My Life In Tech is putting human faces to some of the innovative startups, investments and policy formations driving the technology sector across Africa.
Heather Beem wants every science student on the continent to be able to understand and remember meiosis or Newton’s First Law of Motion because they were taught in such a memorable way. Through Practical Education Network (PEN), she has started this mission in Ghana to help teachers find tools around them to teach their students better. This is her life in tech.
What is the most interesting experiment you remember carrying out to learn a science concept? Perhaps it was the theory of cause and effect; if you add yellow to red, you get orange. Or it was rubbing your palms together to understand friction.
More often than not, as we progress along the academic ladder, these basic experiments seem to gradually disappear until they are replaced exclusively by black or white boards and copious class notes interspersed with laboratory visits where a facility and trained staff are available.
Ghana-based Practical Education Network (PEN), founded by Heather Beem, launched to address this lack of practical learning in schools across the country.
Born in the US to an American dad and Taiwanese mom, Beem picked interest in STEM after attending a high school summer camp where, in building robots, bridges and the likes, she came to the realization that there were fun ways to incorporate math and science into real life solutions.
As a young girl, Beem loved music (she plays the violin and piano) and sports, math too, but science and technology fields seemed like more assured career paths from the examples of adults she’d seen around her. So she went on to study mechanical engineering in her undergraduate and graduate programs.
While at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) doing a PhD program, she thought the six year period was ample time to do more than get another degree certification and bounce. Interested in doing some work outside of the US, she got connected to schools in Ghana through MIT’s D-Lab. D-Lab was founded in 2002 to encourage the proliferation of practical, design-based solutions in three key areas: education, research and innovation practice.
“While I was pursuing these very cutting edge ideas in my lab, I also started realising that there were so many students around the world who are not experiencing practical stuff,” Beem says.
“Over time, it really became a conviction of mine that this is something we have to address. [Because] it has so many implications for social, personal development among other things.”
Simulating difficult concepts from everyday tools
PEN is a not-for-profit pushing for a revamp of the mechanics of learning from a teacher-centric, theory-heavy modality to a constant hands-on, interactive experience. The core focus of the organisation’s activities are teachers across Ghana and, Beem hopes, the rest of the continent in the coming years.
PEN, on invitation of a school or organisation, gathers together a group of teachers numbering anywhere from 10-60 who are then engaged in a variety of hands-on activities using locally available materials for at least a full day.
“We’re talking about balloons, straws, water bottles, flowers, stones, anything that can be readily accessed in any community in Ghana,” Beem says.
During these sessions, the teachers attempt to bring to life the science concepts embedded in the curriculum subjects they teach. They learn from Beem and her team but also practice among themselves, and awed by the experience, are always eager to take these experiments into their classrooms. Or explore more ways of utilising available materials to bring the lessons home for their students.
A session explaining the chemistry of balancing reactions could go like this: bottle tops and toothpicks are used to represent chemical elements and their bonds respectively. By moving them around to mirror how elements combine or dissociate, some students are able to understand the concept a lot better than if the reactions were written down on a blackboard. Beem calls this approach Manipulatives.
As with schools in many parts of Africa, schools remain closed in Ghana as a result of the pandemic. Except those writing their final year exams, students are expected to return to classes in January 2021.
It’s been quite the shift for Beem’s team during this period. The organisation’s activities have been physical. Now, the team is working to take some of the activities online and are translating PEN’s existing content into online-friendly material. This will entail video conferencing, Live sessions, and visual content that allows teachers to remotely carry out these experiments while being guided on-screen at their own pace. The good thing is, teachers outside of Ghana can potentially access the material, aiding the organisation’s dream of expanding outside of the country.
“We have four different partners that have already signed up their teachers to come on board the online training,” Beem says.
“We have people who are eager to try it out and we are very much in the development mode right now.”
PEN’s activities have been funded through various means over the years. The first three years were supported by grants from MIT. Corporate sponsorships from large firms like ExxonMobil have also been a revenue source. The goal is to target more corporate and individual partnerships and sponsorships as well as work towards developing more revenue streams.
Woman in tech
With every woman I profile in this series, it becomes clearer that the female in tech experience exists on a spectrum. For some, gender bias and stereotyping is the exception while for some, it is a hallmark of their careers.
Beem, as a mechanical engineering student, has always been in the minority gender-wise but she considers this something she has used to her advantage in her career.
“It’s actually been an asset to have built up that muscle of being ready to excel and to do a good job so that people don’t put a stereotype on you,” she says.
Like some others, explicit bias as a result of gender is something she rarely experiences. It is not the same for her students at Ashesi University where she teaches engineering.
“In working with them I realised that, wow, the females have to overcome some really serious stereotypes and barriers to get to where they are.”
“I’m grateful I did not have to experience some of those things, but it’s also made me think about gender more since coming here and I think I’m building a desire to enable more females to feel confident to take up careers in STEM.”
Five years down the line, Beem says her stay and experience in Ghana “has been great”. While it took time to get used to a different clime, culture and cuisine, she says the opportunity to make an impact has been rewarding especially because even some small measure can go a long way in people’s lives.
“It would be more difficult for me to feel that level of impact if I was working in the US.”
Beem’s faith is also intricately woven into the work that she does.
“Because I don’t think I would have been able to uproot my life in the US and move here if I didn’t have this conviction that this is the way forward and it is my duty as a child of God to put my ideas and skills into action,” she says, and this conviction has helped her pull through the frustrations and challenges of running PEN in the last five years.
One of those challenges has been realising that the problems with the way Ghana’s educational sector is set up is more systemic and requires change at that level for substantial impact to be made.
“The scope of the problem is ever unfolding,” she says.
Part of the team’s work over the last few months has also been trying to engage with the government to effect more lasting change on that level. One example was working with the ministry of education to review and rework the science curricula for primary schools and junior high school.
Of course, running a startup, hiring staff and raising funds has been challenging in typical fashion. But the impact that the activities make in the lives of the teachers, how it transforms, first, their thinking about what is possible, and then the dynamics of their classrooms, is extremely rewarding. And these changes quickly become evident in the students’ disposition towards science classes and their performances in examinations.
Beem has big dreams for PEN. By 2025, the goal is to have all science teachers in Ghana exposed to its teaching approach for the sciences and then to extend these to neighbouring anglophone West African countries where the curricula are similar.
“I see this as something that can be replicated in so many different contexts. My goal is that this approach will continue to spread for a long time that many teachers and students across many countries will be able to benefit from it.”