Travel Journal - Timor-Leste
Changing to inquiry-based learning to excite teachers and students about science - Robert Sharwood
Since 2016, I have been travelling to Maliana, the third largest town in Timor-Leste, with my former high school science teacher David Johns (St John Paul II College). Our goal was to enhance the skills of local science teachers to inspire the next generation of students in science.
Our journey began four years ago where I first met Fr Natalino the director of the Catholic foundation - Fundacao Sagrada Coracao de Jesus, Maliana. Fr Natalino was clearly a forward thinker and is always looking at building learning networks and developing capacity in all staff across the diocese. Every year his will to improve education for the students from Maliana was inspiring for us to always bring our best to the table.
We centered our teaching program around the theme of ‘process by design’ to understand how biological systems function. With a focus on plants, we designed experiments with the help of Alisha Duncan (RSES and ARC CoeTP) to illustrate fundamental processes of photosynthesis. Importantly, the experiments had to be designed with materials that were easily found in local markets and inexpensive. We also had to be conscious to design experiments that didn’t require electricity as some schools are without power in their classrooms.
Through basic foundations of science experimentation – Aims, Method, Results and Discussion, we aimed to facilitate teachers moving from a rote learning approach to inquiry-based learning to foster independent thinking. Teaching in Timor-Leste is a vocation and teachers were very hungry for further training in classroom management, lesson design and designing group activities.
Each year we aim to uplift the program with the addition of Carly Conlan (chemistry and teaching pedagogy; St John Paul II College), AJ Mitchell (Physics; ANU) and Habiba Hossein (Physics; ANU).
On Monday October 7, 2019, myself, David, Carly and Habiba flew into Dili to embark on our fourth trip to Maliana. After clearing customs, representatives from the Maliana Catholic Foundation picked us up and we began our long drive to Maliana. Because of the road conditions with many sections being rebuilt, it took five hours to drive 150km to Maliana. With a couple of stops along the way to sample the local food, we made it Maliana about 11pm and ready for sleep.
The next morning, we began to set up our classroom and prepare the materials for the experiments over the coming days.
Early Wednesday morning, there was sense of excitement among all of us as we were privileged to have teachers who travelled four-six hours on motorbikes just to make our sessions. This year we had 20 teachers with varying years of teaching experience anywhere from three months to six years.
We were excited to see our friend Lenha arrive. She is our English-Tetun translator and teaches English in the local high school. My skills in teaching through a translator have definitely improved since my first trip.
I presented one of my favourite experiments to demonstrate photosynthesis through infiltrating leaf discs with water containing bicarbonate and a little bit of detergent and the leaves sink to the bottom of the cup. As soon as I placed them into the sun, little oxygen bubbles begin to be released from the leaves and they floated to the top. The teachers were amazed how such a simple experiment could illustrate so much about the fundamental process of photosynthesis. The teacher’s eyes were opened wide with excitement.
This year, I added a new experiment by following the uptake of water through the plant vascular system. I dissolved red dye into a cup of water and placed cuttings of different plants from the surroundings into the cup and then placed outside in the sun to ensure leaves were transpiring. To determine if water was moving into the xylem, we cut the stem into small sections and measured the distance of dye travel. Again, this process was simple but raised many questions about experimental design and if it was a fair test. Inquiry-based learning at its best!
On Friday, the last day of the masterclass, we asked the teachers to construct a lesson plan that incorporated a scientific experiment. The teachers then presented the plan as a form of assessment and the recordings are to be utilized by teachers from schools within the Maliana Diocese. The videos are to show best practice and hopefully give confidence to other teachers to try new things. Classroom sizes are big in Maliana, often above 35 and we are so proud of them for what they have already achieved. Teachers were given a certificate of participation and the excitement across the room was fantastic.
On the Saturday we embarked on our trip back to Maliana and stopped to pay our respects to the memorial in Balibo for the five journalists who were killed while reporting on the early stages of Indonesian incursions into Timor-Leste in October 1975.
Surprisingly just outside Dili a landslide blocked the road and we had to wait more than an hour for it to be cleared. I just happened to look over the side and spotted sea turtles in the water. My first ever sighting!
Another highlight of our trip in 2019 was to meet Australia’s Ambassador to Timor-Leste, Peter Roberts. We were fortunate to spend time with him to discuss our program. We got some valuable feedback and important insight into education within Timor-Leste and we hope to meet representatives of the Timor-Education system in 2020 to describe our efforts in Maliana.
We always feel very fortunate for the funding of this program from the Research School of Biology, Research School of Physics and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis.
Our next trip in 2020 will consider how we can further support effective classroom management strategies to enhance deep engagement and student skill development. We will also consider further the science metalanguage used and how we can prevent this with clarity when Tetun does not have words that support some of the terms. It continues to an enormous reward to work with such an appreciative and welcoming community.