhile, the university is hiring more lecturers to make up the extra time; presumably this will end up looking like a much more flexible version of the research universities in the US, which have a two-tiered system of research professors and lecturers. This allows them to reward people with good ideas and plans with extra time, rather than making the decision at-or-before hiring time; it's an interesting idea, and probably much more appropriate to the local context than the US system. It reaffirms my feeling that until African countries will continue to lag in science until the governments get serious about funding the universities for research: Here we have an example of awesome university support which is fuelling great projects. Another positive development is that Bahir Dar sounds like it's starting to put caps on the number of courses people can teach; this keeps people from taking on unrealistic teaching loads in order to get a bigger pay-check, a real problem in Kenya. Of course, such a move also needs to be paired with decent pay for lecturers!
One of thing I heard repeatedly at Bahir Dar was that the research programs need more mentorship. They are about to start offering a PhD program in math, and only have a few PhD holders to start from. This means that there is a danger of the research programs being a bit too over-specialized, especially when combined with the fact that it's very difficult for people to get out for conferences to share ideas. As a result there's a real need for interaction with vagabond mathematicians like myself. I think the next time I have a few months free, I'm going to strongly consider going and giving some research-oriented course(s) for the department there. If you're a vagabond mathematician, I think it would be really cool for you to do so, too! Ethiopia's really lovely, and it would be an excellent way to get involved in an exciting environment.
I'm currently visiting Bahir Dar University, in Ethiopia. It was a natural place to visit while Kenya is out-of-session for their elections. Abebe Regassa, a lecturer here, came to Maseno last August for the maths camp, and will be co-facilitating the first Ethiopian maths camp this July with Berie Getie.
The math department here is very exciting to be in contact with. The department is large (now at about 50 staff), has a mandate to get research groups going, and has given Abebe and Berie reduced teaching loads to coordinate outreach activities. They're actually already doing a fantastic job, by the accounts I've heard thus far.
One outreach project is the Outreach Program for Talented Students. This project has run for two years, funded thus far by the Gelfand Family Charitable Trust, though it will be moving to Univesity funding soon. The project puts on a science-and-technology camp for 450 elite students. This year, there will be 300 students from schools around Bahir Dar, and 150 from all over the country. The camp runs for 40 days(!) and uses a team-teaching model (one university lecturer, one secondary teacher, and a lab assistant for each class of 30 students). After 15 days of common curriculum, the camp is split into two streams, one focused on general science topics, and the other focused on ICT and electronics. At the end, 45 students are selected from the 450 to continue working with the Bahir Dar university staff on interesting projects. (There's a 62-page report on the program here.)
This weekend I took another trip out to Amagoro to meet see the new Amagoro library, opened by a joint effort of Kiwimbi Global and the Amagoro city council. The library opened on February 15th, while I was on a trip to Nairobi, and by all accounts has seen heavy traffic ever since.
I set the groundwork to leave a couple Raspberry Pi computers at the library some time after elections; right now they're still working on getting electricity together. In the meantime I left a Pi with Jevin, the tech-guy for the Elewana project, so that he can become familiar with the system.
I also met with three groups of primary school students, about to take their final exams before going on to secondary school. With all of the groups, I talked about how computers work, and the importance of math and computers to all of the various future occupations they were dreaming about, ranging from nurses to engineers. (One students wants to be a 'computer wizard' when he grows up!) Hopefully planting some Pi's with interesting resources will help some of the students get where they want to be.