Introduction

Lynn is improving the way science is taught by introducing an effective outdoor educational platform where children can experiment with the concepts they learn about in their classrooms and science labs.

Lynn wants to replace the stale, out-dated pedagogic methods that characterize science education in today’s classrooms with a hands-on, child-centered approach that gets students out of their classrooms and into the world around them. The forty or more structured outdoor activities (usually half-day or day-long field trips) she has designed put children ages six to eleven at the center of learning; encourage them to explore nature, science, and history in ways that are fun and instructive; and link directly to homeroom lessons that comprise the national science curriculum. Rather than learning by memorizing, children learn by doing; they discover, explore the natural world, and deduce scientific principles based on their experiences, experiments, and observations. In the process, they gain confidence in their creativity and critical thinking skills and learn to formulate, articulate, and refine hypotheses.

Lynn has spent the past few years developing and improving her curriculum, designing a pilot field center, and welcoming her first classroom groups (the learners) and university students (the teachers and curriculum developers). She is now pursuing a national plan to introduce outdoor field centers as a standard in communities throughout the country and by doing so, begin changing the prevailing approach to learning. Lynn has a clear plan for moving her idea forward. Having gotten the curriculum more or less right—through trial, error, and adjustment—she is making it available broadly. This includes translating it into Arabic (which she and her team have just finished), linking with the right education partner to coordinate with schools and the Ministry of Education, and finding the right fee structure to sustain the effort and reach poor communities. Right now, she is experimenting with cross-subsidizing based on per-student or per-schools fees paid by students of comparatively well-off families

Egypt faces a whole range of challenges regarding education. Even though the government’s education budget has increased three-fold in recent years and enrollment figures increased significantly, the result has been far from satisfying. The poor quality of education is reflected in the stale, old-fashioned methods of teaching, which rely on wrote memorization and boring in-class exercises that do not foster critical thinking skills or inspire real learning. Methods abandoned long ago in modern pedagogy still prevail here and deliver poor results.

Reforms to the educational system in the Middle East focus on training for teachers, administrators, and school supervisors. The content of what is taught and how it is taught is not really questioned. Other concerns interfere with a solid education. The class size has expanded in recent years to the extent that it disallows personable attention to individual students and their unique needs and ways of learning.

Science education, especially in the early grades, when children begin to learn to think critically, is especially problematic. Students learn science in a vacuum, and grow to see it as a set of equations copied from the blackboard and later memorized rather than a living, breathing, relevant discipline that both answers and inspires questions about the world around us. It’s true that all schools, private and public, offer science-related field trips at least two to three times during the academic year. But more often than not, such trips are wasted learning opportunities, closer to an extended recess than a useful extension of in-class learning. No attemps have been made to tie these trips to the existing curriculum or to use them as a significant learning aid, complementing classroom lessons.

Whereas most educational reforms in Egypt are conceptualized at a policy level and then forced down the ladder of implementation, Lynn’s approach to changing the way science is taught results from on-the-ground experimentation with how children best absorb information and deepen critical thinking skills.

The pilot project she has designed to realize important advances in education relies on a foundational curriculum of over forty field trips, which she coordinates from a farm outside Cairo that she has turned into an educational facility. The trips provide an outdoor, child-centered platform for children ages six to eleven to explore nature and gain a grounded understanding of scientific principles at work in the world around us. Importantly, these activities do not happen in isolation; instead, Lynn has linked each to the national science curriculum used by all public and private schools. Students learn about a scientific concept in the classroom—magnetism, for example—then they see how it really works through a variety of outdoor activities, such as navigating their way through a vast olive grove using a compass, part of a day-long instructive scavenger hunt in which they collect soil samples for further analysis and discussion. In another example, students in Alexandria and Cairo measure the angle of the shadow cast at a given hour, then compare results, from which they learn of the Pythagorean Theorem and of related stories of breakthroughs in the history of mathematics and scientific thinking. Through these targeted exercises and activities, children learn by doing—about science, math, even Egyptian and world history. Furthermore, they remember what they learn because the activities Lynn has designed make them participants in discovery.

While school children are the focus of Lynn´s effort, she also seeks to influence science education directly by drawing in university students—primarily graduate students in science and education from American University of Cairo, one of the country’s leading universities. Her partnership with AUC has been so far successful, and Lynn sees furture opportunities to extend the partnership, staffing additional centers throughout the country with graduate students in the faculties of science and education. For the graduate students, many of grew up in the Egyptian educational system, the opportunity to lend their creativity and expertise in designing a curriculum and leading instructional classes or trips presents an exciting opportunity to change and improve science education, making it effective and exciting. And for Lynn, the AUC partnership lends prestige as well as expertise to her effort, and affords a further element of credibility, which will aid its spread.

So far, Lynn has attracted students from Katamiya, Maadi, Monhandessin, Giza and Zamalek—all Cairo districts—to her first center. She expects schools from Heliopolis and 6th October Cities during the next academic year. A minimum fee per student is charged to ensure the continuity of the effort, and Lynn has begun experimenting with cross-subsidizing. Lynn monitors the project carefully in terms of expenditures, and cost analysis and accountability are the criteria she uses to control and plan for expansion. This approach—starting small, getting it right, and going national—allows Lynn and her team to identify the elements of difficulty and strengths of the project before launching it at a larger scale.

This project in its first phase addresses its services to the primary age group students of public and private schools. In the close vicinity of this first center, Lynn and her team expect to reach as many as twelve thousand students per year. In its second phase, secondary age group students will be reached. The numbers will double, reaching close to twenty-five thousand students per year. In addition to expanding and improving the curriculum, Lynn intends to develop a scientific laboratory, which will cater to University site research experiments and draw in more students as teachers and involve them in curriculum design and development.

By working with a established partner organization in the field of education and with the Ministry of Education, Lynn hopes to set up a center in each of Eygpt´s governorates, offering outdoor experiences integrally linked to the national curriculum. She expects her idea to change science education beyond Egypt as well. At the next summit of illiteracy, she will present the curriculum with all the relevant documents to encourage other nations to be creative in their approach to educational development.

Lynn is the mother of two dyslexic children who, while bright, found school awkward and frustrating. She observed that the teaching techniques used in the girls’ classrooms did not foster critical thinking or creativity, even for children who were normal learners. For her children, the challenge was greater and the instruction less relevant to learning. Lynn began (first in her own mind) to challenge the prevailing assumptions in Egypt about how children learn and about the teacher’s role in guiding learning.

As Lynn began to probe, science education attracted her attention especially, as she lived on a farm and saw that the physical and life sciences are easily linked to outdoor activities, presenting an especially important opportunity to experiment with hands-on learning. Four years ago, she set about the process of self-education, carefully looking over the science curricula used in America, Canada, UK, and Egypt. She identified common denominators of the curricula, and began to develop a program to fill the gaps she saw in science education.

To provide students with exposure to the natural world, rather than the inside of a classroom, she began to invite groups of children—her daughters’ friends, initially—on exploratory visits to the farm her husband’s business owned. She saw that children who went out on one-day trips returned with new vocabulary, projects, and ideas. They were filled with excitement. She saw that all children were really learning in this environment where they were encouraged to discover, to inquire, to formulate and test hypotheses.

While continuing to develop the curriculum—which she does from a simple on-site study and library she has built for herself and her colleagues who are graduate students and partners in curriculum design—Lynn has turned to attention to a parallel pursuit: appending what she has learned and found to be effective to the national school curriculum. She hopes that by starting with science education, she will effect broader changes in learning and education in Egypt and in the region.