(Summer ’15) Sofia Essayan-Perez, ’15

Sofia Essayan-Perez (’15, Brain and Cognitive Sciences)

Sofia is an ESG-PSC Summer Fellow, jointly supported by the Experimental Studies Group and the Public Service Center.

Sofia will work on strengthening math and science education in rural high schools in Nicaragua. Building on previous collaborations with healthcare providers, teachers, administrators, and students, she will create lesson plans for math and science courses that are grounded in local health problems. Sofia will also teach students to create educational videos for math, science, and humanities courses; these efforts will develop low-cost pedagogical resources while integrating technology in the classroom. Her goal is to promote peer-to-peer instruction, improve teacher training, as well as integrate understanding of basic math and science with community health.


Entry 4: Community Voice – Diego

During my Fellowship, students at both of Diria’s high schools have been actively involved in creating educational videos to expand pedagogical resources in this low-income and rural area, while explaining math and science concepts in ways that were related to the local context. In this blog post, I am sharing the perspective of Diego, who was in the initial group of students involved with creating educational videos (when this aspect of my fieldwork first began several years ago). Here, he shares his perspective on creating an educational video for a second time, and on assuming a greater leadership role in teaching his peers to create videos.

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Image 1: Diego, in front of the Diria Institute High School entrance (© Sofia Essayan-Perez 2015)


Hello, my name is Diego, and I am a student in grade 11 [senior year] at the Diria Institute High School. I decided to continue being involved in the project of creating educational videos and to make another video this year, because I wanted to teach my peers how they could also make educational videos in a simple and easy-to-understand way. This was important to me because it is a skill that can help future generations of students.


This time, I created a video on Logarithmic functions, and I selected it when I noticed that many of my peers struggled with this topic. We related our concept to environmental protection and the Guanacaste tree that is located on the high school’s property. The branches of the tree helped us to illustrate the concept of exponents, and then we were able to show students how to work backwards as a way of thinking about logarithms. The point of this is to make a math concept easier for my peers to understand.


When comparing classes where my teachers explain theories and classes where we use educational videos, I have noticed that I retain more information when I watch a video. I have noticed that my peers also pay more attention, as we are able to analyze how to problem-solve, since the videos include step-by-step solutions to sample questions. I feel like the videos have helped me understand a lot, as they explain the theoretical part step-by-step, and then include a practice problem to reinforce the concept.


I have most enjoyed the dynamic aspect of making a video, and how my work is also important for helping my peers to understand a concept. It’s fun and I can help others learn. It’s been an honor to participate in this project, and I will miss it a lot next year, since this is my last year at the Diria Institute [High School]. Compared to the first time I participated, the project has changed very much; there are now lots of videos that serve as resources for our school, and I feel like the videos have become even more dynamic. As this was my second video, I was able to create this one without any of the fear and doubt that I experienced in my first video. I have felt more enthusiastic, especially because I can now teach my peers too. I hope that future students entering their senior year will be able to watch this video and learn from it.



Image 2: Diego (fifth from left) and some of the grade 11 participants (© Sofia Essayan-Perez 2015)



Image 3: Other grade 11 participants who created educational videos (© Sofia Essayan-Perez 2015)



Image 4: Students in grade 7 who participated in the project, and who will benefit from the videos made by Diego and his classmates in the future (© Sofia Essayan-Perez 2015)



Entry 3: Community Voice – Sara

Over the past years of work with the Diria community in rural Nicaragua, I have worked closely with their health center. An important component of this project is to catalyze partnerships between the local high schools and the community health center. Previously, there was very little interaction between schools and the clinic. As a result of integrating the local health and STEM education resources, STEM concepts can be explained and made tangible to students by using examples of local health challenges, while at the same time educating students on public health and prevention. The collaboration between Diria’s high schools and clinic has come a long ways – the health workers now enter the schools to deliver talks with greater pedagogical resources and have even started hosting quiz tournaments to pique students’ interest in learning about health! Sara, RN and Head of the Nursing Unit in the local clinic, volunteered to share her perspective of the project.


Hi, my name is Sara. I am a Registered Nurse and I work in Diria’s health center. I am in charge of the Nursing Unit and I also lead the program on teen pregnancy prevention. Our goal is to work with adolescent youth to prevent unplanned pregnancies that can lead to complications, through family planning sessions. Teen pregnancy is a serious concern for the Ministry of Health, because there are still so many cases of pregnancies among 12- and 14-year-olds.


The health problems that we encounter vary by season. Right now, it is the summer and the rainy season, so we see colds, pneumonia, respiratory problems, and, due to the accumulated rainwater, there are more dengue and chikungunya cases. The population comes to our health center, which is small. We teach preventative measures for infectious disease on a daily basis to the population, providing them with information. Right now, we have a dengue epidemic, and the children and elderly are most often affected. Our primary role as a health center is to focus on prevention. We strive to prevent illnesses before people catch the disease. If a patient comes in with the disease, then we work on treatment. But our main goal is always prevention.


