Teaching with Modeling Instruction in a remote village in Kenya

by Paul Mollinger (compiled by Jane Jackson in 2013)


To: NSTA physics listserv

From: Paul Mollinger, U.S. Peace Corps, Sindo, Kenya

Sent: Wed, July 27, 2011

Subject: Re: Modeling Physics Curriculum


When I went into teaching a few years ago after a long industrial career, I knew a lot of stuff but it did not take long to figure out I did not know how to teach - the absolute best advice I got after signing up for NSTA membership and this listserv was to  "take a modeling course". I took the chemistry course (taught chem and physics)  since it was what I could get in at the last moment.  What a difference, for all the reasons just stated in the past few posts .


I will add one finding now that I am teaching in rural Kenya - I brought the concept with me - to my chemistry, physics and (a homemade version) to math classes.


Whiteboards are nowhere to be found here - so as a project each student made their own "blackboard" out of what they call soft board ( 2' x 2') - it was black-boarded on both sides and on one side we drilled the holes to also serve as a GEO Board. I like these better than the whiteboards I used in the states -- far more useful - for graphing our models, for the way modeling uses energy units, etc -- just have to put up with chalk dust (which we found a way of saving).


The value of the "board meetings" are priceless - to organize ideas, to improve clarity of thinking and presentation skills, it helps them with their English and writing skills (English is their third language - it helps me with my Swahili skills) and it makes thinking "fun" and not a "chore" as they compete for what they think is a better model.  We also black-boarded a big piece of the back wall to put up the consensus model (actually they are "blueboards" thanks to an idea from the Martha Stewart web site, and making our own blackboard paint was a lesson unto itself).


The best testimonial of its value - I teach Chem and Physics to Form 1 (freshman) and Form 2 students and math to all four Forms. In Kenya they take math, chem, physics (and bio) all four years but it amounts to a full year course in the states.  Some of my form 1 and 2 students are sometimes found tutoring the form 3 and 4 students on some basic concepts that they grasp because of modeling... (besides everyone wants to use the "modeling boards" -- which we also found useful for student skits, ramps, etc).


7/28/11, Paul Mollinger wrote to Jane Jackson:

Hello Jane -

I have heard your name mentioned many times so it was a pleasant surprise to "be tracked down". I thought that Dennis [Glass, of Briarwood Christian School in Birmingham, AL] was an excellent instructor, so thank you for forwarding the note as it is also a testimonial of his efforts.


The adaptation of modeling to math was surprisingly simple -- I do hope that by the time I finish my Peace Corps assignment (December, 2012) to have it formalized or "put it to print" as a Kenyan Education official said.   Here in rural Kenya I have far more freedoms than I ever would in the states to change schedules, etc.  The normal class is 40 minutes with no break between classes (except for the 10:40 am tea break).  Just by asking other teachers to move things around I arranged to have a whole bunch of 80-minute classes in each of my classes.


As far as our "blueboards," they work great and I might use them when I return to the states. The idea of the GEO Board on the back is mine as far as I know -- at first it was for our "math practicals" but then we found them useful for all modeling - so we have two-sided presentations.  I will be teaching some of the village mamas how to make them, and I believe we can sell them to other local schools - they cost about 150 Kenyan Shillings to make (about $2).



On Fri, Aug 12, 2011, Paul Mollinger wrote:

… I have been working with the Nancy Ellen Crooks Foundation - Americans that live here in Kenya - and so far have distributed over 100 solar cooking ovens - complete with training making local foods--- I am in the process of scaling up to make a large solar oven at my school - I do believe we can serve all 150 students --maybe on 3+ out of 5 days!

1) Have tea and porridge ready by 10:40am--

2) Have lunch ready by 1pm

I am also working on a mix of waste paper, waste wood dust, waste charcoal dust into a briquette that has the heat content per mass as charcoal, no smoke, and of course uses waste.



On Fri, Aug 12, 2011 at 8:09 PM, Paul Mollinger wrote to a few teachers:

… the missionary compound I live on has a "rocket stove" in one of its common eating areas. You still see mostly the "3 rock stove" -- which is very inefficient.  I have been trying to demonstrate that another feature of food preparation here is that stuff is way way overdone, using more fuel than necessary -- many here make the common mistake that think a stew for example has to boil vigorously to cook, when in fact a temp of about 85-95 C is just fine and once it boils it will not get any hotter and cut off the fire for the last 10 - 20  minutes and just let it sit as it cools to serving temperature.


