Sierra Leone: Day 5

Photo courtesy of Molly Fiffer of IIE.

This is a series of posts I will be making about my trip to Sierra Leone to teach with the US State Department-funded TechWomen program. See photos here.


Morning (8-9am): Visit St Edward’s Catholic Boys Primary School

Maybe having an impromptu footrace with a group of, oh, 25 primary school boys outside of their Catholic school wasn’t on the agenda. But it was a wonderful way to start an early morning.

Here is some more context on why we were at this school in particular:

Before the official assembly began, I had asked a small group of students hanging-out with me what their favorite song was. They started singing this:

(The teacher and the boys themselves said it was alright for Mom to post the video on YouTube.) We normally would have posted it on Twitter or IG, except, when I asked that group of boys how they liked to spend their weekends, their activities were (in-order):

  1. Study hard
  2. Watch the baby
  3. Watch YouTube

When I asked what they watched on YouTube, one boy answered: “Children’s programs.”

When I asked who were in the children’s programs, he said: “Mostly American children.”

I asked if he’d like more Sierra Leonian kids to have shows, and he said he did. So Mom asked them if she could record them singing their favorite song and promised to upload it to YouTube so there would be at least one more good children’s video with Sierra Leonian kids in it. It is above.

One thing I loved about this morning, aside from the footraces and the 3 Rs program, was the amount of forma; group singing the boys got in before school started. They spent a solid 10-15 minutes singing prayers, national anthems, flag songs, good morning songs — as a singer, it was a joy to be surrounded by so many cheerful, curious voices uplifted in song.

Day (9:30 – 4pm): Hands-on STEM day with students, Buxton Memorial Methodist Church Hall

On my way into Sierra Leone, I had 2 checked-bags: a duffle bag I’ve had for about 25 years at this point (I like to think it’s stains have protected it from avaricious TSA workers through trips to a dozen countries); and a black hard-sided suitcase that Mom didn’t want anymore. The duffle was full of my clothes for a delegation where every day’s dress code started with the word “Business.” The black hard sided bag was half-full of STEM educational materials one of our Fellows in Nigeria bought, shipped to my house, and which I handed-over to another Nigeria Fellow early in the week.

The other half of the black bag was full of the materials I prepped for today’s workshop. I was teaching my Coding on a Loom workshop, incorporating a few lessons-learned from when I taught it in Nigeria. Those lessons included:

  1. Plan kits ahead of time for teachers with all of the materials
  2. Laminate the instructions so they don’t degrade as fast in a tropical climate
  3. Make the looms smaller/easier to fabricate
  4. Use color-contrasting yard and needles to make it easier for students to distinguish between the two while working
  5. Include other STEM hands-on items in the kits

1 and 2 I was able to handle before take-off; I accomplished 3 by buying these pre-made looms, though if I do this again I think I’ll just cut them myself out of cardboard. The notches were too tight in these and they looked snaggle-toothed when strung.

4 was mostly easy enough, though the fact I warped all of the boards in green (since it’s on the flag and for the Muslim students, it can signify good luck because green is known as the prophet’s favorite color) and many of the plastic needles and balls of yarn were green wasn’t ideal.

For 5, the other STEM items I included a make-your-own mobile solar system kit I found for $1 each at the dollar store (thank you Crayola); dice from a DND-playing friend who was KonMari-ing, so teachers can give students another way to practice probability; a loom or three, several plastic needles, and several balls of yarn; my business card if they had questions.

Each student also got to take-home their materials: these included a small cardboard handloom, a plastic needle and a ball of colorful yarn, the instruction sheet with information about the math behind binary on one side and an ASCII letters-to-binary chart on the other side, and a little toy or keychain from the US.

I designed this workshop to include gifts for a few reasons: getting a gift to start the lesson off can help the students decide to engage even in an unfamiliar setting, with teachers who accents may sound strange, and a topic presented in a way they aren’t used to. Also, I believe students integrate information more quickly when it directly connects to them and knowing that they physically own the object they’re working this might help them dive in.

The basic structure of this workshop is to start by talking about natural languages — I wrote my name and my co-presenter Soniya Goyal of Twitter’s name in English Arabic, Japanese, Binary, Morse code, the first letter in musical notation. Soniya wrote both of ours in Hindi, which was a special treat. These went-up on the board with colorful paper and we talked about how sounds and letters are represented in different ways — in Japanese, sound combinations have one consistent character, while in Arabic, English, and Hindi, we spell-out each letter.

Here’s what that sounds like:

Then I asked the students to flip-over their handouts and read me the binary for the first letter of my name, which I then wove into an 8-ribbon warp hanging from the blackboard.

Then I let them get started.

Most of the time, if I’ve explained clearly enough, 3/4 of students will be able to get moving with the project immediately. By pre-threading the needles, we probably saved a half-dozen stalled-starts.

The remaining 1/4 will usually raise their hands and ask: “Actually, what is it we are doing?”

Then Soniya and I explain again, trying to group the confused quarter into small groups. They always get it after that. I’m not sure if these students weren’t paying attention, learn better when someone is speaking directly to them rather than to them in a group, need to see something demonstrated on the object in front of them rather than an analogous one, or needed a bit of repetition. But it works out fine.

The next set of questions come from students who have a repeating 1 or 0 between the beginning or end of their names. This makes the thread slip, if they don’t know how to anchor it. We usually do a quick loop, which damages readability but keeps the flow going.

Once everyone has gotten their first two letters on their boards, I go back to the blackboard and start explaining the math behind binary. We started with what numbers are (16 is 6 ones and 1 ten, 116 is 6 ones, 1 ten, and 1 hundred), then what numbers are in base-2. I used the usual: “What if you were an alien with only 2 fingers, how would you count?” I’ve never found this thought-experiment particularly helpful, and think it often leads to un-fruitful classroom daydreams about ET, but it’s the most common metaphor here. Then I converted a decimal number to binary on the board, then a binary number to decimal.

The students seem to enjoy call-and-response math, so I asked for their help with my powers of 2 from 0 to 7, then with the addition after we’ve converted each number’s place from binary to decimal.

Because lunch was running a little late, I got extra time with my second group, which led to this:

I also got to show them my math magic trick, drawing a big long line on the board and dividing it in half over and over and over again as we worked our way down the binary search tree. I added some theatrics to this one. I asked one girl to choose a number between 0 and 1,000,000.

Then I said I was going to run out of the room and she should tell the whole class while I stood outside with my ears covered. I did this, with lots of flouncing, and then proceeded to work through the numbers. I believe she’d chosen 7 and it took me 18 guesses.

(In the two times I have done this so far, the children have picked “random” numbers between 0 – 1,000,000, and those numbers have always been less than 20. A new definition of the edge cases where a linear search would be consistently faster than a binary search tree algorithm.)

I love this workshop because it lets me combine music and math and weaving and coding and performance and the history of women in computer science and the history of computer science and physical play and colorful materials and crafting all at once.

Evening: Goodbye Dinner

This was colorful and sad and yummy and heartfelt and oh, I wish that so many miles and borders did not keep us apart.

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