In October 2022, the Yidan Prize Foundation supported bringing PhET Ambassador, Zach Mbasu, and two PhET Fellows, Martha Mwiinga, from Zambia, and Tuwaya Manyozo, from South Africa, to engage in high-level discussions at the 2022 Triennale of the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) in Mauritius. Too often, teachers are not invited to engage in discussions that directly affect their profession, so the presence of the PhET Fellows at this event, in particular, demonstrated the importance of elevating teacher practice and bridging it with educational policy.
Martha and Tuwaya are two secondary school teachers and members of the inaugural cohort of 15 African PhET Fellows. PhET Fellows are practicing teachers who are committed to improving science and math education in their respective countries by increasing the access to and impact of PhET simulations (read their biographies). They lead face-to-face and virtual professional development workshops on effective pedagogies for hundreds of other teachers. They are change agents in their countries.
Providing opportunities for educators to lead through initiatives like the PhET Fellowship is essential for African development. Investment in edtech in African countries (like Kenya’s digital literacy program) is increasing rapidly. However, Africa has not realized the potential of technology to improve STEM learning on the continent, which is a disservice to the millions of learners who are not learning in or out of school. The PhET team engaged in conversations with various counterparts about the impact of COVID-19 on different African countries’ educational systems and the worrying status of foundational literacy and numeracy. According to UNESCO’s spotlight on basic education completion and foundational learning in Africa 2022 report, one in five children of primary school age in Africa remains out of school, one in three do not complete primary school on time, and one in four never complete. Children in Africa are one-fifth as likely as children in the rest of the world to be prepared for the future. Learners at all academic levels often struggle with abstract concepts in math and science subjects.
The Triennale provided opportunities for discussions on adapting to these education challenges to sustain skills development. There was consensus that there must be a fundamental change in how technological resources like PhET simulations are used in education to address some of these challenges.
The PhET Ambassador and Fellows were afforded the opportunity to interact with attending policymakers through an exhibition booth and a workshop. The booth space facilitated PhET’s introductions to policymakers, education administrators, and other members of the education ecosystem across the entire learning trajectory from various countries. The PhET Fellows used this space to share the different PhET simulations and demonstrated to participants how they use PhET in their classrooms. PhET Fellows also explained how they increase awareness of PhET simulations in their communities and coach their colleagues to overcome STEM education instructional challenges.
Connecting and engaging with most of the Triennale participants was easy, allowing Fellows to speak directly to individuals such as the Minister for primary and secondary education in The Gambia, the honorable Claudiana Ayo Cole, the Deputy minister of primary and secondary Education in Zimbabwe, the honorable Edgar Moyo, and other senior education officials from Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Zambia, Malawi, and many others, visit the booth. As a result, the PhET Fellows now have a strong network of contacts who are levers of policy change across the continent that can help them accomplish their STEM teaching and learning advocacy goals.
“During the exhibition, the PhET team and I had the opportunity, at our stationed booth, to present PhET interactive simulations and highlight their relevance in education. During this time, we were also able to showcase how the simulations worked and make mention of the availability and accessibility of the simulations. It was interesting to note that while we have over 1 billion downloads globally, most delegates were unaware of the simulations. Therefore, we allowed them to play around with the simulations to have a hands-on feel of the art behind using the simulations to stimulate critical thinking and discovery learning. We got overwhelming feedback on room for collaboration with PhET in the respective African countries that were in attendance. It was good to see the delegates seeing the need for such a digital teaching and learning facilitative tool such as PhET interactive simulations,” says Martha.
On the second day of the Triennale, PhET fellows led a hands-on PhET workshop with over 60 participants from Kenya, Uganda, Gambia, Namibia, South Africa, Angola, Ghana, Rwanda, Mauritius, and Tanzania. . It was an interactive session in which participants shared what they thought were the most significant challenges in science education in their countries. Afterward, the PhET Fellows shifted the session from problem-focused discussion to solution-focused thinking. After a quick overview of the PhET Interactive Simulations project, the PhET Fellows demonstrated how these simulations support conceptual learning and skill development and improve teacher pedagogical practices. They showed how they innovatively and effectively use PhET simulations in a teaching context that uses student-centered teaching and learning practices. Participants learned how to find relevant simulations for their lessons, integrate them into their teaching, and implement them in contexts within their own countries. After the presentation, many participants mentioned how the simulations are engaging and how they could promote student-centered learning in schools.
These discussions were directly relevant to helping PhET Fellows branch beyond leadership at the school or country level to expand their understanding of their potential role in changing systems:
“At the 2022 Triennale, I had first-hand experience of association leadership. I met government officials and representatives from different organizations. We exchanged notes and discussed areas where we could collaborate. I was excited by the whole experience because I had to put skills I had been taught in the PhET Fellowship into practice. Before becoming a PhET Fellow, my knowledge of policy leadership needed to be improved. The Triennale opened my mind about how leaders engage each other on many issues and how decisions are made to change or create new policies,” says Tuwaya.
PhET’s presence at the Triennale enabled rich discussion on shifting STEM teaching and learning and how to address potential implementation challenges in various African countries. Critically, the PhET Fellows’ presence reminded attendees that policy implementation must result in a change on the ground:
“The Triennale was very insightful, and I went away with one word: Implementation. While we may talk about all the possibilities of transforming teaching and learning in Africa, it is essential to ensure that we implement all our plans,” says Martha.
PhET Fellows Martha and Tuwaya represented millions of teachers on the African continent. They advocated on their behalf for the importance of high-quality STEM education and support for teachers and learners. The PhET Fellows participating in Triennale was an excellent opportunity to bring teachers’ voices into meaningful policy discussions on reimagining Africa’s education.