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Exploring Science Education in Pakistan


By Usha Mallik

Usha Mallik with Pakistani women
Usha Mallik (third from left) in Hyderabad with (l to r) Rozina Junejo, Najma Baladi, Tahmina Junejo, Ambrin Junejo, and Munwar Noor.
When I was planning a trip to Pakistan in December 2006, quite a few friends were concerned. So was I. Some friends and colleagues who taught at the yearly International Nathiagali Summer College had been given armed escorts when they traveled around during the summer school. I was born in India and am a naturalized US citizen; a few friends pointed out what a winning combination that would make to certain groups in Pakistan and its border areas. In the end, it turned out to be a wonderful visit, however.

I am from the subcontinent, born in Calcutta (now Kolkata) after the independence of India and Pakistan. Together the subcontinent represents nearly 1.3 billion people. Life has been kind to me in allowing me to live a privileged life. Now in my advanced career, I wanted to find a way to contribute substantially by helping where help is very much needed. To me, this is education in science. Having the perspective of an advanced education, I, like many others, recognize the multitude of ways very basic scientific knowledge can open up a whole new world of opportunities for the less privileged children, who by far outnumber the very few with opportunities to build a future life like mine.

This was the purpose of my travel. We all know the problems we face in the US in preparation of science and math in elementary and middle schools. Children do not learn fundamentals of physical sciences in most schools, because knowledgeable teachers are rare in primary and in middle schools. Time and again many studies found (e.g., Taking Science to School, published by National Research Council in 2007) that children at early ages are much more intellectually capable than they are generally given credit for. In addition, when science is not presented to them in their early schooling with appropriate challenges and explanations, many children quickly lose interest and develop a subliminal dislike for subjects like physical sciences and math.

Imagine now the situation in countries which are much less privileged, with a much lower GDP, like Pakistan, where few children are fortunate enough even to attend a proper school. For those who do, only a select few have teachers with adequate scientific background. In such cases, most of the children grow up in hopelessness for their future, eventually replaced by frustration and anger, thus providing fertile ground for planting seeds of destruction, which are too easily supplied. This leads to a lose-lose proposition for their future as well as for that of the country-–in fact, for the world at large.

If instead somehow we could enrich them with future options with hands-on physical science training, a large number of them would have many options open to them in future; whether as scientists and engineers or as simple tradespeople such as electricians, carpenters or plumbers. The hope of a productive future will lessen the frustration and anger, making way for constructive thoughts and actions, leading to a win-win proposition all around.

How do we reach the largest number of children in the shortest amount of time? Some people have already found the answer: the best way to start teaching science properly is by teaching the teachers involved. If we can train young teachers (with emphasis on the rural regions) in physical sciences where everything taught is based on demonstrations or experiments, these teachers will themselves get interested and take their training back to their classrooms. The teachers will participate in constructing the equipment as much as possible. The equipment will be constructed out of locally available material. This way science can be taught in a limited budget even in the remote areas. The challenge is in coming up with such ideas.

This was my reason for joining the APS Committee on International Affairs (CISA) in APS. The committee was very supportive when I broached the subject. My goal was to see whether a pilot program could be established in Pakistan, primarily with the help of local scientists, educators and humanists, because such an education program can only be sustained properly when such a need is strongly felt by the locals.

I contacted a few key people in Pakistan, starting with Pervez Hoodbhoy, a theoretical Particle physicist in Pakistan who has been active in several areas including education and humanitarian causes (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pervez_Hoodbhoy). Through him I got to know a number of people in and out of Pakistan. Over many phone calls and e-mails, I found an appropriate infrastructure to make a pilot project possible. A number of kindred souls among the physicists who are faculty members at various universities and people involved in higher education were also enthusiastic to help.

For example, Zafar Junejo, a native of Sindh province with a PhD in computer technology, felt a calling to ameliorate lives of the rural areas of Sindh by helping the local people in their general well-being in health, finance, science, environment, etc. He also started a major effort to help women. The game of chess was taught to make the people think strategically about their future, in particular to train them to think about all the options open to them in their various enterprises. Zafar secured some NGO funding for his project (Trust for Rural Development: TRD) and has already developed a successful infrastructure, working in the rural areas with a center in the city of Hyderabad, the largest city in Sindh near the region of Dadu. Being a native of the region was helpful to Zafar. He connected with quite a few local schools, people and started his project. This sounded like a very good organization to use as an infrastructure for a pilot project. Zafar sounded most eager for me to base a part of this project in Dadu.

So I decided to visit the area and meet some of these people to survey the situation for myself. I took a trip to Islamabad, Hyderabad and Karachi. I met with A.H. Nayyar (Executive Director of Developments in Literacy) who is also a physicist and is very well connected to the school system in Islamabad.

