The Fulbright Specialist Program (2017) has been pairing U.S. academics with overseas host institutions since 2001. Specialists serve as consultants on visits of 2 to 6 weeks, sharing their expertise, strengthening institutional linkages, gaining international experience, learning about other cultures, and building capacity at host institutions. This report provides a brief overview of my experience as a Fulbright Specialist in the School of Education, Kathmandu University (KU), Nepal, January 16 – Feb 24, 2017. There, I collaborated with Dr. Bal Chandra Luitel on the development and delivery of professional development workshops for K-12 teacher-leaders on the theme Technology in Mathematics Education.
The process by which specialists are recruited and grants awarded begins with an online application to join the Fulbright Specialist Roster. New applications are peer reviewed and checked for eligibility every 8 weeks. Successful applicants are then placed on the Fulbright Specialist Roster for a period of 3 years. The roster provides overseas universities with access to applicants’ professional interests and qualifications. Requests for specialist visits are initiated by host institutions and reviewed by Fulbright Specialist program officials. Once a formal request has been approved, awards are often granted within a matter of weeks.
Fulbright Specialist benefits include round-trip, economy class airfare between the U.S. and the host country, transit allowances, all applicable visa fees, a daily honorarium (in my case $200/day), limited health benefits, lodging, meals, and in-country transportation. My wife, Dr. Cynthia S. Thomas, an accomplished mathematics educator in her own right, accompanied me at her own expense and participated as a volunteer in a variety of professional and social activities.
Goal Setting and Planning
Prior to my visit, Dr. Luitel and I used email to acquaint 1) me with the challenges I would encounter as a proponent of technology implementation in K-12 mathematics, and 2) him with the information and modeling resources I proposed to share with KU faculty and K-12 teacher-leaders. Context for this discussion was provided by the KU Mathematics Education Program (2014) which states that 1) improved access to higher education in Nepal has not led to improvements in the quality of education, 2) increases in the number of new institutions and programs has not been accompanied by significant qualitative change, and 3) instructors continue to depict mathematics as a dry, uncreative, difficult subject, and rarely consider evidence-based approaches to pedagogical change. Based on this report, other readings, and my discourse with Dr. Luitel, I formed an impression that asking Nepali teachers to shift 1) from teacher-centered to student-centered instruction, 2) from individual to small group work, 3) from uniform to differentiated instruction, 4) from knowledge acquisition to knowledge application and improvement, and 5) from criterion-referenced testing to anything else is to ask more than many can imagine. He concurred. Consequently, we decided to focus our efforts on seeding the imaginations of K-12 teacher-leaders and university faculty already receptive to technology implementation.
As a guiding principle, we asked all teachers, both new and experienced, to approach mathematics, mathematical pedagogies, and mathematical technologies in an integrated rather than a fragmented way. To model this approach, we employed a hands-on, workshop-based format that highlighted current research, engaging curricular materials, and empowering mathematical demonstration and modeling technologies. We also created an open access website at KU where these resources remain available to workshop participants and other interested parties (Thomas, 2017). Graduate students and mathematics education instructors at KU managed project information dissemination, participant recruitment, workshop facilities, and IT set-up and support. It was a professional and rewarding team effort from start to finish.
Sample Workshop Activity
One activity that the workshop participants appeared to enjoy is called Finding the Equation of a Banana (See Figure 1). The activity begins with a review of traditional paper-and-pencil procedures for finding the equation of a parabola given three points on the curve. This topic is taught at the high school level in Nepal and is regarded by many students as tedious, tricky, and irrelevant to their lives. Using the free modeling tool Geogebra, finding a solution is neither tedious nor tricky. Workshop participants greeted this revelation with mild approval and interest. When I overlaid the coordinate axes with an image of a banana, saying, “Now let’s use this approach to find the equation of a banana," their interest and engagement surged. Everybody eats bananas in Nepal.
Figure 1: Finding the Equation of a Banana
At this point in the demonstration, I would ask one or more participants to come forward and manipulate the Geogebra model to find a solution. Their interest and intensity as they did so was mirrored in the faces of the other participants in their seats. I then asked, “Can you think of any other parabolas in nature? Could you photograph them with your cell phone cameras, paste those images in this model, and find the equations or your real-world parabolas?” When we finished, everyone was smiling and energized. They were empowered and they knew it.
To me, this sort of personal response is priceless in mathematics education. It embodies a shift from merely repeating mathematical doctrine to authentic inquiry, collaboration, critical thinking, and discovery. As individuals, workshop participants were eager, engaged, and ready to talk about how this sort of approach could be applied to other topics and the ways it might be used to motivate and engage their students’ imaginations.
We also took time to visit local schools (See Figure 2) and World Heritage sites, rode elephants into Chitwan National Park to see the rhinos and other wildlife, and enjoyed a visit Pokhara, a resort city at the foot of the Himalayas. Excursions like these are a part of being a Fulbright Specialist. You go as a cultural ambassador and return with new insights, new interests, and new friends. The Nepali people are gracious and generous. They will bring out the best in you. Namaste.
Figure 2: Visit to a Local School
Fulbright Specialist Program. (2017). Become a Fulbright Specialist. World Learning. Retrieved from http://www.worldlearning.org/projects/fulbright-specialist-program/
Mathematics Education Program (2014). Academic Council, Kathmandu University. School of Education, Kathmandu University (2017). Retrieved from http://kusoed.edu.np/
Thomas, D. (2017). Technology in Mathematics Education. Retrieved from http://kusoede.edu.np/course/view.php?id=274