“If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it”

This a guest post from Jeremy Leaf, a third year PhD student in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Nottingham and a member of the ENTHUSE project team.


It is one of our first electronics sessions. An Ethiopian teacher is learning how to use a multimeter and breadboard. Having measured the resistance of a number of discrete resistors using a multimeter, I suggest he try to measure them in series using the breadboard. He chooses two resistors and, on paper, calculates what the total resistance should be. He then carefully measures across both resistors in series. The teacher’s face lights up as he breaks into a wide smile. The theory is correct.

The process of learning a physical theory, and then observing it manifest itself in an experiment, is a vital pathway to understanding physics. It allows us to grasp difficult concepts and truly understand their nature. Unfortunately, in Ethiopia, physics education stops at the textbook. The education system has neither the funds nor expertise to employ physical experiments in their schools. Our assignment was to show how experimental physics could be taught using locally available materials. We also employed some more advanced apparatus, such as multimeters and breadboards, in the hope that they would be able to acquire these in time.

Simple apparatus and experimental concepts that we take for granted are often totally new to many physics teachers in Ethiopia.  This project was an exciting opportunity to make a small but meaningful impact on the futures of those who go to school here, as well as forge a link between our two countries. Education is key for this country to develop a generation of young Ethiopians that can think critically and creatively. I feel immensely privileged to have been a part of that process.

Getachew’s dream

This is a guest post by Tiago Gonçalves, a third year MSci Physics with Theoretical Physics student at the University of Nottingham and a member of the ENTHUSE project team.

While I was busy being born, Getachew was busy finishing his physics degree. Now, Getachew has a dream.

After graduating he became a teacher, but he is not content with the teaching of physics in his homeland – Ethiopia. He would like all children to have access to a good physics education: less textbooks, more hands-on.

He did not keep dreaming, but got cracking. Three years ago, he took part in a physics teachers’ training course (Bill (Poole) and Christine (Cleave) came here at the time). Now, he is himself an Ethiopian National Trainer, working for the Ministry of Education.  The National Trainers instruct Regional Trainers, handing on what they learnt from sessions like those we are delivering this week, in a “cascade” process. (This is interesting wording since we are here thanks to a Cascade Grant, part of the Impact Campaign and the University of Nottingham’s grants programme).

It’s not easy, though. There are many schools in the country, and it just can’t afford to import practical physics equipment for all of them. However, Getachew believes you don’t need to have expensive equipment – physics is all around and you can use locally available materials to build your own equipment. That’s exactly what he is hoping to develop together with the other national trainers and with our help.

A physics enthusiast, twenty years after his first degree Getachew is now specializing in nuclear physics and will be supporting the Ministry of Education for a further six years. He is aware that the cascade process has disadvantages as well as advantages, so he wants to improve the system to make sure all children will have a much better experience with physics.

And after the six years? He is not sure, “God knows”. Something is certain: he will keep striving to build, day by day, a better future for physics, for his country, for his children.

Siletewaweqin dess bilognal, Ethiopia

I’m writing this from a room in the Ras Amba hotel in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia having arrived here on Friday morning for the ENTHUSE (ENhancing THe Understanding of PhySics in Ethiopia (ENTHUSE): Student-led Outreach) project. (Please excuse the rather tortured and tortuous route to a memorable acronym for the project title. I’ve clearly written too many European grant proposals…)

ENTHUSE is a project funded largely by the University of Nottingham’s Cascade campaign but involves close collaboration and support from the Institute of Physics. I’m also very grateful to the School of Physics and Astronomy for contributing not only financially but in many other more indirect, though no-less important, ways.  The key objectives and motivations for ENTHUSE are to connect with the physics teaching community in Ethiopia, to share ideas and experience about teaching experimental physics, and, if I can quote my Head of School, to broaden “the experience for the students, involving the development of new teaching materials and demonstrations, and the delivery of that content in a completely different environment, [providing] a truly life-changing opportunity“.

I’m here in Ethiopia for the next week as a member of a team of eight comprising three undergrads (Emma Woods, Jarrod Lewis, and Tiago Goncalves) and one postgrad (Jeremy Leaf) from Physics & Astronomy at Nottingham; Christine Cleave and Bill Poole who are representing the IOP and who have enthusiastically and tirelessly driven the IOP’s Physics in Ethiopia project for the past seven years; and Sean Riley, a film-maker who works closely with Brady Haran and is responsible for the very popular Computerphile series of videos.

My aim is to provide daily updates on our time in Ethiopia via this blog. (I’ll do my best. Promise.) I also hope to upload guest posts from the students involved with ENTHUSE over the coming week.

Unfortunately, our arrival into Addis Ababa Bole airport yesterday did not initially bode well for the week ahead — Sean’s main camera (and all of its associated multi-faceted widgets) was, in essence, impounded (despite us being weighed down with the appropriate documentation, lists, letters, and visas). Luckily, however, we had a second camera with us, which Sean has ingeniously mod-ed so that the filming can go ahead. (We’re also hoping that Sean’s main camera will be released early next week.)

Today was spent exploring Addis Ababa, before we travel south to Adama tomorrow to prepare for the training course for high school physics teachers we’re running there next week. Addis Ababa is fascinating. Founded less than 150 years ago (by the Emperor Menelik II) it now has an estimated population of nearly 3.5M (although there are claims that the figure is actually closer to 5M) which, according to the Wiki page, is made up of 80 or more different nationalities speaking 80 different languages. Addis, or at least the region of Ethiopia in which its based, can also lay a strong claim to being the “birthplace” of humanity;  the skeleton of Lucy is preserved here at the National Museum of Ethiopia.

Addis is a city of deep contrasts — I was struck by the extent to which areas of relative affluence (shopping malls, cinemas, restaurants) exist practically side-by-side with shanty towns. Walking through the poorer areas of the city put all of my First World problems and concerns right into perspective; it was a humbling and unsettling — and necessarily unsettling  — experience.

We visited Entoto, a village in the suburbs of Addis Ababa close to the summit of Mount Entoto, passing by countless heavily-laden donkeys on the way there. Ethiopia has one of the highest donkey populations in the world and they are used to carry a wide range of commodities.  As discussed by Gebreab and colleagues, in Ethiopia donkeys make a major contribution to transport, and thus are a key contributor to the local economy.

An information-packed guided tour around the Emperor Menelik and Empress Taitu Memorial Museum at Entoto was followed by a visit to the Maryam Church, an octagonal construction (to represent the seven archangels + their god).

We then returned to Addis and met up with a number of the teachers who will be involved with the training programme. I’ll not tell you too much about the training programme itself for the moment, as it’ll be the focus of not only future blog posts but also a Sixty Symbols video (or two).

At this point we were all keen for a coffee break. The coffee plant originates in Ethiopia and so coffee is very much part of the culture here.  As someone with a long-standing interest in all things caffeine-related (including the deep links between coffee and quantum physics), I was particularly keen to have a coffee in the birthplace of the drink. We stopped off at a traditional Ethiopian coffee shop and sampled the local ‘brew’. Let’s just say we were not disappointed…

The day finished off with a meal at the Yod Abysinnia restaurant. As a vegetarian I was a little concerned as to the variety of food that would be available — raw meat is very popular in Ethiopia — but I needn’t have been concerned. There were plenty of vegetarian options (as part of the fasting menu). Even better than the food, however, was the traditional Ethiopian music and dance; the performances were stunning. I’ll leave you with a short clip.

Another update tomorrow, internet connection willing, when we reach Adama.