Science Professor cooks up experiments on sabbatical

PLAINVIEW – Teaching courses in Kenya has many positives for Wayland Baptist University. Expanding the reach of academic programs in a Christian environment, while helping to spread the Gospel by educating ministers within the African nation, are only a few benefits.

But the partnership with Kenya Baptist Theological College also presents a few challenges, namely due to resources needed in terms of class materials, library resources and financial support to continue the project.

Dr. Gerald Thompson, professor of science at Wayland for the past 37 years, met one of those challenges head-on through a recent sabbatical, solving at least a few problems in the science arena.

Thompson, who has been involved with the Kenya partnership since its inception, has taught Biology 1401 and 1402 (General Biology) for several summer sessions there. Over the past few years, he’s come across some limitations.

“Teaching the class there has some unique problems associated with it, but some good things too,” Thompson said, adding that the lush vegetation around the classrooms – located on the grounds of Brackenhurst Conference Center, is not one of the negative aspects. “It’s located in the highlands just off the equator, so there’s no frost, but also no unbearable heat due to the elevation. You can walk right out of the classroom and find things to use in teaching.”

Those resources became key to Thompson’s need to create biology labs and hands-on experiences to teach the same concepts students in America are learning while overcoming the limitations of the international classroom.

Among those limitations was the difficulty in getting biological supplies to Africa. Thompson explained that his normal suppliers can ship to Kenya, but the added expense is much too high. And while books and other supplies can often be packed in suitcases by faculty and carried overseas, chemicals for science experiments are not allowed.

The result was a little improvisation on Thompson’s part in order to follow the curriculum.

“We’ve found a few places there that we can tap for resources,” Thompson said. “Outside Nairobi, there is a large supermarket that we’ve been able to get some things from, like strawberries for our DNA extraction lab. Also, we can purchase some supplies from ‘dukas,’ vendors that run kiosks in town and sell various things. We’ve purchased seeds for growth experiments from them.”

Some light chemicals, Thompson said, can be purchased from pharmacies in Nairobi, like alcohol, baking soda and ethyl alcohol. One of their students, a pastor, was able to purchase a bottle of sulphuric acid from a car battery salesman for use in some experiments as well.

All this, of course, requires much planning ahead, since Nairobi is 20 miles from Brackenhurst and transportation is not readily available. It also takes ingenuity, like using computer spreadsheet software to devise an experiment in classification of living things, using the rich resources of flora in the area and digital photos. Thompson has also used piles of lawn clippings – saved by the landscapers – to find invertebrates to study.

The science lab does have a few resources of its own, including some older microscopes sent from the Plainview campus. And Thompson stumbled across a kit using nonhazardous materials that measures minerals and pH in water samples, and he’s been able to use that with students on a “field trip” to a nearby lake, letting the students test the water and find all sorts of information.

There are also other resources, like a missionary at Brackenhurst who has been working with churches to reforest the areas and reestablish native forests in Kenya. Thompson enlisted him to help with ecology and conservation lessons. The labs requiring a look at specimens on glass slides has been transformed into a Power Point presentation since the cost of slides prohibits it being done traditionally.

Thompson said the class has also taken some field trips to places in their area like a wild game park, where they are able to do a lesson on ecosystems and classification as well. They’ve also visited the natural history museum in Nairobi and the botanical gardens.

“We’re expected to teach the same concepts there as we do here, but we just have to do it in a different way,” Thompson said. “We replicate as many labs as we can from here, then work on adapting the rest.”