I will have to learn more about solar dehydrators -- I think it would reduce the food waste here ..food security is a real issue but yet you see so much waste.


I found something here from a company called Solar Cookers International - good website - they have a fireless basket - how simple to make -- but if you get say your rice pot up to temperature, take it off and put it in the fireless basket and it will finish in about 30 minutes -- no fuel and perfect rice and ready to serve.

… there is a wood and masonry polytechnic about 1 km from me. I was thinking about a design from precast - aerated concrete - as a small business enterprise.  I had been thinking for some time how to make a "dual fuel" stove - part solar, part fossil fuel - now I have some more ideas on how to go about this -- this is really cool stuff, thanks


Whatever you learn about the solar dehydrator I would appreciate that -- I will download some pictures next time I get to a place with a faster internet (at my site it is painfully slow) on some of the work I have going here.  Right now with the help of US AID we are building a greenhouse using some vertical planting techniques I knew nothing about when I came here.


 One nice thing about these projects, I turn them into "practicums" for my chemistry and physics students - they go so well with the modeling approach.  For example, I had my chemistry students make several versions of the "recycle fuel briquettes" I told you about. Using the exact same experiment used in the modeling curriculum, they measured the heat value of this fuel compared to paraffin and charcoal.  My physics students did an efficiency study on some simple solar ovens we built -- they are like a 200-watt microwave oven based on their "best design". These kids take these ideas home -- and spread the word on sustainability. NASA has very cool info on their web site about the amount of incident solar radiation received here there and everywhere.  Not using solar in this part of the world is just plain unacceptable if we can spread the word and get the right products and designs that really work into the hands of the village mamas.


On Sept. 4, 2011, Paul Mollinger wrote to Jane Jackson:

… I would at some point like to share -- "enter Modeling Instruction" in the Kenyan Classroom at Onywera Mixed Secondary School. I have a few teachers at some nearby schools - a provincial school, not a district school - really intrigued. I quickly asked for and was granted the schedule of teaching all chemistry, physics and math to Form 1 and Form 2 -- boy did this save a lot of time, and I am integrating these as I go.


My early "whiteboards" - the students collected 5000 bottle caps (they received a pen for each 100 they bought in) and we separated them into colors, and this was the beginning of the particle model of matter. We also spray-painted over 1000 stones (Ok, the red, white and blue might have been my color selection) and used these to supplement in the understanding of nature (they were wowed when we took a blue stone for example and keep beating it with a hammer into small grains and it slowly went from blue to white??). We still use the bottle caps but we now have the "blackboard painted" whiteboards...I have enough for everyone and do that more often than groups at the moment.  


We used extra Saturday sessions just to work on the process of practicals and modeling using very simple ideas. One practical we did was to use the so-called "Red Plague" lab from Flinn and model how HIV/AIDS can spread. We made modifications to the Flinn lab (for example some students had some acid in their flask at the beginning and this was the same as using a condom as it protected you against the "virus" which was NaOH).


Most days I am encouraged and others, well ----- if I stay past my two year assignment it will only be so that I can be with my Form 2 students until they complete their KCSE exam at the end of Form 4... I am hopeful (hoping?) that these methods yield solid gains in their math, chemistry, physics KCSE scores.


On Nov. 14, 2011, Paul wrote to Jane Jackson:

I am very busy, and as I finish my first year of teaching here am already making plans on how to make next year even better.  Many of my students are really enjoying our board meetings and after a year believe they are getting the hang of it all - so time for more advancements next year (I am glad as I will have the same students, now just in their next year), and using some assessment tools is one of my projects.




Paul Mollinger’s post to physics modeling listserv on Dec. 12, 2011:


To: modeling@asu.edu

Subject: LOW-TECH physics & chemistry Modeling Instruction in Kenya


 I am a US Peace Corps volunteer teaching math, physics and chemistry in rural Kenya.  I started teaching in Memphis, TN following a 35 year business career and it was while there that I learned of modeling. I took the Modeling for Chemistry instruction, used it in the U.S. for a year (great!) in an inner city school in Memphis and now after a year of starts and stops and trials and errors my students here in Kenya are hopefully benefiting from this same approach.


My school has no electricity, none have used a computer, few have cell phones, none have ever seen snow or ice, etc. - so their background experience is not at all that of a student in the U.S. - even if from a low socio-economic environment.


