Bahir Dar Math Outreach Projects

Flying over Addis, on the way to Bahir Dar. (This was my first flight in a turbo-prop plane!)

I’m currently visiting Bahir Dar University, in Ethiopia.  It was a natural place to visit while Kenya is out-of-session for their elections.  Abebe Regassa, a lecturer here, came to Maseno last August for the maths camp, and will be co-facilitating the first Ethiopian maths camp this July with Berie Getie.

The math department here is very exciting to be in contact with.  The department is large (now at about 50 staff), has a mandate to get research groups going, and has given Abebe and Berie reduced teaching loads to coordinate outreach activities.  They’re actually already doing a fantastic job, by the accounts I’ve heard thus far.

One outreach project is the Outreach Program for Talented Students.  This project has run for two years, funded thus far by the Gelfand Family Charitable Trust, though it will be moving to Univesity funding soon. The project puts on a science-and-technology camp for 450 elite students.  This year, there will be 300 students from schools around Bahir Dar, and 150 from all over the country. The camp runs for 40 days(!) and uses a team-teaching model (one university lecturer, one secondary teacher, and a lab assistant for each class of 30 students). After 15 days of common curriculum, the camp is split into two streams, one focused on general science topics, and the other focused on ICT and electronics. At the end, 45 students are selected from the 450 to continue working with the Bahir Dar university staff on interesting projects.  (There’s a 62-page report on the program here.)

I met with three of these 45 continuing students today.  One was Bethlehem Dessie, a 14-year-old daughter of illiterate parents who is doing incredible work with computers.  One ear-catching project she described involves modifying OCR software to recognize Amharic script, for converting school textbooks to mp3’s (and eventually videos) for use by blind and other disabled students.  The other two students were working on designing a cargo tricycle, which they expect would be very useful for working people in Ethiopia who often rely on hand or donkey-drawn carts for transporting large loads of grain.

The other outreach project I learned about is a teacher-training program going on in Bahir Dar and beyond.  It seems that Abebe and Berie are hard at work designing activity-based curriculum for maths teachers to bring into their classrooms.  They have been working primarily with teachers of very young students (grades 1-4), in order to establish a solid foundation for later study.  Each teacher-training workshop has been six days long, involving 30-40 teachers in each,  from 3-4 schools at a time.  It sounds like there have been three trainings for secondary teachers so far, and one small one-day training for secondary teachers.  The project is set to expand though, with Abebe and Berie setting aside much more time this year for trainings.

It’s clear that there’s an incredible amount of good work going on here, and a real desire to do more; probably thing they are most needing is more contact with the outside world!

I’m giving a talk on Monday on incorporating computer exploration into math research, and have already had some interesting research-oriented talks with lecturers here; I’ll  almost certainly be writing a post on research activities later in the week.