Study abroad program hosts science fair for South African communities

August 31, 2015

One of the challenges that Penn State assistant professor of geography Neil Brown consistently faces in his study abroad programs is how to bring value to various global communities. One answer he has found for this question lies in the Parks and People program’s first outreach science fair during their spring 2015 semester abroad. Thanks to this year’s success, Brown hopes to expand the science fair in years to come.

“We want to know how to make a lasting impact. Looking at our trips from a stakeholder perspective, we want to know how to bring value,” said Brown, who leads several different study abroad programs out of University Park, including the Parks and People program in South Africa and a LEAP program in Jamaica.

This desire to positively impact the community must be balanced with the guarantee that students are learning.

“In the second year of the program AESEDA (the Alliance for Education, Science, Engineering, and Development in Africa), along with various stakeholders realized that education was the best way to create a positive impact,” Brown said. In order to minimize the language barrier, this means specifically elementary education. With these younger students, grades 6-7, the language component is present, and the science fair topic aligns with the national curriculum.

In the spring of 2015, Brown’s students chose to focus on a traditional African folktale, “Hare with a calabash of water.” Incorporating 33 students from six rural schools from the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa, they first put together a play version of the tale. After the young students had developed a personal connection with the characters in the story, the Penn State students put together an interactive science fair, complete with three different stations explaining components of the science behind the fairytale.

The story revolves around a drought, so the Penn State students created exhibits showing the impact of climate change on rainfall, a drought’s effects on the environment and the role of soils in our society among other relationships in nature. Penn State researcher Danielle Andrews-Brown, who assisted with the science fair, said a global connection to science was made by incorporating soils as the UN declared 2015 to be the International Year of Soils.

Though the science fair only lasted a day, it took three years of planning with four elementary education professionals to implement. Two faculty members from the College of Education, Carla Zembal-Saul and Leigh Ann Haefner, along with two State College teachers, Kimber Hershberger and Jennifer Cody, helped review the curriculum and teach the Penn State students how to support South African students engagement and learning. The College of Agricultural Sciences, through Andrews-Brown, also played a significant role in the success of the science fair.

“The Penn State students who participate in Parks and People have been wonderful to work with,” said Zembal-Saul. While they all have diverse backgrounds and majors as well as differing levels of comfort in interacting with children, they all do an excellent job in working with the kids, she said.

Cody said there was significant community support and that lots of people, from teachers to academics to humanitarians, were on board with the idea, in particular the Donald Woods Foundation.

“It’s disheartening to see such educational inequity and disparity across South Africa. We felt very compelled to find some type of solution to help students learn science and English while helping to preserve cultural integrity,” she said.

“Parks and People is an excellent example of a win-win initiative for Penn State and South Africans,” Zembal-Saul said. “Students are profoundly changed by their experiences in South Africa. Not only do they learn the content of the curriculum in deep and meaningful ways, they live among and unpack the tensions associated with human and natural resources we take for granted in the US, and they do this using multiple lenses and diverse perspectives. Their insights into culture, language and learning are powerful and long lasting.”

Last Updated August 31, 2015