One advantage I have is that I teach math and chemistry and physics to all the Form 1 and Form 2 (Year 1 and 2 of secondary school) - so I combine and mix and match subject content to provide synergy.  We do "board meetings" in all subjects, we are building an array of low-cost, low-tech practicals (labs) to use and we (I) have a luxury of teaching these subjects in a sequence that may or may not be close to the national syllabus.  In Kenya all students take 4 years of math and chemistry (about the same as a 1 year U.S. course); and physics (or biology) is optional after two years (very few take physics after year 2 - most continue with biology).


So I am very interested in low-cost and low-tech but very good science practicals.


For "whiteboards" - each student (yes, perhaps 60 - 70 in a class) made their own as part of a practical. I purchased some very inexpensive "soft board" - had them cut into 65 cm by 65 cm pieces and we made our own blackboard paint - each board cost about 150 Ksh ( USD $1.50) in materials.  Chalk is quite cheap and any old rag works well as a "duster".  On the back of the board we made "peg holes" to use it as a GEO Board -- great for "3D graphing" as well as many concepts in geometry.  I also use these as "quick response boards" - a low-tech form of classroom clickers - this has worked better than I had imagined. Almost all have survived their first year of use --


I have gotten many ideas from colleagues and from the ASU site link Jane provided in her post.



Some other sources that have been wonderful guidance for the low-tech classroom:


"The Science Teachers Handbook - Ideas and Activities for Every Classroom" - by Byers, Childs and Laine. Very interesting collection of doable ideas from a British Organization called Volunteer Service Overseas - I purchased via Amazon.



You can download five pdf files: Teaching Physics in Remote Places - each is ~ 9MB. I have modified many of these.



Here is a link to the work of a group of PC volunteers who recently completed their service in Tanzania - led by a bright and ambitious M.I.T. grad in chemical engineering (also my field) who stayed an extra year to complete this manual called "shika na mikono" (more or less "hold with hands" in Kiswahili). Great resource and one that I and another volunteer here in Kenya will devote some time in our upcoming year to add to and generalize to the curriculum of Kenya as well as other African nations - (they really are similar - same science). This not only is a rich resource for practicals but also advice on setting up the low-cost lab. [1.1MB]


   Lead author: Aron Walker <AronWalk@alum.mit.edu>


[Jane Jackson’s note added in 2013: Click on “downloads”. Three large lab manuals for teachers, of low-cost experiments in high school physics, chemistry, and biology! Hundreds of pages!  Also a detailed manual on how to create/build a labroom for each science, using local low-cost materials.]


We have collaborated with schools in the U.S. and Europe on projects - such as the recently completed "Noon Time Project" to calculate the circumference of the earth (about 1% error using just meter sticks and latitude and longitude of locations and some trigonometry.)


We have gotten enormous use of an old bicycle - nice moving platform (inertia, projectile motion, gears, etc).


My students collected over 5000 soda bottle tops for use with many of the labs and matter as particles concepts.


I recently began communicating with a colleague who started teaching on an Indian reservation in Arizona - same resource and classroom issues as here in Kenya. I communicate with colleagues from several places. So I have found many resources and individuals who have been generous with their assistance.


I had a few teachers in the U.S. put together Kenya Do It ( Kenya as in Can You) Discovery Kits -- the idea was for their class to put into a "shoebox" (actually a medium sized US postal flat rate box that ships to Kenya for $30) the "stuff" to demonstrate a single science or math concept - the "stuff" had to be readily available anywhere, easy to put back into the box and have clear instructions and explanations - it was great for the U.S. students as they had to be creative to use stuff that we could also find here....


There is a free copy in pdf format of the original work of Tik Liem - Invitations to Science Inquiry (1981)  - it is a very large file -  but I found it on the internet - absolutely great collection of simple low-cost demonstrations that go to the heart of many student preconceptions (some call them "misconceptions").  I found it via google. [12MB]


   ED 301 47l SE 050 222.   AUTHOR Liem, Tik L.

   TITLE: Invitations to Science Inquiry, 2nd Edition.

   REPORT NO BA4347; ISBN—0-536-05768-'0


I do hope this reply is helpful, and if there is any interest in collaboration - great, I am always looking for new ideas - sharing is a great legacy of the teaching profession.