The educational videos and lesson plans have helped us a lot, and have had an impact because we [the health center workers] have now actually been able to enter the schools with didactic materials. The video-making tools [camera kit, didactic materials] that we can now access have helped us be more effective when we teach students. The Ministry of Health provides really few resources and materials, which makes entering schools and speaking to students difficult. Without didactic tools, it is hard to have an impact, because there is a lack of resources to teach health and prevention. With the videos, we are able to use them in our talks to students, and teachers are able to use them in the classroom too. These videos have been excellent – health is very much about prevention, so when students watch the videos, the information sticks with them and they understand preventative measures better.


Partnerships between local high schools and clinics are important, necessary, and essential because this makes imparting public health information more impactful, such as when we give our talks on preventing teen pregnancy in high schools. In addition to our talks in the high schools and our use of educational videos, we have started a coordinated effort between the Ministry of Family Affairs, Ministry of Health, and Ministry of Education to have a quiz tournament competition between Diria’s high schools on pregnancy prevention. This helps to equip students with more knowledge on preventable health issues.


There are still many significant needs in the health center. For instance, we lack technology that allows us to disseminate public health information to the community. We need better ways for the broader population to see, through videos, what we normally tell them individually when they visit our health clinic. If patients can watch videos on public health issues while in the waiting room, for example, then a greater number of people can learn preventative methods for infectious disease or other conditions. We need ways to disseminate information more efficiently through the health center.



Image 1: Diria’s health clinic (© Sofia Essayan-Perez 2015)



Image 2: Sara, RN (left), receiving some of the didactic materials for the clinic’s collaborations to create lesson plans and educational videos for STEM concepts and local health issues (© Sofia Essayan-Perez 2015)



Entry 2:

I started my fieldwork with preliminary meetings with the high schools’ directors, as well as chemistry, math, physics, and biology teachers. We reviewed our common goals for the month, talked about the methodology we developed with the teachers and students since 2011, and discussed the lesson plans and videos produced so far. As fieldwork and observation with an anthropological lens is crucial for targeting deficiencies and maintaining strengths, I spent my first days shadowing each of the science and math teachers in the classroom. It was especially rewarding to see several teachers provide practical examples that relate to everyday life in their classrooms, thereby implementing this goal of the methodology we developed in my previous visits. For instance, the physics teacher provided optical illusion examples when discussing optics, one math teacher related fractions to local artisans in garment manufacturing, and another teacher discussed trigonometric relations in the context of light posts in the village. In all, I felt the teachers were much more attuned to how important it is to make math and science practical and relevant for students, to spark their interest in these classes.



Image 1: Math class at the Diria Institute high school (© Sofia Essayan-Perez 2015)


Early in my second week of fieldwork, I was fascinated to see that my goal of tackling health and educational challenges in a combined way is taking shape in new projects initiated by the community. The local health clinic and Diria’s high schools are working together to host biology quiz tournaments, a new competition for the municipality, on topics such as teen pregnancy. Teen pregnancy is a persistent problem in Diria, and the region ranks among the highest in teen pregnancies across the country. The clinic provided each member on co-ed teams representing Diria’s Institute and Palo Quemado high school with material to learn on teen pregnancy (causes, consequences, and prevention); both schools then competed publicly, with a closely contested result (Palo Quemado’s students ultimately won). Seeing the high schools and clinic begin collaborations and initiatives on their own is very exciting to me. After speaking with Sara, one of Diria’s nurses who collaborates with my project each year, it became clear that the methodology I developed is helping to create a closer relationship between health clinics and schools. In this methodology, local health problems are used to explain underlying science and math concepts, thereby promoting greater public health understanding as well as making STEM relevant to the students. I will be sharing an interview with Sara soon as a “Community Voice” blog post. Health and education are often seen as disconnected, but tackling problems that affect both fields in a combined way is now resulting in more cross-talk between local clinics and schools.



Image 2: Diria’s health clinic, with blue dividers indicating the temporary ward for patients with unconfirmed dengue (© Sofia Essayan-Perez, 2015)


In my second week, I provided both the Palo Quemado and Diria Institute schools with the new educational video-making kits (the background on this project is in Entry 1). Both schools were very excited to upgrade to cameras with more features, along with the necessary accessories for filming and then playing the resulting student-made videos. Interestingly, the Diria Institute decided to invite parents to the event – in total, over 100 parents attended, which was truly outstanding interest on the part of the community! I spoke about the video-making initiatives that students in the high school were participating in, focusing on how teachers were gaining more resources for their classes and how students were gaining mastery of STEM concepts, while relating the topics to local socioeconomic activities or health challenges. As well, the Diria Institute’s and Palo Quemado’s previous educational video-making kits were donated to the largest primary school in the municipality and a brand-new high school (further away, in another district of the municipality), enabling more students and teachers to access equipment readily and develop pedagogical resources.


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Image 3: Training teachers at the high school in Palo Quemado to create educational videos with new equipment (© Sofia Essayan-Perez 2015)


A substantial part of my second week was spent initiating the educational video-making process. I am working with students from grades 7 through 11 at both high schools, with over 70 students volunteering to participate. In my initial meetings with each classroom, I presented a previously made video as a sample and explained the steps involved. It was mind-boggling to see how the students would walk into the classroom exuberantly, some struggling to keep up with a class, and then how the room would go entirely quiet once the video was playing, with all eyes glued to the wall where the video was being projected (they have no screen). In each classroom I visited, the reaction of the students to the videos was always the same, demonstrating how effective peer-to-peer education can be for STEM concepts.