Arvind Gupta, an Indian citizen, featured a lot in our discussions. A PhD in Computer Science from the University of Toronto, he felt a calling to take the wonders of science to children by making science toys from very cheap locally available materials, sometimes even garbage (http://www.indiatogether.org/2004/feb/edu-science.htm). With the flair of a superb magician, his demonstrations are apparently mesmerizing. He is well-known, very much in demand, and has a center in Poone, India.

My next stop was the TRD center in the city of Hyderabad where I spent almost a day and a half. My hosts (and hostesses) were Zafar–the Director, Najma Baladi–the Program Officer, and Rozina Junejo–the Administrator. I was also welcomed by about fourteen or fifteen young men and women, all of them participants in the TRD program and many of them school teachers in the Dadu region. A large number of them were single young women in their twenties. I asked questions about their schools, their students and the classes they taught. A handful of the women were really quite outspoken; when asked about what their experiences were in teaching math and sciences (mostly middle and elementary schools) and the difficulties facing them, they were quite forthright. I then got into a discussion of teaching specific topics such as Newton’s laws, gravitational force, and the periodic table. They asked questions in specific areas and discussed their problems because of the need to memorize so much in physics and chemistry.

Next morning, a few of them gathered around and wanted to talk more with me to elaborate on what we had discussed the evening before. Apparently, they had discussed the topics from the night before among themselves and had agreed that it was difficult to remember so many isolated laws and rules in physics. I started with reviewing mass, momentum, inertia, force with Newton’s laws and conservation of momentum and energy followed by potential and kinetic energy and gravitational force. We worked through the afternoon following a break for lunch. From time-to-time they would take a short break to clear their heads and also to discuss among themselves without me. Then we would resume again. I also gave them problems related to the topics; that is when I realized their need for help in math. But they were following the concepts and the underlying inter-connections very well. Most of all, they wanted to keep going.

At the end of the afternoon, I had to leave for Karachi, and I kept hearing from them “If only you were here for two days, we could have learned so much more.’’ The eagerness in their eyes to learn and the sparkle when they understood would perhaps have made the trip worthwhile by itself. Zafar accompanied me back to Karachi, a two-and-a-half hour drive. Apparently, they told Zafar that after talking with me they could see how everything was connected; that all these laws were not isolated at all; so I felt that my effort was successful. As a token of their appreciation, they presented me with a “chador,” a regional custom.

These rural young womens’ struggle toward independence, their conviction of helping their society by doing something worthwhile: a courageous journey they had already started by joining the TRD program, touched me deeply. I could not have asked for a more worthwhile organization for an infrastructure of a pilot program.

In Karachi, I met three senior physicists, all women. One, Tahira Arshed, retired from a faculty position in Tennessee, is now working toward science literacy in Pakistan. The other two are Fatima Hasnain, the Secretary General for the Center for Physics Education, and Aquila Islam, who is the director of academics in a secondary school in Karachi.

Based on my discussions with them, I came up with a plan for my pilot project. Except for a few privileged schools, the elementary and middle school teachers typically have similar scientific background whether they work in rural or urban areas. The pilot program will have two centers: one rural, using the TRD’s infrastructure, and another urban, say, in Lahore, quite close to Islamabad.

The program will consist of a yearly workshop for six weeks in the summer, when the schools are off. We will have to use four master trainers for each workshop, four of whom will be drawn from Arvind Gupta’s school, with two from the US and two from Pakistan. Each workshop will enroll no more that twenty teachers. The lessons will be strongly oriented toward hands-on training. Some of the equipment (science toys) will be constructed and some purchased, focusing on as much construction as possible. This will include physics, chemistry, some biology/botany and math.

Because it is critical to maintain continuity, there will be a week-long practice workshop for the participants six months later to review what they have learned, how they have fared in their respective schools and, in addition, for a few days they should teach certain parts to some elementary and/or middle schools located in Islamabad and/or Karachi. Coming in contact with schools in these large cities will build up confidence among the rural teachers.

These workshops will be supervised with the help of educational authorities. Some of these twenty participants of the workshop will be encouraged to return the following year at a slightly elevated level, as assistants to the master trainers, so that by the third year they can serve as trainers themselves. In this way the two specific centers will mostly be self-supporting, with help from local scientists and support for holding the workshops. Doubtless we would learn in a three-year span of the pilot project about how best to modify our implementation to fit the local needs. If this is successful, the pilot program can be enlarged to other workshops in other areas and even in other neighboring countries. 

So far this is my dream, shared with the people I met. These young women, of whom I met a handful, have taken a very courageous step forward. With a little effort we can make a big difference in their struggle to build a future for themselves as well as for the next generations. I have initiated all of the planning and then taken this trip to be able to make a realistic proposal for a pilot project. It is now time to act to make this into reality and find some form of financial support to establish the pilot project. If we from the US (e.g., the APS) cannot help, then who can?

Usha Mallik is a professor of physics at the University of Iowa.



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