STEM Summer Camp in Cambodia
Where: Rongko High School
When: June, 2014
Who: Professor Reid from Carnegie Mellon University, Teaching Assistant: Susan Sun
I had the privilege to assist Professor Reid to host a summer camp for nearly 80 local students at Rogko High School in Cambodia in June, 2014. At the camp, we worked on games, math and science. The following is my journal at the camp:
Upon arriving in Cambodia, our host first cautioned us to avoid tap water before continuing with anything else. He emphasized that the water in this town is not properly filtered, and filled with germs and pollutants, making it dangerous to drink. In fact, Professor Reid informed me that obtaining clean water is a huge problem in many areas of the world, not just here. I found it so surprising that in the 21st century, in a time of modernity and prosperity, some people do not even have access to clean water.
On the morning of the second day, I traveled to the town to meet our director, Mr. Hubert. He took us to the university he has been building over the past few months with his family. He explained to me that he hoped it to be fully opened in ten years. Next, we went to the high school I would be teaching at, the No. 1 high school in the entire country. Mr. Hubert explained that most high schools “sell” high grades to their students, so while students goof off, they still get a diploma. However, this specific high school focuses on teaching its students properly, on making sure its students truly earn their diplomas. We visited the dean of the high school to discuss the class we would be teaching. I found it impressive that these students knew both algebra, trigonometry, and even calculus. Afterwards, the professor and I went to the New Hope for Orphans.
Roughly thirty children, from ages 5 to 20, live here. I noticed that there were considerably more boys than girls, but whether that was because there were more boy
orphans or that the girls were shy I could not tell. The boys played soccer in the field, and went to join them. Although we do not speak the same language, we could easily understand each other’s gestures on the field, and had a wonderful time. I felt we developed a bond between us during this short period of time. I can only explain our fast bond by the fact that they know I’m not just a random adult coming from a foreign country just to pity them and hand them money, but that I’m another teenager, just like them, coming to spend time with them and improve their education. My father said I look huge among them, which I figured must be true as I am tall even for my age. On my way back, I looked out the car window. The scenery looked just like the scenery of rural China about ten years ago, the scenery I saw while growing up.
We woke up and headed out to the school at 7 am. Today was my first day of teaching and I was a little nervous. There were 78 students attending my class, which was much more than we expected. Thus, our small staff felt a little overwhelmed, but we remained confident and optimistic. I worked as an assistant to the professor, who was teaching mechanics. The classroom lacked electricity, so in order to study, the children had to open the wooden windows to let in light. Because of the lack of electricity, the classroom had no air conditioning to counteract the heat. It was hot even standing near the door, not to mention when almost 80 kids were crammed into the room. After about an hour of teaching, my back was covered in sweat and I felt dizzy. I felt like fainting, so the other teachers brought me to a cooler location to rest. While I was resting, I talked with the dean about his life. He told me that most of his children and relatives are currently studying outside of the country and it made me wonder how he had the money to fund their studies working as a dean in a small, poor area. At noon, the professor split the class in half between the upperclassmen and the lower classmen. Because I was the only volunteer in this classroom, and since all the other teachers were occupied, I was asked to assist the teaching. I felt very unprepared as I stood at the front of the classroom, but luckily the course I was teaching was very simple: I just instructed them on how to make simple electrical circuits. At first, it was tricky trying to instruct the children because the translator was late, but after he arrived, things went smoothly. The kids really enjoyed playing with the circuits. Personally, I also gained a lot out of this experience since, before this I had a difficult time public speaking, but after two hours of teaching I became much more confident.
The morning of the fourth day I continued to teach 9th and 10th graders about electrical circuits. On the way to school I discussed the Cambodian education system with the Professor. He told me that the government maintains a fund to donate to orphanages, but the money always finds its way into the hands of the rich men. It does not help that the definition of orphan has a much wider use in Cambodia: it refers not only to children who have been abandoned or lost both parents, but also to children with only one parent, so the government funds are quickly spread far and thin. Additionally, teachers in Cambodia are paid very poorly and so do not have the incentive to perform well in their jobs. They arrive late to class, do not take attendance, and often times students wait for hours for their teachers to show up to their short 2 hour class. I even observed 6 or 7 classrooms that did not have a teacher. I also noticed that there were more girls than boys in the school. The Professor said that this is because most of the boys travel to Thailand to find work to support their families. While I taught, I felt I was getting closer to the children. They asked me questions about my life and even taught me some Khmer, the Cambodian language. After class, I talked with the Professor about the teaching strategy for the next day. He said that the next day would be best spent helping the kids review for their upcoming finals the next week. As I reviewed their textbook, I was astonished to see that their studies covered calculus completely.
Instead of teaching about electrical circuits, we changed the class to help the children study for their final exams. I was concerned, feeling that I was incapable of leading this review session for such important tests since I did not know the test content nor what they had already studied. During the class, no one on the staff but the translator showed up, so I had to lead the review alone. I began by going over quadratic equations, which they all had mastered already. Then I moved on to projectile questions. They seemed familiar with the basic concepts but had difficulty solving these types of questions. It took me a while to explain the correct way to solve these problems, but they were able to learn pretty quickly. In the afternoon, I got to class just before 1pm and spoke to some of the kids. Most of them could not understand me; however one of them spoke English well. He told me that they studied a total of ten subjects and had finals to prepare for each one. He also told me that he wanted to travel around the world and hoped to be an English editor someday. He learned to speak English by watching YouTube, and loved making friends with people from different countries. Overall, I had a wonderful experience working at this Cambodian high school. The kids really touched my heart, and I hope to help more kids like them in the future.
Before our departure, my dad and I purchased a US $800 LCD projector for the school. We also visited New Hope for Orphans in Banteay Meanchey again. This time we made a US $700 cash donation to the orphanage so 38 children there could enjoy new uniforms, school supplies, clothes and backpacks.
About me, the author:
My Name is Susan Sun, a senior at San Domenico High School. Being CiN's 2014 Math/Science Coordinator, I have designed fun math and science projects for the children in the Canal District of San Rafael. I am happy to extend my service to the high school students in Cambodia. It has been a wonderful experience and I hope you enjoy reading my story.