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Innovative Education

Teaching Science with a Smile


Teaching Science with a Smile


For many indigenous elementary schoolchildren, science is inaccessible. But one dedicated teacher stresses the subject's fun side. It's a philosophy that's catching on.



Teaching Science with a Smile

By Yu-Jung Peng
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 460 )

It's 6:30 a.m. in Guanshan Township in Taidong County. The sun has just begun to sprinkle light over the area's rice fields, but already two people weighed down by backpacks wait patiently at a bus stop, the vibrant orange and black colors of their gear in striking contrast to the pastoral backdrop.

The taller one, at 1.80 meters with short, neatly trimmed hair, is a teacher named Tian Yuan. To his side is his assistant, Chen Hsiu-mei. The 50-year-old Tian, who has promoted extracurricular science education for more than a quarter of a century, extended his program to remote areas of southern Taiwan after Typhoon Morakot devastated the region in August 2009.

Working through the Teco Technology Foundation's "Exclamation Point" sustainable education platform for indigenous peoples, he raised funds enabling him to deliver his lively and interactive version of science education to disaster-area schools for free. The program got its start in pre-fab classrooms at Sandi Elementary School and Taiwu Elementary School in Pingdong County, and within a year it had spread to 26 remote locations around Taiwan, reaching 1,764 indigenous children. The mobile program tours Taiwan once every two months.

At 7 a.m., Tian and his assistant squeeze into a small bus that heads toward the mountainous Southern Cross-island Highway. The bus, which relies on government subsidies to survive, only runs twice a day. As it leaves Haiduan Village, the entry point to the mountain road, Tian and company are the only passengers.

A Tough Road

During the ride, Tian tightly grips a small digital camcorder to record the scars left by Typhoon Morakot, shooting the collapsed face of a mountain on the bank of the Beinan River, a 20-meter high pile of dirt in the riverbed, and dozens of other spots where slopes have been reinforced. These images, along with others captured on Alishan and in Wutai Village in Pingdong County, will serve as teaching material to show children in distant Taipei City what landslides actually look like, why they occur and what their consequences are. They will also help city children appreciate how landslides are part of the daily lives of children in these mountainous areas, how they impact the livelihoods of their families and can even determine life and death.

"Village evacuations and ruptured roads are common occurrences," says Wen Yung-pang, the driver of the nine-seat school bus that meets Tian halfway up the mountain road. Wen has served as director of Wulu Elementary School in the Lidao Mountain area for seven years.

After Typhoon Morakot hit last August, the Southern Cross-island Highway was closed for a month. Since then, every major rainstorm has ruptured the makeshift Lidao Bridge, including when Typhoon Fanapi hit in September 2010. When the typhoon hit, people in the area were forced to evacuate the village, and with roads unusable, teachers and students had to walk 40 minutes to a designated point before being taken down the mountain in a rescue basket. At the same time, the area's main crops, cabbages and tomatoes, were completely destroyed.

Despite these hardships, Wen says, "This is their native home, and life must go on." 

Perfect Valley Harmony

Wulu Village is nestled in a river valley surrounded on all four sides by mountains. The homes of the community's 30 aboriginal households neatly line the road, at the end of which is Wulu Elementary School, with its 10 teachers and 30 students.

As soon as we step foot through the school's main gate, a harmonious and beautiful chorus of voices immediately grabs everyone's attention. To the side of the playground, 20 children under a big tree are practicing the pasibutbut, a sacred choral music unique to the Bunun people that consists of an eight-part harmony. The music resonates throughout the valley as though conversing with the mountain gods, in a prayer that this year's millet harvest will be a solid one.

Standing behind the children with a serious expression is the school's maintenance man Yu Kuo-li, the main force behind the effort to pass down this cultural tradition. This year, he led members of his community to top honors at Taiwan's version of the Grammys, the Golden Melody Awards, winning the Best Aboriginal Taiwanese Album award for "Pasibutbut Bunun." Yu himself was also nominated in the Best Aboriginal Singer category.

Off to the side, Tian is quietly filming the children's singing with his digital camcorder, so mesmerized by their performance that he has forgotten to take off his backpack. The expression on his face reveals how awed and deeply moved he is by what he's witnessing, and explains his motivation in traveling to this isolated mountain area to solidify the roots of science education.

Stories, Laughter and Science

When the 9 a.m. bell goes off, school principal Chen Shun-li leads the 30 Bunun children into the school's reading room. Students from the first to sixth grades take their seats and look up at the stranger on the stage, wondering what tricks he's about to conjure up.

"There once was a young child named little 'Ermao' who never did his homework," Tian says, quickly getting into a story after only briefly introducing himself, to accommodate the children's short attention spans. Just like magic, the restless children suddenly give their full attention to the teacher. A smiling Tian then asks, "Who doesn't like to do homework?" Small hands start going up, with the children saying "me" and "him." With this simple interaction, the classroom's atmosphere suddenly warms up.

The children devote their full concentration to Tian's vivid storytelling and soon find out that little "Ermao" did not do his homework because the power went out. When the teacher suggested he use a candle to do his homework, the young boy said the next day that his homework had been accidentally burned. On the third day, little "Ermao" simply "didn't show up to class."

