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Franklin Institute helps open schools - in Egypt

To most, the Franklin Institute might be known for its big walk-through replica of the heart, blockbuster shows, and, starting this summer, a new wing with a Big Brain.

Students from the Maadi STEM Schools for Girls prepare to use their Fab Lab's Shopbot to cut a standing desk they helped design. Photo courtesy: Justin Duffy
Students from the Maadi STEM Schools for Girls prepare to use their Fab Lab's Shopbot to cut a standing desk they helped design. Photo courtesy: Justin DuffyRead more

To most, the Franklin Institute might be known for its big walk-through replica of the heart, blockbuster shows, and, starting this summer, a new wing with a Big Brain.

But more quietly, the Franklin, in partnership with three other U.S. institutions, has embarked on an ambitious mission to help open science high schools in Cairo and science centers around the globe.

Funded in part with a $25 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), an arm of the federal government, two schools not far from Giza have opened so far: the 6th of October STEM School for Boys, and the Maadi STEM Schools for Girls, both boarding schools, with a combined 550 students.

Two more high schools, both coed, are scheduled to open in the fall in other Egyptian cities: in the Borg el Arab district of Alexandria and in Gamasa in Daqahleya. A fifth school is tentatively planned farther down the Nile, in Assiut.

Frederic M.N. Bertley, the Franklin Institute's senior vice president for science, sees it as part of an ongoing effort to open science schools wherever the opportunity presents itself - in Cairo, or in Philadelphia, replicating the success of Franklin Institute partner Science Leadership Academy (SLA), the charter school at 22d and Arch Streets.

"It's kind of like, 'Hey, Philadelphia, across the planet they're interested in what we're doing.' I hope it gets the attention of some folks in Philadelphia," Bertley said, referring to the long pause since SLA's opening in 2006 and the Franklin's strong desire to establish more schools in Philadelphia.

Starting schools in Cairo has not been without its hurdles. They opened on a tight timeline, and political turmoil is a constant presence. Bertley and his American staff were forced into a hasty (but temporary) retreat last summer when President Mohamed Morsi was overthrown by the Egyptian army.

But already, the schools are showing signs of success. In May, six students in two teams from the Maadi STEM School will travel to Los Angeles for the Intel-sponsored International Science and Engineering Fair global competition. Sifted from among millions of proposals, theirs will join 1,600 others competing for $4 million in prizes.

Both projects the girls developed created systems to produce potable water, one by using nanotechnology for desalinization, the other a coagulation process to remove impurities. It is perhaps easier to see why the Middle East needs water than why the Franklin Institute needs Egypt. But, actually, the Franklin is already heavily involved in education and outreach, devoting 23 percent of its $27 million budget to it this year. The Egyptian side was clear.

"This is historically one of the greatest science and engineering countries in the world," Bertley said. "Egypt figured it out 4,000 years ago. And today, while there are a lot of kids who get very high test scores, they can't do anything when they get out of school - they can memorize anything, but they can't problem-solve."

The idea of importing a different kind of learning from Philadelphia arose in August 2011, when USAID brought a delegation from the Egyptian Ministry of Education to see STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) schools in the United States, and Science Leadership Academy was on the list.

The Egyptian officials liked what they saw, and sought assistance from USAID. The need was urgent. The boys' school was opening in September, and by the end of the year, USAID had awarded emergency technical assistance to the Ministry of Education and the 6th of October STEM school. By the following August, the $25 million grant had been awarded to the Franklin Institute and its three partners. The girls' school opened a month later.

Each partner manages a different part of the project. The Franklin provides training to the teachers and school leaders, and extracurricular activities; the 21st Century Partnership for STEM Education in Conshohocken develops curriculum and assessment testing; the Teaching Institute for Excellence in STEM (TIES) in Cleveland installed fabrication labs and trains teachers in interdisciplinary projects addressing real-life problems like access to clean water; World Learning in Washington is the project's fiscal agent.

The Egyptian government pays for the bricks and mortar, teacher salaries, and other costs. The aim is to provide a prototype that centers more on project-based learning than high test scores and that the Egyptian government can take over and grow after the USAID grant runs out in two years.

Why Egypt? Strategically, it is enormously important to the U.S., which typically provides about $1.5 billion in military and humanitarian aid to the country each year - second only to Israel.

"They have a huge young population, half under the age of 25, and Egypt is very influential in the region, and education is a key part of that," says Joseph Merlino, president of the 21st Century Partnership for STEM Education. "Their current educational system does not match the skill set you need for a global economy. There is huge unemployment. So the problem the Egyptians have is they have 17 million kids in the educational system, but essentially a single school district, so innovation is not common. What these schools represent is a total break from what they currently have."

USAID's funding of the project is part of a larger U.S. government goal of encouraging careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics not only in the Middle East and North Africa, but elsewhere. During the last two years, USAID has changed its approach to international development in the belief that breakthroughs in science and technology can help bring an end to extreme poverty, a USAID spokeswoman said. Poverty and political instability often go hand in hand.

Bertley, too, has ambitions beyond Cairo. In Paraguay, he has opened the Benjamin Franklin Science Corner with the help of the U.S. Embassy in Asunción, hosting lectures and programs. He hopes to open more of these with other U.S. embassies around the world.

"I would love to support two dozen Science Corners all over the world," Bertley said. STEM education is the way forward in countries around the world, Bertley said, and "the Franklin Institute and its resources can be the gold standard to do that. Benjamin Franklin was the ambassador to France, so to the extent we can make other countries better, that aligns with our mission."