STEM in Vietnam

Vietnam: An amazing week with passionate, professional educators. A pleasure beyond words.

Best advice: Cross the road carefully.

They weren’t kidding. The eyes in the back of my head (it’s a teacher thing) came in pretty handy when visiting Hanoi this February. I spent the week working with lecturers in education at the Hanoi Pedagogical University, developing their understanding of STEM and how learning outcomes can be approved when adopting the practical approaches of these subjects. Lecturers were mainly Vietnamese speakers, with a range of experiences both as lecturers and as teachers. They shared a passion for learning and teaching and were keen to adopt new ideas. The week was a joint venture between UK-based Dragonfly Training and Educe Solutions in Vietnam, a versatile and innovative company offering training and development for the education sector.

Hanoi is a long way from home but the hospitality I received was exceptional and a there was a warm welcome from University staff and the lecturers on the course. I was fortunate to have a couple of days either side of the course to explore the Old Quarter in Hanoi. It’s such a bustling place with something happening on every street. The buzz of motorcycles and honking taxis and cars is literally in your face for most of the day. There’s an onslaught for all senses, stimulated by smells, sights, sounds, the thick air in your lungs and street food stalls, tempting with doughnuts, skewered sizzling chicken or a waft of garlic, chilli and ginger as you pass another noodle bar. Locals perched uncomfortably on little seats (little from my perspective anyway), hunched over a bowl of Pho’, fiddling with chopsticks, supping the soup or spooning rice noodles into their mouths. The Sunday morning streets around Hoàn Kiēm Lake are pedestrianised and fill up rapidly from about nine o’clock as families gather to chat over coffee, play games, walk, dance, stretch, exercise, paint, build towers, take photos or just hang out with friends. Early arrivals are big groups of kids with load speakers practising their dance moves as if they were getting ready for the next big talent show. There were also a group of locals, picking up litter with tongs – it just seemed to be the ‘thing’ to do.

Hanoi: Sunday morning

I was not the only visitor to Hanoi that week. Much was made of the heralded arrival of two key players in world peace. At least that’s how many people see it. The flags were out, the blooms ready, the pavements swept and the security forces prepped. Trump and Kim t-shirts alongside hats, flags, badges, scarves, models and postcards decked out every souvenir shop along the way. Hanoi touts itself quite proudly as the ‘City of Peace’ and was keen to see it all end successfully. Never mind. We live in hope.

With a few recommendations #asktwitter and a knowledgeable local source I had some idea of things to try on the menu. Noodles was a must. Rice and egg. Both done in a broth with pork slices. The meat is not what you might find in the UK. It’s fatty, chewy and full of bits but it goes with the territory. The flavour is good. Chilli, salt, garlic, lime and ginger dominate with a hint of parsley, coriander and red and green perilla. We had sushi, spring rolls, rice: the usual. Throw in lunch at a buffalo restaurant, with blood, stomach lining and sliced steak and a local treat of seafood hotpot (with a central boiling pot where all the seafood is cooked along with noodles, herbs and vegetables) and you get the idea that food is major part of their life. Top of the list has to be the egg coffee. A whipped crème style custard floating on a viciously strong, thick black coffee. Didn’t think I’d like it. I was so wrong.

The most part of the week was spent an hour north of Hanoi, working at the University and residing at a beautiful lakeside resort. An empty resort. Quiet, peaceful and serene until the Friday night birthday party, accompanied by lots of ‘three cheers’ in Vietnamese and three hours of painful karaoke.

Five days of training meant building good relationships with delegates. Lots of laughs even through translation from Vietnamese to English and vice versa. Lots of practical activities, mainly sourced from Practical Action, to build STEM competencies and confidence. We looked at floating gardens, water filters and tomato carrying cable systems. All the resources for these are on the Practical Action website. Free and high quality (what’s not to like?) We also made balloon racing cars (they got very excited about these), spaghetti and marshmallow towers, vertical marble runs on a wall and egg-carrying parachutes dropped from the tenth floor of the huge central hall. We discussed key tenets of good teaching and learning, we discussed assessment, measuring progress, listening, questioning and promoting diversity and understanding. We worked hard to overcome the need to add labels to types of teaching or methodologies and through exhaustive post-training Q&A sessions we thrashed out the nuts and bolts of STEM for a 21st Century Vietnam. Through a sophisticated online academy, Educe Solutions have also been able to set assignments, quizzes, check progress of delegates and open forums for discussion over key issues evolving from training. Huge thanks go to all the staff at Educe (especially Thanh and Tuan), working on translations, site development and purchasing my extraordinarily long list of resources for the practical training sessions including sand, gravel, tomatoes and lots and lots of tape.

parachutes: couldn’t resist!

I will save my rant about Thai Airways, delayed flights, missed connections, broken promises and a disappearing suitcase for another time and place. It did little to spoil the incredible experience of a week working with highly educated, hard working and passionate educators. Hanoi has a great deal to offer. The down-to-earth, rapidly developing country with incredible people will stay long in the memory and will always be a place I would like to return to.

