Photo credit: Paul Hinshaw, Public Affairs Officer, U.S. State Department
Two groups of students— one in Liberia and one at Collins Hill HS— have different backgrounds, cultures, and educational experiences, but once a month they share a common classroom… 5,000 miles apart.
The digital exchange got its start last school year as a way for Bobbie Greene’s students to learn about the work of Andrew Parks, a civil engineer based in Africa. While the Collins Hill students were interested in the practical application of Mr. Park’s STEM skills, they were especially keen on learning more about his travels in developing countries and the cultures he had encountered in the course of his work as a Foreign Service officer with the U.S. Agency for International Development. Wouldn’t it be cool to have pen pals in another country?, they asked. Ms. Greene immediately got to work on a proposal to use video technology to connect her students in Georgia with young people in Liberia.
The students’ interest was no surprise to Ms. Greene who structures the academic content of her 10th grade STEM/Language Arts course around the themes of culture, communication, and collaboration, and those three C’s are embedded in each lesson. Students earn two credits for the hybrid course, a blend of language arts instruction and a STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) elective.
Fast forward to this school year. Ms. Greene’s proposal resulted in a partnership with the U.S. Embassy and Cathedral Catholic HS, both in Monrovia, Liberia. Each month, the students from the two schools “meet” via digital video conference. During each video conference, “panelists” represent the two schools as subject experts while their classmates observe. In their first session last fall, the students got to know one another. Subsequent visits have centered on education, teens’ social life in their respective communities, culture and traditions, and the historical connection between the U.S. and Liberia.
Paul Hinshaw, a public affairs officer with the U.S. State Department, works with the Liberian school to assemble a group of about 30 students for each session, including a panel of speakers selected by their teachers. Because access to technology is limited, the Liberian students meet at the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia where Mr. Hinshaw facilitates the session.
At the end of each virtual meeting, students from both schools collaborate to determine topics they might be interested in discussing next time they connect. From those topics, Mr. Hinshaw and Ms. Greene decide on themes and put together an agenda. The Collins Hill students use a digital discussion board in eCLASS (the district’s integrated learning management system) to brainstorm, share opinions, and make a case for serving as a subject-area expert for the next panel discussion with their African counterparts.
Faith, one of the Collins Hill students, says the miles don’t matter. "Observing how the panels interact with each other has taught me how even though we are thousands of miles away, we aren't all that different.”
As much as high school students in the two countries may have in common, Jared is quick to point out that the monthly video conferences also highlight the differences that make him appreciate how privileged he is. “During the first conference, the Liberian students mentioned their civil war and how it affected their lives,” he says. “During the second conference, they explained their education system and its limitations such as the lack of proper equipment and technology. After hearing this I became even more grateful for the material things that make my life a little easier every day."
The obstacles that the Liberian students face in pursuing a STEM career have inspired the next step in the intercontinental partnership. In preparation for the April 13 video conference, Ms. Greene and her class will be producing videos in which the Collins Hill students will teach math and science concepts through practical application, such as lab experiments and projects. The STEM-Ed videos will reflect STEM topics requested by the Liberian students as well as a focus on critical-thinking skills and authentic connections between real-world STEM and classroom lessons.
Ms. Greene explains that students in developing countries may learn theory in a content area like STEM but never have the opportunity— because of lack of resources, time, or both— to apply that theory in practice. “We hope to inspire those students to find ways to apply science and math concepts and practice their critical thinking in ways that are relevant to their environment, society, and culture,” she says.
Kierra says that her Liberian peers are dedicated to their education, despite limited opportunities, an attitude that she finds inspiring. "Our video conferences with Liberia have had a significant impact on my outlook towards my own education and future career,” she says.
That’s a sentiment shared by her classmates. “It has been an interesting experience to learn about how other students want to learn but don't have the [same] opportunities,” says Angel. “It makes me look at all of the opportunities we have here at CHHS and re-evaluate times when I didn’t make the most of those opportunities. I feel like I want to do even better in school.” Giancarlo agrees, “We are inspired by the way they don’t take education for granted like we often do.”
Their teacher sees that same commitment in the young people with whom they’ve connected in Monrovia. “Having grown up in a country that has struggled to recover after years of civil war, the Liberian students are acutely aware that they are responsible for the future success of their country,” Ms. Greene says. “Students skilled in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math will be the ones who propel Liberia into the future they envision.”
She says her students’ written reflections on each video session show that the cultural exchange has broadened their view of the world and helped them value their own educational experience. “I hope they come away from the experience feeling proud that they were part of building connections with and teaching STEM concepts to young people on the other side of the world,” Ms. Greene says of the “STEM Ambassadors” at her school. “They are in a unique position to inspire and guide peers in our global society to work toward careers that will help them improve and develop their countries in lasting ways.”