Mobile Science Center Brings High-Tech Experimentation to Remote Parts of South Africa

It may not be a proven fact that technology can help improve education, but according to "e-Learning: Putting a World-Class Education at the Fingertips of all Children," a U.S. Department of Education report (online at www.ed.gov/Technology/elearning/e-learning.pdf), "school improvement programs that employ technology for teaching and learning yield positive results for students and teachers." This raises the questions: What happens to students in schools that don't have access to technology? And, will such students have the same chances of competing successfully in the global economy?

Tools for Success

South Africa is currently grappling with these issues as its education system has been plagued by inequalities, as well as a deliberate and systematic separation of educational content and facilities. While many urban schools are adequately equipped, conditions in rural areas are often drastically different. Many schools don't have electricity, while most don't have computers. In addition, hundreds of classes are held in makeshift, prefabricated buildings with minimal water, insufficient textbooks, inadequate desks and chairs, and often more than 60 students per teacher.

It's hard enough to simply focus in such an environment let alone give students the tools they need to succeed. Furthermore, many believe that the standard of living in South Africa depends largely on the well-being of the economy, which needs skilled and educated people to drive it. This can only be achieved through education.

Edusoft, a division of Pert Industrials, a South African-based developer and manufacturer of systems for technical training, has been involved in helping South African students achieve educational experiences for several years. In conjunction with one of their clients in the engineering department of Technikon Pretoria, Edusoft recently began focusing on how to improve students' experiences with technology and science.

After months of deliberation, Peter Horszowski and his co-workers at Edusoft decided the best way to provide students with these experiences would be to build a low-cost mobile classroom that could be transported to rural schools countrywide. The goal was to enable South African teachers in some of the poorest schools to cover important curricular practicals such as graphs of motion and chemical reactions. "We wanted something that could bring 'wow' experiments to students in order to stimulate their interest and enthusiasm in areas that have very limited exposure to science of any kind," says Horszowski.

Going Mobile

The Mobile Science Center was designed as a trailer unit for an SUV. It is equipped with its own generator and lighting, as well as a series of plug outlets. It has lockable drawers, a data projector, and a DVD-equipped laptop and speaker system for eye-catching technology-based experiments and demonstrations. Edusoft also equipped it with an Xplorer datalogger and a series of PASPORT sensors from PASCO scientific, a California-based developer and manufacturer of science learning solutions. The cost of the Mobile Science Center was about $10,000, which was financed by donor organizations in collaboration with South Africa's University of the North.

"We felt the hands-on approach combined with technology had the potential to make this an unforgettable experience for students," says Horszowski. "And because PASPORT requires students to observe and measure real phenomena, analyze their own data and draw their own inferences, we felt this would give them the opportunity to understand science in a way not easily accomplished otherwise."

Over the last several months, the Mobile Science Center has traveled around the country with representatives conducting "probeware" workshops for students in disadvantaged areas. A generator is positioned about 20 meters away from the Mobile Science Center to reduce noise, and panels lift up to provide shade while students perform a variety of experiments. For example, students use a portable datalogger attached to a PASPORT Turbidity Sensor to measure the cloudiness of a local stream. They then return to the Mobile Science Center to download their data into the computer and use PASCO's DataStudio software to manipulate and analyze the data they've gathered.Using the laptop and projector on a sliding table, experiments can also be performed using a big-screen display for multiple students to watch.

The probeware allows students to collect data with just one click by simply plugging in a sensor, pushing a button and seeing data displayed in real time. "This is very beneficial because we often are under time restraints with the students, and there isn't room for a large learning curve," says Horszowski.

So far, Horszowski says the probeware has proven flexible enough to meet the needs of students at all grade levels. "Both teachers and students are initially rather overwhelmed by the equipment," he says. "But considering there are very low levels of computer literacy, it's no doubt there are some barriers to cross. However, good facilitators often overcome these difficulties."

According to Horszowski, Edusoft hopes to design more of the units this year, eventually adding solar panels for power and a satellite linkup for Internet connectivity. But, for now, the Mobile Science Center will continue to travel the roads of South Africa bringing high-tech science experimentation to places that are without electricity. More importantly, it will continue to bring science out of the textbooks and into students' lives.

For more information on Mobile Science Centers, also known as Edutrailers, visit www.pert.co.za/edutrailer.htm.

Contact Information
PASCO
(800) 772-8700
www.pasco.com

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2003 issue of THE Journal.

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