Brilliant Bogotà

Dropping into any big city for a few days means it can be difficult to gauge what real life might be like if you were actually living there. Bogotà, Colombia comes with a plethora of health warnings for personal safety and most people think of drug cartels, violence and political chaos when you mention either Bogotà or Colombia. I read the FCO advice before I travel anywhere for work or holiday. It means I have covered the ‘disclaimer’ issue should anything ever happen. However, I always work on seeing things first hand, meeting people who actually live and work there – taking things on face value. It works for me.

This trip was working with teachers at the prestigious Colegio Anglo Colombiano, a forward-thinking, hard-working school with dedicated staff, high-quality leadership and wonderful facilities for children from nursery to late teens. I was privileged to be representing Dragonfly Training again and able to deliver a range of courses to different groups of teachers over three days.

Day One was working with 25 middle leaders from the senior school. We explored the idea of the importance of a ‘vision’, to bring people on board, inspire them and provide a focus. Staff also considered how to observe, collect data and evaluate its importance, carefully planning the next steps in line with their vision. We also looked at managing change and planning for the future.

Day Two was with 120 teachers from across the senior school. We looked at a whole range of ideas for differentiation and how to challenge all students to reach their potential. One of the interesting aspects of this was that a large proportion of teaching staff was Spanish speaking and so, with a professional translation outfit, primed in their little booth and me, miked up, it was great to see how they translated some of the ‘teacher-speak’. They did very well apparently!

The third day was more bespoke to the needs of the College. We worked with a group of Teaching and Learning Champions; those that showed ambition, talent and potential (and were also willing to come in on a Saturday!). It was based around a ‘Stretch and Challenge’ theme and included a number of resources from Practical Action. Using STEM as a driver of progress has been a passion of mine for a very long time. Teachers and students are inspired and engaged. It is easy to bring an immediate and real-world context to each of the tasks. And it’s fun. We looked at the ‘Why’ for each of these teachers and considered how the world was going to change over the next few years for our students. Really thought-provoking discussions.

It was an immensely rewarding trip. Working with teachers and leaders who want to ensure that young people who are potential champions and sergeants of the future country are equipped with skills of compassion, empathy, purpose and determination to do better, was humbling, heartwarming and inspiring. I look forward to returning.

Also got a chance to sample some incredible Colombian coffee in a Coffee Laboratory. Just brilliant.

Bluedot Festival First

Finding your first festival feet is always a little exciting and daunting but having braved a few nights in a tent with every element of humanity breathing and swarming around you, I think I have decided I would do it all again.

IMG_2186I was invited by Practical Action to deliver two days of workshops to support their education, enrichment and outreach programme. The Bluedot festival has been running for many years and next year celebrates the 50th anniversary of the lunar landings in 1969. Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre and surrounding area is a fantastic venue and brings the very best of scientific thinking together with a most eclectic range of music, theatre, poetry and fun activities. I decided to take my 8 and 10-year-old daughters and there was plenty to keep them busy and plenty of things to spend hard earned cash on!

IMG_2146

The workshops were sold out and fully attended and provided a great platform for exploring real issues that affect people’s lives in some of the poorest regions of the world. Practical Action provides support to these vast numbers of people through the integration of technology, community partnerships and engineering expertise that makes a sustainable difference to the lives of people in places as far apart as Lima, Kathmandu, Khartoum and Dacca. The first workshop was called The Floating Garden Challenge and allows people to design, build and test a floating platform that could rise with flood waters and keep crops out of flood waters. They might even be able to house chickens. The designs were built and then tested using 100g masses to examine buoyancy and stability. You can download the high-quality free resources here. 

IMG_2214The second activity on Sunday was called Ditch The Dirt and involved understanding how precious water is as a resource. Clean water is essential for good health and millions of people just don’t have access to it. In fact, they might have to walk miles to dig for, retrieve and collect water with a return journey carrying up to 20 kg of potentially unclean water. The Ditch The Dirt challenge requires people to design a simple water filtration system that could be used in the field. Investigating which materials work best and how they affect the water cleanliness and rate of flow is all part of the challenge. You can download the excellent free resources here.

Both of these challenges form part of a suite of STEM activities that are highly engaging, stimulating and challenging for all ages from 6-18, with appropriate differentiation. Each challenge is designed by teachers and is accompanied by excellent PowerPoint presentations, posters, teacher notes, certificates and additional resources such as video and photos. Over the last three years, one of the primary schools I have worked extensively with has created the UK’s first STEM Leaders’ Conference which allowed Year 5, 6 and 7 pupils to work on these challenges over days and weeks and then present their projects in short presentations to the rest of the conference. With over 20 schools and more than 200 pupils involved, it has been nominated for a STEM Learning Inspiration Award. You can find out more here and here.

Running these incredibly successful workshops also gave me a chance to talk to parents and engage them in discussions about the challenges and the wider global context. With the United Nations global goal Number 6 – to provide clean water and sanitation to all people by 2030 – it is clear we have some way to go, yet with every action that Practical Action takes we are potentially getting closer.

Practical Action is a registered charity and can only carry out its work through generous donations from everyday people. If you’d like to find out more about what they do just visit their website.

If you are interested in running workshops that bring engagement, challenge and a global perspective then just get in touch through twitter @ICanTeach_UK or via email at ideas@icanteach.co.uk and I can help you get started.

Also, check out the Bluedot festival. A fascinating journey into the unknown world of festival life for me, which has left me scientifically curious to see what it might be like next year!