I’ve been in Uganda and the Peace School for almost two weeks and I only a few school days left before I head off to Istanbul for a conference. I have continued in my dual role of amateur engineer and professional educator. Our big accomplishment for the week was successfully installing a rainwater harvesting system that I helped design and oversee. My most significant contribution to the process was insisting that we buy a carpenter’s level. Given that we had to mount gutters on face boards that would run about 40 feet in length, there was no way that without a level we would get the slope correct so that the water would run downhill to the drain pipe and into our collection tank. The carpenter did not have a level and as far as I can tell, no one else had ever seen one. Later this week I will do lessons for the students on how the rainwater harvesting system works, including how a carpenter’s level and hydraulic pump works, and why water runs downhill.
One of my other lessons also comes out of energy and resources issues at the school. On my first Sunday visiting, our lights went out around 9:30 pm and given that our electricity comes from solar power stored in batteries, electricity would not be available again until sunset the next day. We surmised that several family members who live and work at the school may have drained the batteries by turning on the electricity before dark to watch television. Given that different electrical devices use varying amount of electricity, with television likely to be the most energy hungry (our full range of appliances includes energy saving light bulbs, a radio, television, and my laptop), I decided to teach the children and adults about watts and Kilowatt Hours so that they would be able to audit their usage.
In observing the classes over the first several days, the typical pedagogical approach is for the teacher to write on the board information and questions that the students copy into their composition books, and then the students set out to answer the questions. What struck me first is that the teachers often spend 10 minutes writing on the board, with their back to the students, as the students copy. In observing classrooms in the United States over the past several decades, teachers rarely turn their backs to the students for an extended period of time for fear that students will misbehave. In these classrooms, the students are inordinately cheerful, motivated, and well behaved.
Second, as someone who has, for many decades, promoted progressive approaches to education, the writing on the board first struck me as a conservative approach and something we should avoid. But, I realized that given that the teachers do not yet have access to computers or copiers, it might often be the most efficient way to give an assignment. Consequently, as a way of introducing them to calculating Kilowatt Hours, I found myself doing the same.
I began by writing on the board approximate wattages for the different appliances, and then listed questions asking them to calculate the Kilowatt Hours used by different devices for different lengths of time, combinations of devices of different time periods, and then to answer questions that would be literally a matter of light or darkness for them: If our batteries have 500 kilowatt hour capacity, do you have enough electricity to run for four hours three light bulbs, a radio, a laptop computer, and television. Once we did together the first calculation: “one 15w light bulb two hours used how many Kilowatt Hours?,” they were off and running. The students are now in a position to monitor their own and other’s energy use. And because they copied off the board onto sheets of paper, I have saved all their work.