February 3, 2017: The Great Catapult Experiment (Ann)

The great catapult experiment....it’s quite simple...students learn about Medieval catapults and construct their own catapults using a ping pong ball as a missile. The lesson plan says students measure how far their projectile travels and modify their designs accordingly. Results are recorded,  conclusions are drawn and the activity is written up as a scientific experiment.  What could possibly go wrong? I got the idea from observing a lesson at a UK primary school.  The English students happily engaged with the experiement and I wanted their Zanzibar counterparts to have the same opportunity.  You’d never have this type of lesson here due to lack of resources, large class sizes and the tradtion of rote learning rather than experience-based learning.

You’re probably not surprised to learn that there are quite a few differences between running this in the UK and in Zanzibar!  In the UK there  were 2 adults and 30 children in one room grouped around tables designed for team working. In Unguju Ukuu there were 75 students and 2 adults spread over 2 classrooms where the wooden desks are so heavy you can’t move them.  It turned out there was only one responsible adult as Sadiq was more interested in building his own catapult than supervising a class.  Our friend Richard Harris was darting around, but he was focused on taking these beautiful photos rather than getting involved in the experiment. Meanwhile Gasica and Caroline were powering through “Work Readiness” training (part 3) and just occasionally stopping by to find out what all the noise was about.  Due to a limited amount of equipment (10 coloured sticks, 1 ping pong ball, 3 elastic bands, sticky tape and a pair of scissors per team), we divided the students into groups of 5 or 6.  With the benefit of hindsight, smaller groups would have been better. We attempted to get equal numbers of older and younger students in each team. For cultural reasons boys and girls are always separated.  They sit in different areas of the classroom and never work together.  There’s always lots ofspirited competition between the boys and the girls and yes Sadiq and I did crank up the male/female competitiveness shamelessly.

Results:  Ping pong balls proved to be quite a novelty; 3 of 11 balls didn’t survive the class.  Much English was used in trying to elicit more equipment from me, but we stuck to the rules and it was only 3 elastic bands, even if they broke.A girls team completed the challenge first.  A good half an hour before any other team.  Their ping pong ball also traveled the furthest – 6.9 metres!  Seven of 11 groups successfully made catapults in the time allocated.  All 4 boys teams made successful catapults, but only 5 girls teams made successful catapults (but everyone claimed they would have done if they’d had more time). 

Conclusions: The highspot was a chaotic and ruthlessly competitive finale.  It was taken over by the boys and their triumphant war dances.  Teacher Sadiq proudly fired his catapult and did the wildest war dance. The winning girls team declined to participate in the finale and preferred to rest on their laurels for completing the task so quickly. One boy said it made him as happy as he feels after a piece of cake. 

And the differences between teaching this class in the UK and in Zanzibar? Well the catapults looked much the same. Initially the Zanzibari students were perpelexed by the lack of direction, but they soon formed cohesive teams to complete the exercise and sent out spies to see what other teams were doing. The novelty of the experiment combined with exotic ping pong balls made this the highlight of the week for everyone. As they do in life, the Zanzibar students find extraordinary delight in very little.  Richard and I couldn’t stop smiling. The next day everyone settled back onto their hard wooden benches and wrote up the experiment learning quite a bit of English along the way.  As a reward for hard work they loved reliving the great catapult experiment by watching Richard’s fabulous photos on TV.

Sorry Caroline and Gasica that the experiment has left no time for the great work that they’ve been doing, but they can make up for lack of air time next week!