In between our adventuring, traveling, and just generally surviving, we occasionally find time to do some actual work. Last weekend, we helped another volunteer from our town put together and run a science camp over semester break. We each invited 20 of our top students (so 60 students from three high schools in town). Camps like this provide an opportunity for students to do some hands on learning, and practice applying classroom knowledge on real problems. So much of the approach to teaching in Liberia is based on memorization that students don’t often get the chance to see, or tangibly work with, the concepts they’re trying to understand. That’s something we are trying to change.
This camp took place over three days, with a different focus for each day. The first day was all about gender – this included sessions on anatomy, relationships, and gender roles in Liberian society with an eye on challenging gender stereotypes. There is a lot of work to be done in this area, and this was a great first step in getting the conversation started with our students.
To close out the day, and to burn up a bit of energy, we did an activity called a ‘sperm race’. This is a favorite of PCVs in Liberia, because it’s so much fun to watch. Basically, you draw a giant uterus on the ground to be used as a track. Students get to be the sperm, and have to race each other to reach and fertilize the ‘egg’. Typically, this activity ties in with a lesson on the biology of pregnancy, and how different forms of contraception (family planning here) can stop the sperm from reaching the egg. Normally, some type of ball is used in this race to represent the egg, but, as we didn’t have one on hand, I ended up standing in as the egg. I’m sure Amy enjoyed watching the students tackle me at full speed. (Amy here, I did enjoy it very much.)
The second day was all about math. Our morning started with a lesson on calculating averages and how this applies to the real world case of building a house. The challenge then was for our students to travel around to different “stores” to shop for materials and come up with costs to build a real house with specs we provided them. Amy got to run her own store, Van-de-lay Business Center, specializing in the import and export of Liberia’s finest latex based paints and tiles. Let me tell you, she drives a hard bargain.
After lunch, we continued the afternoon with a lesson on surface area, perimeter, and volume, and then asked them to try to determine the number of candies in a jar. The winning team was only off by 13 candies- they totally guessed, but it’s still impressive.
The third and final day was all about engineering. This was a really special day, where the students finally got to flex their critical thinking and creativity to build some things.
For the first activity, they were given tin foil, tape, and spaghetti noodles, and asked to build a boat that could hold the most weight possible. Each boat was tested to see how many nails and washers it could withstand before sinking.
The next activity started with a lesson on what engineering is, followed by a brief overview of momentum and inertia. Then we tasked the kids with building cars out of mousetraps. They were given mousetraps, string, an old flip flop (which was to be cut up in circles to make wheels), and some nails, and a few other odds and ends. Then each was tested to see how far it could go. To close out the day, groups to students performed dramas (skits) to act out an engineering ethics problem. Liberians love to act, and they got very creative.
This camp was planned by a group of Peace Corps volunteers, with the aid of our Liberian counterparts – meaning other teachers/administrators from our schools. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to do work that is sustainable, which is why it’s important to work with Liberians, not just for them. This way they have the potential to do a workshop like this on their own, not needing PC’s help. I was thrilled with the way the counterparts took to the task. They couldn’t wait to throw themselves into every job that needed to be done. For the two counterparts from my school, I had never seen them so enthusiastic. I know Amy feels the same way about hers. (Yes! I was so impressed. It was wonderful to see my teachers and students interact and work together in a more relaxed educational setting. I can’t wait to take this momentum back to my campus and build off it.)
In particular, I must mention my vice principal. During the prep meeting, we asked for one of the counterparts to assist with the session on gender stereotypes, as the content can be sensitive and it is important to get a Liberian on board to get the point across, preferably a male. Having a male teaching helps to fight the idea that gender inequality is only something for women to worry about, which unfortunately is a common perception. My vice principal volunteered almost immediately to help.
When the time for his session came, it was inspiring to watch. Living in a culture where gender equality has a long way to go, it was amazing to watch this Liberian man explain to the kids that the stereotypes that exist between males and females aren’t real, aren’t scientific, and don’t have to rule the way that we think. Seeing him challenge these views and ideas for these kids was moving to see.
The final thing I must mention is how much the kids loved it. In their schools, their learning consist of copying notes off a chalkboard and memorizing it. Thus, seeing the kids get the opportunity to ask questions, engage in discussions, work together, apply what they’ve learned, and share ideas really made us proud.
Amy again, hijacking this post! I just want to share one more story about the camp, specifically about the application process leading up to it. To attend, we asked our students to write some essays as part of the application. One of the questions asked students to imagine they were stranded on a desert island, and about how they could apply scientific knowledge to keep themselves alive. While they didn’t totally understand the premise (not a lot of desert islands around here) they tried and came up with some very creative solutions. Students imagined themselves making welcome signs, finding inspiration from their favorite scientists, making fishing nets from empty plastic bags, and rationing coconut to sustain themselves. My favorite was a student who chose to use his shoelaces as a belt, reasoning that, since he wouldn’t be eating, his pants would get too big and fall down.
We also asked students to write a brief essay about their life. I found these incredibly eye opening, and touching, and sad, and inspiring. Many of my students talked about how they support themselves and their families, how hard they work to pay for school fees for their younger brothers and sisters before their own, and how they study in the middle of night because that’s the only time the house is quiet. They talked about how their lives were affected by the civil war, how their families fled or stayed, and the impact that had on their education. They talked about how they want to become doctors, to help in the future because there was no one there to help their mother/father/sister/brother/community in the past. It’s so easy for us as teachers to get frustrated by how far behind many of them are in their education. It’s so easy to be judgmental, but there is so much more under the surface. We learn that more and more everyday.