Paul Mollinger

Math/Science Secondary Education

US Peace Corps - 2011 - 2012

Sindo, Kenya


Date: Sun, 11 Dec 2011

From: Paul Mollinger

Subject: Re: Physics Modeling with low-tech: resources & weblinks on Modeling Instruction website



Hello Jane and all --


You asked about my use of the low-cost materials on the ASU site – [http://modeling.asu.edu/Projects-Resources.html]


Useful, yes they are.  I had viewed many of those prior to coming here

and again once here. I have adapted some and have plans this year for

more -- usually I modify based on what I find.  For example --


We built a similar spectroscope -- but for less using part of a DVD as

the diffraction grating. Every student has one. However, the lesson

plan that is part of that link from Stanford Solar Center is

outstanding - I just copied it almost as is.


We built a beam balance very similar to the soda straw - but used

papyrus and bamboo, both of which grow around the lake here - each team

of 4 built one.  The plans I followed are similar but more or less

used the adaptation of Ed Waterman and Steven Thompson - "Small Scale

Chemistry Laboratory Manual" - very modeling friendly and would

recommend to any chemistry teacher - plans to build several pieces of

equipment ( spectroscope, conductivity probe, scale, reaction grids,

etc) are in their book...( got it used off of Amazon while teaching in

the states).


The dynamics ramp - I just copied the design there -- except added

adjustable legs to alter the angle and used more available

materials...(pvc pipe for side edges, etc).  The big plan for next

year is to have our version of the pine wood derby races that are so

popular in the states - one category is of course fastest but another

is based on predicted results. We will use several of these ramps for

these "races". They are quite versatile.


The low cost circuit ideas were incorporated in what we did --

essentially cardboard "circuit boards" with paper clips and small

bolts as anchor points for wires, bulbs, etc..


I am glad you sent the link for review -- the water-filled tube

constant motion apparatus found at the St Louis chapter of AAPT  - now

that we must build!



Paul wrote on March 22, 2012 to Zacharia Olang, a community leader in the area, whom Jane supports financially for building an elementary school:


Having a school "in the community" is a wonderful benefit to the children and families.  I live about 800 metres from such a primary school started by some villagers about 6 or so years ago with the help of a missionary group from Finland. The land was donated by a local farmer. Right now they have to up Class 7 - as they add a year each year.  In general the "level of education" is higher (very favorable teacher : student ratio) than a primary school about 2 km away. Many of the teachers are local - out of secondary school - but a few have TSC training and they would not be there if they could get assigned a school by the Kenyan government....


I have come to know the kids and the parents well -- many are my friends as this is my local village too.


Here are some comments on your plan based on what I have observed -- you will collect less in fees than you expect or the parents "promise to pay".  That is the unfortunate situation and reality - I do not think your local economics are any different than ours.


So the idea of income-producing activities as you plan is essential -- I now have some experience helping both my school and this OVC school doing just that. We built a greenhouse (I found the funds/did much of the business planning -- almost 300,000 Ksh - that includes a water dam to harvest water during the rain season).  The start-up and on-going obstacles/issues are something you might like to discuss sometime but I do hope by the time I leave at the end of this year we have a stable operation. The main learning experience -- you will get less help than you expect or "parents promise" to help - that too is the reality of life here. It takes so much time to take care of a home, a shamba, a family there is little time for much else. So we are tackling the issues in different ways.  By the way our first harvest did generate 30,000 Ksh profit.  I am in conversation with an organization in Thinka ( near Nairobi) called Real Impact http://realimpact.org) - they can really help a community set up a profitable 'kitchen garden".  I was at their training site last year -- I learned a lot.


I did learn the following (actually we are told this but somehow I think we have to learn it first hand) - when you just give money to a cause - like this school (I gave them enough to buy food for a whole term and a local missionary donated money for another) - the amount collected in fees goes down. Locals think that these donations will just continue - that is why the greenhouse project was started, as it requires locals to contribute time/talent/tools.


SInce I assume you are going to be a primary school the Peace Corps does not provide volunteers to teach at that level (except in Deaf Education) (not part of our charter with the Kenyan Ministry of Education) though a health care or small enterprise development volunteer is certainly possible.



Paul wrote on May 24, 2012:

… I was happy to take our first-ever two teams to the provincial Science Congress this past week, and I do believe we will be awarded one spot to the nationals based on their presentation of a continuous water purification system powered by the sun (we actually use it to make chai). They of course did well in the district competition to be advanced but during the provincials I was blown away!!   Now - I do believe that their presentation skills keep improving because they are some of the best during our "board meetings" or "whiteboarding sessions" - a side benefit to modeling!  Now for the best part -- they were all female teams!!! Tomorrow we are doing a math - science fair for our local community. Sooo much to do -- never a dull day! It is hard to believe I will be returning home in 6 months. 



