If you truly understand it, you can teach it

Alexander Schwartz
By Alexander Schwartz
Jan. 11, 2018

I remember it like it was yesterday. 

Dr. Derek Breid and I were sitting in a tea shop six months after I graduated from college, talking about my upcoming departure for Peace Corps service in Cameroon. Dr. Breid was my advanced physics and engineering professor and had become a dear friend. We registered to participate in the Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools program together. Before we left the tea shop, he told me, “Al, whatever you need, just feel free to message me.” 

A few months later, I did just that.

After training, I began my service in an eastern city of 40,000 people working as a math and physics teacher at a high school. I began to engage in a number of fun projects, from helping the community build a new well to restoring its multimedia center. As these projects developed, I thought about Dr. Breid’s offer to help and began to think of ways that he could.

Alexander Schwartz is a science education Peace Corps Volunteer in Cameroon.
Alexander Schwartz is a science education Peace Corps Volunteer in Cameroon.

First, there was a transportation issue. The roads were in terrible condition, so often motorcycles were used as opposed to cars. Second, the electricity was not stable, so I needed to invest in solar panels and external batteries. Finally, since the water was pumped via electrical pumps, when there was no electricity, there was no water. I presented these problems to Dr. Breid.

We began to chat about what could be done. First, we decided to work with my physics class. Next, we thought about what we could do. I began to tell him about the motorcycles and about the energy problems and he said, “Al, you know this sounds a lot like the things I teach my thermo[dynamics] class.” I agreed with him and we came up with a pretty interesting idea.

Both Dr. Breid and I believed in the philosophy of “If you truly understand something, you should be able to teach it on the simplest level.” This too was the case with thermodynamics. Rather than work with a professor alone, we decided to work with college students in his thermodynamics class. 

The task was simple: groups of students from his class would take a physics concept and, via a small lesson book and video, explain that concept at a secondary education level. The lesson book would not only teach the physics concepts, but include a glossary and an underlining of important terms to help improve literacy as well. The videos would be of American students to introduce Cameroonian students to what an American classroom looked like. Thus the great project began!

One college student chose how a motorcycle engine works.
One college student chose to present on how a motorcycle engine works.

First, I was able to video call Dr. Breid’s classroom. I showed them my neighborhood and told the class about the problems the city faced. 

After some questions and answers, the students chose thermodynamics topics related to my community. For example, one college student chose how a motorcycle engine works, while another student discussed solar power. The idea was to present on topics the Cameroonian students saw in everyday life so they could apply these principles in their hometown. 

After topics were selected, the college students emailed me any questions and began to construct videos. After a few attempts at speaking slowly and simply, they nailed it! I received a plethora of videos and lesson books that were both precise and simplified. 

Now I’m spending the term break reviewing my newly acquired lessons and can’t wait to see how my students will use the lessons to tackle problems in their community.

Alexander Schwartz

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