Image 4: Grade 11 students at the Diria Institute high school work on preparing their educational videos for math concepts (© Sofia Essayan-Perez 2015)


Towards the end of the week, I helped each team involved in video-making to select a topic, according to their interests and the teacher’s list of concepts that students struggle with most. I also worked with the students begin the drafts of the explanations and examples they would provide in the videos; this is a consistently effective step, as students learn to explain math or science concepts in their own words and brainstorm how they apply to everyday situations in their village. I promote the connection with local health challenges at this moment, which is based on my fieldwork with the local clinic (which was also in this second week). The next meetings with students and teachers are to finalize their drafts for the videos, rehearse (a crucial step for identifying mistakes and what aspects of a concept the students are still struggling with), and then film!



Entry 1:

Greetings from Diria, Nicaragua! I am thrilled to be continuing my ongoing projects at the intersection of STEM and public health education, with the support of MIT PSC Fellowships since 2011 and an ESG-PSC Fellowship for 2015. When I landed, I had wonderful views of two Nicaraguan volcanoes (I had the same view last year, during my 2014 Fellowship!) and of Managua, the capital:


Image 1: Momotombo and Momotombito Volcanoes (© Sofia Essayan-Perez, 2015)




Image 2: Managua from above (© Sofia Essayan-Perez, 2015)


During July-August 2015, I am working to strengthen math and science education in two high schools of Diria, a rural and low-income municipality in Nicaragua. One high school is located in the village of Diria, and the other in Palo Quemado (an even more rural zone of the Diria municipality). Both accommodate grades 7 through 11, totaling over 500 students and 25 teachers. In 2011, 21% of the grade 7 students in Diria did not pass their math class. The challenge of building a solid high school math foundation is faced nationwide; only 9% of public high school graduates passed the math entrance exam for university admission (Torres, 2015). The Diria community faces several local obstacles when teaching science and math: the high schools lack textbooks, labs, instructional technology, and teacher training.


Since Fall 2011, I have been working with the Diria community to help them teach math and science in a way that is relevant for low-income students, particularly by using examples grounded in their daily socioeconomic activities and local health problems. This approach engages students in discussing problems that their community faces, and allows them to see how math and science can be used for improving living conditions in their village. I focus on linking the local health clinic and both high schools to educate students about pressing public health issues while teaching them the underlying science and math. Such methodology was developed alongside the local teachers, administrators, parents, and students through my extensive fieldwork and immersion during each MIT-funded trip. This approach is implemented in three ways:

1)    Lesson plans developed with teachers that incorporate locally relevant applications of theoretical concepts, as well as in-class exercises and homework problems.

2)    Student-made educational videos to promote peer-to-peer instruction and inspire students to connect classroom concepts to health problems or socioeconomic activities of their community.

3)    Training sessions for teachers to gain the capabilities to design their own lesson plans and lead video-making projects using this methodology for math, chemistry, and biology classes.


These initiatives in Diria are having an impact on a national scale; the collection of over 30 lesson plans that I developed with the Diria community are now shared on an online platform for teachers nation-wide. Teachers can access these resources, spreading the methodology to high school students across Nicaragua.


For my month-long fellowship, I have the following goals:

1)    Create more lesson plans (teaching modules) that will fill the resource gaps and meet the needs for teachers, using local health problems as a basis for contextualizing math and science concepts. This connection between health and education also continues enhancing the partnership between Diria’s health clinic and high schools.

2)    Expand the scope of educational videos that employ peer-to-peer teaching. Educational videos allow students to choose a topic of interest and teach it in video format, which teachers can then share with the other students in the class. As a result, students take ownership of a concept by explaining it using voice and visuals, and this helps teachers build a “library” of videos that they can keep using in the future. This trip, I am expanding the scope in two ways: first, more students are involved, since I am working with the community during their school year (which follows a different academic calendar than in North America); second, teachers from English and Spanish classes requested incorporating educational videos in their classes, and are now learning how to introduce this technology into their teaching program.

3)    Build educational video-making capabilities in more schools of the Diria municipality. Through my ESG-PSC Fellowship, two new educational video-making kits were donated to the two main high schools of the municipality. The kits that these schools had since 2013 were handed-down to the largest primary school in the municipality, and to a new high school that has opened in a remote area of Diria that resembles Palo Quemado. I will be training staff from the Diria Ministry of Education and from the new beneficiaries this month, in addition to other teachers at the two Diria high schools where I normally work.


Additionally, I am also gathering footage to create a mini-documentary of the projects upon my return.


I have also had the chance to enjoy some of the local fauna, including howling monkeys and mango-eating squirrels!

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Image 3: Howler monkeys in Diria (© Sofia Essayan-Perez, 2015)



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Image 4: Mango-eating squirrels (© Sofia Essayan-Perez, 2015)


I am very excited to be interacting with the Diria community over the next few weeks!

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