In the summer of 2011, MIT PhD student Heather Beem traveled to rural Ghana to try to engage students from low-resource schools in hands-on learning projects. She started by asking a group of high school students what they wanted to work on.
“They said, ‘Anything, whatever you want,'” Beem recalled.
Hoping to narrow things down a bit, she asked what kinds of materials they had to work with.
“As soon as I mentioned the materials, the mood of the room changed,” says Beem. “Because the students were a little ashamed that they didn’t have anything they thought they could bring to the table.”
Eventually a boy came forward with a plastic bucket. Ignoring the laughter of his peers, he asked if it could be of any use. To the surprise of the students, the answer was yes.
Beem guided the students through the process of cutting the bucket in half, attaching the pieces to a vertical axis so they would spin in the wind, and using magnets and scrap wire to harvest energy movement. Within days, the bucket was the centerpiece of a small wind turbine capable of generating electricity.
The project gave the students newfound confidence.
“It showed that a little exposure to hands-on learning can have a very profound impact on how students see themselves and what they believe they are capable of,” Beem says. “They realized, ‘I did something. If I don’t have electricity, I can find a way to generate it. I have the ability to create the solutions I need in my life.
The experience gave Beem, who received his doctorate in 2015, the mission to share the power of hands-on learning with ever-larger groups of children. These efforts culminated in the Practical Education Network (PEN), an organization that helps teachers develop hands-on projects for students using inexpensive and readily available materials.
Since PEN’s inception, more than 3,500 Ghanaian teachers have attended the organization’s training workshops. Beem estimates that these teachers have brought the practical methodology of PEN to approximately 600,000 students across the country.
When Beem came to the Institute in 2008 to pursue her PhD, she noticed something special about the MIT community.
“Everyone had this confidence that we could solve any problem,” says Beem. “It was just about having the framework, knowing how to prototype and getting your idea out there. I began to wonder what it would take for students in other parts of the world to also have this experience in their education.
Beem realized that part of MIT’s student confidence came from the Institute’s practical ethic, exemplified by the MIT motto “mens et manus” (“mind and hand” in Latin). ).
“I wondered if we could cultivate the same spirit of MIT in parts of the world where it seems really hard to do hands-on learning,” Beem says.
To answer this question, Beem teamed up with a few other MIT students and applied for the IDEAS Social Innovation Challenge program, in which she would win the seed funding to take that fateful first trip to Ghana.
When Beem returned to MIT, she couldn’t help but think of the change she had witnessed in those high school students. Over the next two years, she regularly telephoned people in Ghana to refine her ideas.
“I was trying to figure out what it would take to make this kind of experience happen regularly and on a large scale for students around the world,” says Beem.
These efforts brought her to MIT D-Lab, where she joined forces with Amy Smith and other students and alumni to found EC.717/EC.787 (D-Lab: Education and Learning). To date, the course teaches MIT students how to develop education-based solutions for underserved people around the world.
“I’m so grateful to MIT for inspiring this line of work by helping me learn about both practical ethics and the entrepreneurial ecosystem, which helped me be bold enough to get out there and start something. around the world,” says Beem.
Beem founded the Practical Education Network in 2014 while pursuing her PhD, but she did not move to Ghana until 2016 when she was ready to commit full-time to PEN.
Today, PEN training workshops aim to show teachers what is possible by exposing them to hands-on activities that only require locally available materials. Each activity is accompanied by a list of questions that teachers can ask to inspire student research during the experiments. Teachers also learn how to put students into project groups, organize materials, prompt questions, and more.
PEN learning activities are based on the Ghanaian National Curriculum. Most are for middle school students.
“That seems like the sweet spot in terms of the impact we can have, because that’s when students decide whether or not they like science,” Beem says.
PEN operates with donor support and has received funding from MIT SOLVE, the MIT D-Lab Scale-Ups Fellowship Program, and the MIT Sloan Africa Innovate Business Plan competition.
During the 2017-2018 school year, PEN compared STEM outcomes for students at three schools that used PEN-trained teachers with three schools that did not. The company found students who experienced hands-on PEN learning showed 97% more improvement on their annual exams. PEN students also showed greater interest in science and STEM careers after the school year.
Arouse a passion
The PEN team was initially concerned about moving to virtual teacher training sessions during the pandemic, but they’ve found the new format can still be effective.
In a virtual workshop, a teacher discovered a way to help students model the respiratory system using a water bottle, a plastic bag and a balloon. When the PEN team visited the teacher’s school, they learned that the project was so popular that the balloons were sold out at a local store.
“This activity is a very visual representation of something that would otherwise be very abstract,” says Beem.
Beem says the success of the virtual format will help PEN expand more quickly to other parts of Africa.
As well as leading PEN, Beem is also a Professor of Engineering at Ashesi University in Ghana, where the enduring power of hands-on learning sometimes manifests.
One of his students grew up in a rural village hating math, failing his classes and seeing no practical application for them. When the student arrived in middle school, a teacher used hands-on activities and projects to teach math. The student went from hating the subject to ending with the best math score in his class. Today, he is one of the best engineering students Beem University has ever had.
PEN’s first students have not yet reached college age, but Beem hopes she will soon see more examples of the power of hands-on learning.
“A teacher was able to give another trajectory to this student’s life through his style of teaching,” says Beem. “That’s what we’re trying to do. There are so many students who think they are not good at math and science. because the subject has been so abstract. We seek to equip as many teachers as possible to discover the potential that already exists in these students.