QNRF Newsletter Archive

Energy City: Taking science education to the next level

The reasons behind moving Qatar towards a knowledge-based economy are clear—natural resources are limited, and an educated population would enrich any society. Yet a big part of reaching this goal involves clever and sustainable teaching techniques at the secondary-school level. This is especially the case around science disciplines since they are challenging yet vital components to progress.
Energy City aims to excite students about science.
Advances in teaching along these lines means that students not only understand and grasp the realities of the sciences but, ideally, are also empowered to think critically and independently about them so as to commit to them and push the edges of discovery. One QNRF National Priorities Research Program (NPRP) grant-funded project is looking at ways to ensure science teaching methods increasingly involve and interest students, and they are using the concept of energy to frame effective teaching strategies.

The project, called, in short, “Energy City,” is led by Professor Roger Hinrichs, former Chair of the Physics Department at the State University of New York at Oswego. It involves researchers from Qatar University, Seattle Pacific University, University of Cyprus, College of North Atlantic-Qatar, Ali Bin Abi Talib Preparatory School and Al Bayan Secondary School. These researchers are working with 28 teachers across 12 secondary schools throughout Doha, Qatar.

“One thing we’re trying to alter is the vision that teachers have with respect to their teaching of science,” Prof. Hinrichs said. “We like them to make opportunities for more inquiry-based, open-ended questions rather than just telling the kids things. We want teachers to get the kids excited about what they are doing so that they can go on with their education with a strong interest in science or at least an understanding of what science is about, and we’re trying to do this with a theme of energy.”

The research is largely founded on the facts that students in Qatar are producing low scores on international 4th and 8th grade science achievement tests and that only a fraction of Qatar’s students choose an advanced education in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) fields. In fact, over the past several years, there have been no physics or chemistry graduates from the national university.

To address this, the team is working with the 28 teachers - all affiliated with independent schools under Qatar’s Ministry of Education - to explore published findings that prove the power of inquiry-based teaching approaches. From this understanding, the team will continue to work with these teachers to advise on how to bring related techniques into their classrooms.

Workshops around specific zones of energy science - concept overviews, energy mechanics and thermodynamics, chemistry of the oil and gas industry, nuclear and renewable energies - form the backbone of this first two years of the program. From there, an Institute of Energy Education will be established, which Prof. Hinrichs said will be guided by the first-round of teachers, who will by then be able to work with more teachers throughout Qatar. The first Energy workshop was held for two weeks this summer at Istanbul Sehir University, a site selected to allow the Qatari teachers more opportunities to concentrate on their work. The project is about to enter its second year, so the initial workshop and first-round teacher phase is at its midpoint.

Experimenting with the effects of wind.
Since these concepts are somewhat of a revolution to the way classical curriculum has been taught, the researchers are taking time to ensure that the ideas take root and the teachers feel comfortable incorporating inquiry-based approaches into the ways they have taught for years. Among the most powerful notions to take away is that the new approach can help to dispel an idea that a lot of secondary school science curricula unwittingly promotes - that science is to be memorized for a static set of principles that are not necessarily being added to.

“We just finished our workshop in Turkey, and we began by asking ‘what if’ questions,” Prof. Hinrichs said. “We would say ‘what if the price of oil went up by a factor of two? What would that mean to your teaching, your way of life? What would happen if solar cells increased their efficiency by a factor of two? What would that mean for society’? We encouraged them to look at questions that are open-ended, where we don’t have a definite answer that you can look up.”

Because it encompasses all areas of science, energy is a powerful backdrop for the program. In essence, it ties all of the disciplines together, Prof. Hinrichs explained.

“Energy is a very pertinent, underlying theme that we have in the sciences. And how we bring that out in our case is we try to do some activities that might relate to wind energy, for example. In our last workshop, we made small wind turbines. We capture energy from the wind itself. The motion of the wind is converted from mechanical energy to electricity. That’s an example of conversion from one form of energy to another form.”

Because of Qatar’s economic and geopolitical position, Prof. Hinrichs said that the focus on energy is of special importance. As students take the helm of a working generation, they will have a solid understanding of basic principles at play in the society in which they live.

“Most students, that teachers are working with now, will not be science professionals,” he said, “but most of them will have a role where science is involved in their decision making, be it economics or teaching languages or working in some other industry. So by emphasizing inquiry-based practices, they become better at asking questions, better at developing models, better at using arguments based upon evidence … not just ‘I think its that way,’ but on evidence.”

In the end, Prof. Hinrichs is excited that funding in Qatar is directed at not only scientific discovery but also at the premise of it.

“I appreciate the fact that QNRF are adding this crucial element of education to their research mix,” he said. “Whenever I have spoken with them they’ve been very positive and encouraging of what we are doing. And they would say ‘show us some results.’ That’s important. They want to see results. I’m happy that they have outside reviewers who look at the projects and say ‘hey is this a good idea or not’?”

NPRP 5-715-1-122
"ENERGY CITY" - Fostering Scientific Curiosity through Strengthening Teachers' and Students' Understandings of Energy and Inquiry

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