Texas State teaches Cambodian students how to ask ‘Why?’

By Ann Friou
University News Service
October 18, 2011

The Center for International Studies at Texas State University-San Marcos has received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education to develop a certificate program in Southeast Asian Studies.

While teaching science at Cambodia’s Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP), biochemist and Texas State alumnus Ken Wilson (B.S. Biology ’64, M.S. Biology ’66) discovered a problem: Cambodian college students don’t know how to ask, or are uncomfortable asking, the question “Why?”

“I was directing the master’s thesis of the best student in chemistry, and she couldn’t tell me why the laboratory glassware washed the evening before hadn’t dried overnight,” Wilson said. “As we talked about whether temperature or humidity or air circulation might have an effect on drying, she began to understand the need to ask why it didn’t dry and whether she might be able to do something to get it to dry.

“Further, in talking with my other students about scientific observation during the following year,” Wilson continued, “it became evident that most of them had virtually no capability of thinking things through or learning by inquiry. They simply hadn’t developed the ability.

“I realized that the problem lay within the Cambodian educational system, which discourages students from asking ‘why’,” he said, explaining that, typically, Cambodian students learn through lecture and memorization and have little opportunity to probe through questioning.

Cambodian students who can’t think things through or learn by inquiry have trouble solving problems in their everyday lives, said Wilson. Before teaching and starting laboratories in Cambodia, Wilson did research in Israel, taught biochemistry in Switzerland, and helped in the start-up of a California-based biotechnology company. Since retirement, he has spent much of his time focusing on capacity-building in Third World countries.

In an effort to develop Cambodian students’ ability to learn by inquiry, Wilson proposed to RUPP that it offer a new course to all first-year students, one that challenged them to develop their processes of inquiry in science and in other fields.

When RUPP said “yes” to the course, Wilson returned to his alma mater, Texas State, where he has endowed a program focused on Southeast Asia, to enlist aid in developing an inquiry-based science course for RUPP.

The course designed by Texas State teachers is being offered as a pilot at RUPP in fall 2011 and in spring 2012. Its goal is to teach students to ask questions about how things work in their everyday lives and to solve problems. Through hands-on activities rather than lecture, students are learning to apply scientific principles from biology, chemistry, geology, and physics to solving problems related to the environment, nutrition, transportation, and the universe.

In the unit on environment, written by Gail Dickinson, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction, students are asked to consider energy flow and interrelationships within ecosystems, and human impact on ecosystems, by looking at micro-habitats on the RUPP campus. The students quantify plant and animal life and factors such as temperature, amount of sunlight, shade, and water, to begin thinking about the ecosystems in their experience and to focus their thoughts on Cambodia, specifically. They participate in several simulations that mimic energy flow, nutrient cycling, predator-prey relationships, resource management, and the effects of drought, deforestation, and hunting on populations. They also participate in an inquiry lab that looks at factors affecting photosynthesis, the basis for energy in most ecosystems.

In the nutrition unit, written by Maureen Lemke, senior lecturer in biology, students keep a list of what they eat in a day and compare it to the suggested types and amounts of food that are recommended in the Asian diet. The students look at why different types of foods are necessary and at what problems arise when the body doesn’t get those nutrients. For example, students learn that vitamin A deficiency results in eyesight problems and that mango is a natural source of vitamin A. The students also look at how the human body absorbs and uses the nutrients, breaking them down for cellular use and energy and disposing of the wastes.

The unit on transportation, written by Heather Galloway, professor of physics and director of the University Honors Program, covers topics ranging from velocity, acceleration, and momentum to electric circuits. The unit aims to teach students the science behind motion and to prepare them for future transportation innovations which are likely to include more electronic vehicles. The final lesson is the classic “egg drop,” in which students build protective cages to enable an egg to survive a fall. The lesson emphasizes the science that enables motorcycle helmets to protect motorcyclists against head injuries. In Cambodia, motorcycle helmets are required for drivers but not for passengers.

The unit on the universe, written by Petar Buva, a recent graduate of Texas State with a master’s degree in international studies, encourages students to think about their position on earth as well as the Earth’s position in the universe, using concepts from astronomy and geology. The unit covers information on planets, solar systems, and galaxies; rock cycles, tectonic plates, and the hydrologic cycle; and seasons, tides, and geologic time. Activities include comparing the size of the Sun to the size of Earth, discovering that nearly 97 percent of the world’s water is in the oceans, and examining rocks.

Handout materials for the course were translated into the Cambodian language, Khmer, by David Ford, an Australian who has taught at RUPP for many years. Ford delivered part of the course in a trial run in summer 2011, to 60 student volunteers. Since costs are a major factor at the university, all investigations were designed using materials readily available in local Phnom Penh markets.

The Texas State teachers traveled to Cambodia to help with the two-week trial run.

“The students who participated in the trial run overwhelmingly thought the course should be offered to first-year students,” said Dickinson. “It gave them an insight into how scientists think and operate. It helped them to develop deeper, more expert understandings of key concepts and to relate science to their daily lives.”

“The students were very excited to get to work with the materials we provided,” said Lemke, explaining that, while the students had previously encountered many of the concepts presented in the course, they appreciated the opportunity to question and work out answers for themselves. “Many of them commented that they understood information now that they hadn’t before.”

“It was absolutely amazing talking with the students. They are curious and excited to learn,” Buva said.

“It was the first time they had looked at types of rocks, and they were fascinated,” Buva said.

“A lot of the students took out their cell phones to take pictures of the rocks,” Lemke said. “I am so honored to have had this experience. It was wonderful to be in Cambodia, both at RUPP and in general. The Cambodians are delightful. They are quick to smile and make you feel very welcome.”

Galloway said, “I wish I could spend more time in Cambodia. The people are wonderful, and we learn as much from them as they do from us.”

“The Texas State faculty did a marvelous job of designing a course that is intended to improve the overall quality of education in Cambodia,” said Wilson, explaining that the course’s inquiry-based format can be adapted to teaching subjects other than science.

The next challenge will be to find enough Cambodian faculty to teach the course.

“Very few Cambodian faculty have come forward to teach the course, perhaps because of unfamiliarity with the inquiry-based teaching method. Efforts are under way to encourage and train RUPP faculty in the inquiry-based method,” said Wilson. He emphasized that the course couldn’t have been done without the tireless dedication of the Texas State team, David Ford of the RUPP Chemistry Department, and the administrative support of Texas State and RUPP.

If the pilot is successful in 2011-2012 and the course is approved by the RUPP administration, it will be taken, Wilson hopes, by all first-year students at RUPP, regardless of major, beginning in Fall 2012. Assuming the course is successful at RUPP, the team plans to make it available to the other approximately 80 Cambodian universities, with hopes of it becoming a standard there, as well.