Saturday, November 2, 2013

Working at Bunda College

It may be hard to believe, given that most (all?) of our posts so far have been about fun activities or day-to-day activities, but I have been quite busy working most of the time we’ve been here. My Fulbright award is focused on two components:
  1. Providing training and education in the open-source R statistical language.
  2. Follow up on some research on maize roots that I have been pursuing with colleagues at PSU and Bunda College here in Malawi since 2010.
I’ve been teaching “Introduction to the R statistical language” for the dept of Statistics at Penn State since 2011, so I had a lot of teaching material prepared. However the format of my teaching here has unexpectedly shifted. What I have taught at PSU is a full semester course, and we originally planned to do something similar here at Bunda. As often happens, circumstances forced a change of plans. A student strike last year at Bunda forced a closing of the campus for a while and led to shift in the academic calendar – the term which previously had begun in September now begins the first week of November. So instead of teaching a full course, we decided I should offer a 3-day intensive workshop introducing R.

In order to do this, I updated (almost) all my teaching materials, and I have now created my own textbook “Essential R”. So far I have offered the workshop three times. First for a motivated group of graduating Seniors (Fourth years), who hung on for three intense days having just completed their final examinations. Next for about a dozen graduate students, and finally for a small but excited group of faculty.

Current plans are for me to offer 8-10 evening sessions (spread over 4 or 5 weeks) for the new cohort of graduate students. In addition, I will soon finish recording screencast videos for my “Essential R” book. These will form the nucleus of a website that I will set up at Bunda so that my instructional materials will be accessible to students at Bunda even after I am gone.

Many of the commercial statistical software packages are quite expensive (think thousands of dollars), so one appeal of the open-source language "R" is that it is free. This is particularly important in places like Malawi. Students who learn to use R for analysis don't need to worry that the tools they have invested time into learning won't be available in whatever institution they go to work for.

 I’ve actually been very glad to have the time to update these materials, and am hoping I can use them for my class at PSU also, which I will continue to teach as an online course for the world campus. Recording these videos has been a bit of a challenge – there is loud bank of air-conditioners just outside my office window, making that an unsuitable location for recording. I have found that I can work on videos at home while the children are at school, although I do sometimes get interrupted by neighborhood boys looking for Joel. I’ve also found a quiet room at the college library that work also.

The second focus of my work – the research – will keep me busy next week, since it is time to harvest. We have planted 11 varieties of maize in a replicated drought trial (it is the dry season, so if you stop irrigating, you can easily create drought stress). Ten of these lines are “land races” – open pollinated local varieties, and one is an “improved” commercial line. Our goal is to compare the root architecture of these different plants.

The plants in the foreground are quite stressed, the ones in the back are happier.
We’ve had a few challenges – apparently someone stole the electrical cables that powered the irrigation pump for our part of the farm. So currently they have to pipe water from another part of the farm to irrigate our experiment. This is complicated by the fact that the power outages reduce the amount of time when irrigation can be carried out. Actually, while the term "irrigation" is correct, it may conjure up more technological images than are really warranted. Here irrigation consists of a couple of fellows who water our rows of maize with a hose, carefully filling the small basins upslope of each row with water that can soak into the dry soil.

We also have had some difficulties with plant establishment, so some of our plots have fewer plants than we hoped to see, and so we’ll likely have to adapt our plans somewhat - but I hope we'll learn something in any case.

The three rows in the foreground are all the same variety and should be essentially identical. Clearly we have a problem here.

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