The story gets a laugh out of the children, but it also helps Tian ease his audience into concepts from daily life, such as "electricity" and "electric lighting," and why movies run smoothly despite being composed of individual images. Through interaction between the students and the teacher, Tian also introduces the concept of "frequency" and fluorescent light frequency, leading into the day's main topic: "light and the persistence of vision."

"When stories are interesting and can be tied to daily life experiences, kids become more engaged and feel the class is useful. Science concepts gradually sink in through osmosis," Tian explains. The brain remembers things most efficiently in a happy environment, and helping his indigenous students "experience the fun of learning science" is the goal he constantly pursues, for good reason. Tian has to keep students interested for 45 minutes while presenting material suitable for a group of children spanning the first to sixth grades. He must find ways to relate practical examples from daily life to abstract concepts such as "force" or "heat" and also has to make the props he uses in class himself.

All of this requires a wealth of teaching experience and ingenuity, but he feels it's worthwhile. "To be honest, the level of the indigenous children is no lower than that of city kids," Tian says.

Access to materials is another of Tian's big challenges. "To city children, things like straws and balloons are easy to buy at the corner convenience store. But children in remote indigenous villages may have to go all the way down the mountain to get them," he says.

The secret items contained in his bloated backpack offer the solution to the dilemma. Tian and his assistant use the lightest, simplest and most convenient materials to design the science props he uses in class, and they assemble them in Taipei before carrying them up into the mountains in their backpacks.

"We do our best not to require the children to prepare tools or materials. All they have to do is bring their curiosity," Tian says. Before his last tour of the island, when his topic was "air resistance and counterforce," the two used paper and straws to make 1,500 paper dragonflies for the students.

Rewards for Class Participation

As Tian explains the relationship between fluorescent lights and alternating current frequency and the principles behind movies, his assistant is passing out toothpicks, paper tops with black-and-white spiraling patterns, and pieces of paper with a monkey printed on one side and a cage on the other. As soon as the students get their hands on the tops, they can't wait to spin them.

Tian is in no hurry to explain the complex optical principles behind the toys. Instead he simply reminds the children to carefully observe what happens, and asks them a number of leading questions to help them understand what they are seeing. Does it appear that the swirling black and white patterns on the tops are rotating backwards? Do your electric fans at home do the same thing? Can you blow the pieces of paper so that the two different pictures of the monkey and the cage seem to join together?

Squatting on the floor and concentrating on playing with their new science toys, the students have seemingly forgotten the existence of time, and boundaries between the city and the mountain village have disappeared. Before long, the only sounds left in the noisy classroom are those of amazement.

"It's really rotating in reverse," says one student.

"It's rotated backwards twice," says another.

The only first grader at the Lidao school, named Jia-hsiang, yells in excitement, "The monkey has really been locked up!"

Only after the students have used the devices and observed what is happening is Tian ready to explain to them what they saw. The classroom's blinds are pulled down to keep out the sunlight, leaving only a fluorescent lamp that may look as though its provides steady light but in fact constantly flickers. When the frequency of the rotations of the gyrating tops with a fixed black-to-white ratio start to slow down and reach a multiple of the frequency at which the fluorescent light is flickering, the human eye perceives them to be rotating backwards because of the "persistence of vision" effect. The rotation speed of the pieces of paper is similar to that of a movie at more than 24 images per second, making it appear that the monkey is locked in the cage.    

"But I saw a green image," insists one student with a particularly keen power of observation. Tian immediately gives her an eraser as a small token of encouragement, and then invites the other students to raise their hands and guess why a green image appeared. Any student bold enough to answer, without worrying about being wrong, receives a reward and praise. Tian explains that the phenomenon was the result of the phosphor powder used in fluorescent lights emitting different light wavelengths.  

"You shouldn't be in a rush to get children to understand or memorize principles," says Tian, who strongly opposes tests and "spoon-fed" education. As long as the students remember the phenomena they observed during the games, Tian believes that when they study theory at an older age, they will naturally associate it with the happy experience they had when they were young. Only that way will children develop interest in the subject, he insists.

"When there's interest, students will automatically seek knowledge," Tian says. To him, instead of complaining about children not concentrating in class or not doing their homework, it is more worthwhile to make class interesting, which is ultimately what he considers to be at the core of true education.

At the end of class, Tian distributes the paper dragonflies. After the children applaud, sing a traditional song and say "uninag" (thank you), they rush out of the classroom to see how their dragonflies fly. There are no tests or homework. Just seeing the students' faces sparkle with smiles is enough to give Tian a sense of satisfaction.

To Principal Chen, who took over at the school just three days before Typhoon Morakot hit the area, it means even more.

"Being able to hold this type of extracurricular course is a big help to us," he says, explaining that he has struggled to find solutions to the high turnover among substitute teachers in mountain area schools.

In promoting fun and interesting science education, Tian has actually tried to pull an invisible string, one that brings together cities and mountain villages, and people from around Taiwan. After leaving Wulu and Lidao, Tian was preparing to set off the next day for Wang Jung Elementary School up the east coast in Hualian County.

As long as children continue to learn and laugh, he will continue trekking around the island, shouldering his big backpack with simple tools that are bringing science alive in remote areas around the country.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier