The landscape around Roggie was covered with acacia trees, small elongated oval leaves draped over a dark multi-stemmed trunk and covered with sharp three inch thorns. When I asked one of the students what kind of tree it was, he replied, “a fighting tree.” The symbol on the flag of the Oromo people is probably an acacia or sycamore-fig, but at the time I could find no one who knew for sure. As I approached a large cluster of students that first morning they seemed like a collection of acacia trees dotted with an occasional sycamore-fig. They were small, slender and beautiful with defined faces like those that splash across the pages of a fashion magazine. These children also had a fierce gaze, which they did not break until I summoned up some courage and smiled at them. Instantly they broke into warm and heartfelt grins, that sent a wave of relief over me. A hands-on-science experiment for classes of 75-100 students was a daunting prospect, but my fearless leader Deb had reassured me that their English was pretty good and that these children were not like American children, they knew how to behave in a class room. So after the camera crew team took pictures of all 500 students the first day, and having the job of pointing them to the next free camera station and feeling the shy warmth of 500 eager faces, I felt like I had established some friendships.
The next day after a hearty Ethiopian breakfast, prayer, and a flag ceremony, in which I studied the tree on their flag wondering what kind of tree it was, I headed off for our first science investigation with the seventh graders. I was pretty confident that these students were different, and when I entered a small classroom with 75 students, I was a little shocked at how familiar it felt. They were talking among themselves and the warm shy smiles of the day before were gone. The translators and teachers were not quite there yet and my English made no more of an impression than a murmur of amusement. My explanation of what we were going to do that morning was met with quizzical stares.
Then to my relief their teacher and the pastor came in and things quickly started to change. We experimented with magnets and I showed them how they worked in speakers. Then I explained how magnets could be made smaller and smaller till they were invisible, like a ferro-fluid;, a nano sized particle solution found inside of a ear bud headphone. I wanted to get them thinking about things we cannot see and understanding the force around magnets seemed like a good place to start. They liked seeing for themselves, just like my American students, how as a magnet approached what looked like a dirt oil, the oil suddenly came alive as the liquid conformed to the magnetic field lines and looked like the hair on a cartoon character with a buzz cut. As I explained all this, pastor Matheows translated and 2-3 teachers walked around the classroom making sure everyone had a chance to use some magnets and understood the lesson. We did similar experiments for the other two classes. What might have seemed impossible was made possible by the hard work of the teachers as they took my teaching and lit up the faces of the students with comprehension.
The next day Alisa and I did a chromatography experiment in which we separated out the different pigments or forms of chlorophyll in plants. We used a strip of coffee filter paper placed with just the tip touching the alcohol solution at the bottom of a cup and then relied on capillary action of the alcohol moving up the filter paper and dragging the pigments with it. They moved up at different rates depending on the attraction of the filter paper and the pigment. To warm up with the technique we used different colored water soluble markers and separated their pigments using the capillary action of water. The students were very interested and liked the hands on applications of science. And I was so pleased at the students ability to drape themselves on one another in a way that allowed everyone to see and hear. It gave us time to focus a little on the students who looked bored to see if we could encourage their participation. It was a wonderful feeling of unity where we were all working for a common goal and the peace of God settled across the room like a warm blanket on a rainy day.
The next day we were discussing the tower of Babel in Genesis and the eventual destruction of our common language. We read the story and then talked about how to build a tall tower out of spaghetti and marshmallows. Ben pointed out how a triangle made a strong foundation and we talked about how it was important to start with a firm foundation in their spiritual life also. Then we gave them about twenty minutes to build the tallest tower. Happily the seventh graders built the tallest towers of all the grades, and yet everyone learned something about construction.
The final day was the most challenging as we had balloons and wool and silk to make static electricity, but it was humid and that hindered the process, we tried constructing a battery out of potatoes to light up a small 1-2 Volt LED, but at last we gave up; not being able to find some hidden short in the circuitry. We did show them how their solar panel on their library roof works only in the presence of sunlight with a small solar panel and they all loved that. Then Ben, our resident engineer explained a circuit diagram and how resistance and current flow and voltage are all related. Even the teachers were listening intently to his discussion. We all walked away with a good metaphor for potential and resistance using water flow through different sized holes at the bottom of a cup to represent different size resistors and the height of the bottle of water as the voltage potential of electricity as current flows around a circuit.
I hope that we introduce the world of cell phones and electricity which is so foreign to them, but is entering into their world rapidly. And also introduced the invisible nature of God and how he developed science not to replace himself but to guide our understanding of who he is in all his gloriousness: united and yet made up of parts which work together like in a fighting tree or sycamore-fig, giving glory to its creator. And as we begin to understand all these different parts and how they function together, we begin to more deeply understand the infinite wisdom of a compassionate and loving father.