Benin Calculators
Students deliver scientific calculators, training to Benin

A local man intent on becoming a secondary school science teacher by earning a master’s degree at SUNY Oswego found himself in front of a classroom in Africa earlier this year teaching 70 French-speaking school inspectors how to use solar-powered scientific calculators.

Patrick Witmer will tell how that came about in one of about 275 presentations Wednesday, April 21, during the college’s Quest symposium. With senior adolescence education major Colleen Hamel, he will present “Advancing Secondary Education in Benin, 1,500 Calculators Strong” at noon in Room 233 of the Campus Center.

Benin school inspectors work on calculators.Barbara Garii, associate dean of Oswego’s School of Education, recruited Witmer for the Benin calculator project last summer. The School of Education has a vigorous partnership with the Ministry of Education in Benin, and Garii had secured a donation of 1,500 Texas Instrument scientific calculators from Mercy Corps, a leading international relief and development organization.

She chose Witmer, a graduate student in adolescence physics education and a student in her research methods course, to work with three school inspectors from Benin who came to Oswego last summer to participate in SUNY Oswego’s Project SMART. Together they began laying the groundwork for effective use of the calculators in schools across the developing West African nation.

Witmer showed the visiting educators how to use the advanced calculators for trigonometry, statistics and other functions, and they developed training modules and curriculum for their nation’s schools.

Donated calculators

Project SMART paid to ship the 1,500 TI-30Xa solar-edition calculators from the West Coast to New York, and then Garii, Witmer, Hamel and the other students and faculty in Oswego’s “Schooling, Pedagogy and Social Justice in Paris and Benin” class that traveled to France and Benin in January each packed about 75 calculators into their luggage.

With a list price of $25 each, the donation is valued at $37,500, and the group didn’t want to risk damage, loss or theft by shipping them, Garii and Witmer said.

“Solar edition was a nice touch. In equatorial Africa, it’s perfect,” Witmer said. “A battery-powered model would have been a great tool—for about a month.”

Master teacher

Witmer was a bonus, too. “Patrick was the master teacher,” Garii said.

A recent graduate of Syracuse University in physics, Witmer has commuted from Minoa, near Syracuse, to Oswego for most of his master’s work and now to Pulaski for his student teaching. In January, his commute was much longer. Because he wasn’t enrolled in the Paris-Benin class and didn’t think he could afford the trip, he hadn’t planned to go. He ended up doing it in a parallel independent study course. “I surprised them when I showed up,” he said. “The purpose for me going to Benin was to do the training.”

He needed two interpreters to train the school inspectors. “I would speak math, as it were, to a school inspector” who served as the translator of the initial lesson, he explained. Then to answer questions, an English teacher translated from French to English and back again.

The plan is for the school inspectors to in turn train secondary teachers of science, technology, engineering and mathematics to use the calculators in their classes and thereby improve education in these disciplines.

“It will be up to the Ministry of Education to measure the impact of these calculators being introduced into the national curriculum,” Witmer said. “Based on what they tell us, we will submit a report back to Mercy Corps.”

Witmer will complete his master’s degree in May, but his connections to the project live on. “I’m still in touch with an English teacher in Benin. We e-mail regularly,” he said, and he uses Skype to communicate with another teacher in France.

Wherever he ends up teaching next year, he said, “I think Dr. Garii and Project SMART will help me stay in the picture.”

About Quest

Quest is a yearly campus-wide event during which faculty, staff, and students at SUNY Oswego present research and creative projects. For more information and updates to the schedule, see www.oswego.edu/quest.

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VIDEO CAPTION:

Master teacher—See a minute of footage shot in Benin as graduate student Patrick Witmer conducts calculator training for school inspectors. “It was a pleasure to watch Patrick in action. He was collaborative, flexible and incredibly knowledgeable,” professor Barbara Garii said.

PHOTO CAPTION:

Calculating education—School inspectors learn how to use 1,500 donated scientific calculators to improve science education when SUNY Oswego students visited Benin in January. Graduate student Patrick Witmer will tell about it during Quest, the college’s annual symposium of scholarly and creative activities, on April 21 in the Campus Center.

 

(Posted: Apr 09, 2010)