Graduate Education Students Partner with Ethiopia

Through a partnership with an educational program in Ethiopia, Lesley University students are researching and building culturally relevant lessons, and thinking more broadly about how poverty affects learning.

From Cambridge to Ethiopia, Students Use Natural World as Classroom

Kirsi Garafalo discovered the deep, layered teaching she could construct with a subject as simple as weather—from climate conditions to appropriate clothing based on temperature and all of the related vocabulary. She developed an associated art project for children to create weather wheels, adding a dimension of play and art to the lesson.

Her project is among more than 50 lesson plans generated by Lesley graduate students as part of a partnership with a unique and intensive educational program in Ethiopia that intervenes to educate children ages 9-14 who have never attended school.

“It’s been really cool to think differently to format lessons and come up with topics while considering the resources that are available,” reflects Garafalo, a student in the elementary education master’s program. “We want kids to learn through self exploration, and I love the opportunity to create project-based learning.”

Lesley student holding a weather chart created on paper plate
Kirsi Garafalo demonstrates a lesson on weather, an example of what she calls learning through self-exploration.

Spearheaded by Associate Professor Susan Rauchwerk, the partnership has connected Lesley graduate students with an accelerated learning program in Ethiopia that educates un-schooled children and employs local community members who have graduated high school but have been unable to find work.

“They cover three years of school in one year, and upon graduation, the students are integrated into the Ethiopian public schools in grade four,” says Dr. Rauchwerk. “The program’s staff train the teachers, and as a result of working in this program, many of the instructors have been given the opportunity to go on to college to become teachers within the educational system in Ethiopia.”

"Our students are learning how to research and build culturally relevant lessons, and think broadly about the impact that poverty has on learning."
Susan Rauchwerk, Associate Professor, Graduate School of Education

Lessons ‘Have Value for All Teachers’

For the graduate students in Rauchwerk’s Elementary Education and Early Childhood STEM methods courses, the partnership has been an eye-opening experience that inspires them to think about educational access and to come up with creative and engaging lessons that use virtually no materials other than the natural world.

Nishat Khan demonstrated a lesson on plant ecology and pollination in which students dissect and observe plants.

“We had to do a lot of research into the resources that are available to them,” explains Khan, who is earning a dual bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in elementary education.

The students have field-tested some of the lessons with Cambridge schoolchildren in the Lesley science labs, and Khan recently watched over a young girl snipping flowers apart and examining the petals, stamen, and other components.

“We created a lesson to let students discover on their own, and we ask open-ended questions and guide them in the right direction,” says Khan.

“It’s been really interesting to learn about a completely different education system,” she adds, “but I think these lessons have value for all teachers.”

Teaching Teachers to ‘Think Broadly’

The students have created the environmental science and math lessons based on Ethiopia’s national education standards, and it’s a partnership the university hopes to continue for the benefit of Lesley students and the Ethiopian partners.

“Our students are learning how to research and build culturally-relevant lessons,” says Rauchwerk. “There are enormous numbers of children in poverty, and many of these issues mirror those faced by our minority students in the United States, but it’s often not spoken of as explicitly.

Lesley students, one holding injera bread and one holding bowl of rising dough
Abby Merson (left) and Jessica Vanderlaan use injera bread to illustrate fermentation.

“We are making sure our students think broadly about the impact that poverty has on learning,” she says.

The partnership has certainly challenged Kim Dulong to think differently.

“I’m paying attention to how many resources we have,” says Dulong as she works with Cambridge schoolchildren seated around a table in rapt attention to her lesson about the water cycle using old soda bottles, matches and little else.

“Before, I would have just used the computer to create this,” reflects Dulong, who is also pursuing a dual degree bachelor’s and master’s degree with a specialization in math teaching. “You have so many more options when you think beyond the technology.”

Lesley students at lab table with water bottles
Kim Dulong, pictured working on a water cycle lesson, says the partnership has challenged her to think differently.

At an adjacent station, Abby Merson led a science lesson about fermentation based around injera, the spongy flatbread made with teff flour that is an Ethiopian food staple.

“We wanted to create something applicable to them with everyday materials,” says Merson, who encouraged students to draw pictures and record observations of the different stages of dough fermentation. Merson is getting her M.Ed. in Elementary Education with a focus on the arts.

Throughout the semester, students communicated with the program’s director in Ethiopia via Skype and email.

“It’s been great to see our students work through these ideas, and in each conversation, they get a little more detailed and sophisticated with their questions,” says Rauchwerk. “It has really exposed my students and I see them thinking in different ways and developing an incredibly integrated approach to teaching.”

Students in Dr. Rauchwerk's Science in the Elementary School and Science and Health in Early Childhood courses have also been writing science stories and activities for children in Ethiopia. The stories are based on the Ethiopian Environmental Science standards and are based on topics that are culturally relevant to Ethiopian children. By using translation software and a translator to check for accuracy, the stories are written both in English and Amharic. Two examples are "Teff" (PDF) and "Debre Gets Water" (PDF).

Related Articles & Stories

Read more about our faculty, students, and alumni.