On 12 Sept 2012, Paul wrote to a few educators:

Hello All --

 I attached one picture from the day Solar Cookers International came

to my village to put on a demonstration. Since that time I have had 3

other 'solar cooking days' within my village or school. They are a lot

of work but fun and worth the effort.


I work with a non-profit here called the Nancy Ellen Crooks

Foundation (can be googled) on solar cooking and solar lamps as well

as the initial ideas for making "makaa" ( charcoal) from waste

products - they introduced me to Solar Cooking International with whom

they partner.


[See http://www.nancyellencrooksfoundation.org/ ]


The success rate I have estimated to be about 20 - 25% - those that

after one year still use it most everyday.  Since my primary

assignment is teaching I have less time to devote to these secondary

projects and believe if not teaching but working as a Small Enterprise

Development volunteer it would be higher.


Ugali is a the mainstay meal and the Cook-It makes

fabulous Ugali and it is easy to make. That said, here is the

resistance - it takes time ( 90 minutes or so, though no effort as you

set it in the cooker and forget about it) and if there is already a

fire going in the family 3-stone jiko it takes only minutes to make

ugali once the water is boiling. That brings up the other obstacle -

the Cook-It is not normally always set up like the jiko is - so one

has to get it out, set it up and than put it away. While all of this

is simple - it is something that has to be done.  The next hurdle is

that with a single cook-it you cannot prepare a meal for a family as

you can with a fire going on a jiko.


So here are the "solutions" I have tried - all partially successful.


1) I have several homes that have 3 or 4 of the solar ovens - make

ugali, sukuma, tea, daggha (omena - small fish) at the same

time....(no need to even start the fire)

2) Made all-weather enclosures for them - so they are always set up

outside in the right spot with a transparent (to solar radiation) top


3)Use "stacked sufarias (cooking pot)" configurations to do more per oven

4) Use a lid smaller than the sufaria so that there is a hot surface

directly on top of the food as well as the bottom (reduces cooking

time). - works really well on many dishes.


I hope to host one more solar cooking picnic before my return in Dec -

these kind of events sustain the enthusiasm.


A few of my friends with infants have an extra solar cooker just for

making hot bath  water - something they came up with and shared the



I am hoping to convince one of my friends here to form a solar club to

continue and encourage its use...I use mine most every weekend or  if

home during the day like during a school holiday. I use it for oatmeal

- eggs - steamed veggies - stews - pasta and rice and I have no doubt

I will use solar more upon my return home (makes the perfect soft-boiled eggs as the protein in the yolk reacts differently below 70C compared to 100C


Finally - I have used the solar cook-its in physics class and had

students go to the provincial level Science Congress this past year

with a water purification project using solar.


On March 28, 2013, Paul Mollinger wrote to Jane Jackson:

… I am pleased with the recently released results of the Kenyan Certificate of Secondary Education exams that are taken by all "seniors" in December. The results were released March 1. Chemistry is a required course and not only in my school but nationally it is ranks at the bottom as far as performance. To give you an idea at my school - in 2010 and 2011 about 80% of the students failed, another 15% averaged D+ to D - and the highest score was a C-.

     Well - in 2012 - 35% failed, 30% D+ to D- and two students scored a B+! I worked with these kids for two years - they took well to modeling and because I had the freedom to "ignore" the over- reaching syllabus (as I said, if you can get "80% correct on 70%" of the material that is so much better than getting 10% correct on 100% of the material). Well that 70% dovetailed neatly with the modeling syllabus - almost all of them could nail any stoichiometry/gas law problem!

     My physics (optional) and math (required) kids all improved though not as dramatically as chemistry. (Without doubt because of my academic and industrial and modeling background - I am a better chemistry teacher than physics or math). Methods like modeling first have to overcome the built-in rigidity (from their British colonial time) in their system. I do know that some of my teaching colleagues there did not approve of our white-boarding sessions - heavens forbid, I was not lecturing!!


On July 12, 2013, Paul Mollinger wrote to Jane Jackson:

…many of the modeling labs can be done with modification with locally available materials - even if equipment has to be built for very modest cost. I also was very satisfied with the multiple benefits of our "board meetings". It took patience to get them going and for some students they did not register. However for many students this not only reinforced concepts - it improved their English, it improved their ability and confidence to communicate. These skills are lacking in most all students I had the opportunity to help. I also found them to be lacking in the students I taught in the inner city of Memphis.