By: Sophia Li | Email: firstname.lastname@example.org|
On the ninth of November, the Hunter College High School auditorium was filled with seventh and eighth graders applauding enthusiastically and waving at excited Liberian students from Ganty City on the screen in front of them. Participating in the second annual I-HELP Liberia community day event, these middle schoolers had a unique opportunity to learn about school conditions in Liberia.
This year, Hunter students were able to connect with Liberians over video call. The Liberian students attend high school in Ganta, one of the places the I-HELP Liberia team, a group of teachers and Hunter students, has visited over various summer trips. They answered questions that Hunter middle schoolers had for them, detailing their study habits and daily lives. The middle schoolers learned that one Liberian student studies four hours a night in addition to school, spending most of his time on science. Most students have to walk two or more hours on unpaved roads to get to school. Often, students in Liberia end up walking five miles to schools that usually don’t have running water or a reliable source of fresh water, electricity, or access to Wifi. There are things that we use every day and tend to take for granted. Even in such harsh conditions, their persevering attitude toward learning never diminishes.
Eighth-grader Peri Dunn from Hunter says, “I am so glad we had this Skype experience because it allowed me to realize their gratitude towards the help that they received and their willingness to share their lives with us. I had a great time.”
Hunter also invited Heidi Baumgartner to be the keynote speaker. Ms. Baumgartner has been to the I-HELP Liberia trip four times, starting from 2009, and she is also an executive director for I-HELP Liberia Project. She says her inspiration came from Asumana Randolph, a Liberian immigrant who came to America and started teaching science at Hunter College High School. The I-HELP Liberia club began in Hunter in 1994, under the efforts of both Mr. Randolph and Hunter students. Mr. Randolph describes its beginning: “When a war was going on in Liberia, the students of the Class of ‘98 asked, ‘How can we help?’ So we made an institution in Liberia. We decided when any pencil was seen in the hallway, they were going to pick the pencil up and ship it to Liberia.” This attitude inspired various students who decided to take the initiative and obtain donations for people in Liberia. Heidi, with the help of other students, started a shoe drive which has since collected over 800 pairs of shoes to give to the Liberian students. They have also donated countless pencils, notebooks, and science kits. Even with this efforts, Liberians still have many problems that still need to be solved.
Heidi explained to the Hunter community how students can solve these problems by using a technique called “design thinking,” where students form solutions to a problem they see in the world. One such problem that Heidi encountered during her trips to the Liberia was that Liberian students were being taught about cells and the microscopic world, but they couldn’t see it with their own eyes because they didn’t have access to microscopes. Heidi brainstormed various ideas and proceeded to invent a cheap and manufacturable I-HELP Liberia Pocket Microscope, which only costs 99 cents to make.
She said, “I wanted cheap scientific equipment to give out to Liberian schools because a lot of teachers have to teach subjects that they haven’t been able to experience first hand. For example, biology teachers had never been able to use a microscope because they never had access. I modified a design I came across called the Foldscope and used 3-D printing to create the I-HELP Liberia Pocket Microscope. They were very well received, and I really wish that I had brought even more.” She brought a box of red, blue and green plastic microscopes, showing Hunter students how to insert a small LED light into a circular lithium battery. She used two paper clips, securing a specimen slide onto the base, and moved a lens up and down to focus the image. This allows students to observe cells and other objects in detail (more details can be found at this website: http://www.instructables.com/id/The-1-Pocket-Microscope-Explore-the-World-Around-Y/)
No matter how big or small the items I-HELP Liberia brings, the Liberians are always extremely grateful and excited. Heidi remembered: “Liberia has very deep needs in education but what has made it so rewarding to work with teachers and students is they are so eager and hungry for knowledge. They just eat up whatever resources you extend to them. We had three invited high school teachers, who called this trip the highlight of their careers because it was so encouraging to see the enthusiasm from the teachers in Liberia.” The I-HELP Liberia club with the help of Mr. Randolph has opened a school there and this year they are sponsoring five medical students. Furthermore, Liberian students have been successful in hosting a Science Bowl competition and starting a Math Olympiad Team.
Even with the improvements made to the curriculum in Liberia and the various technological developments, Liberia still needs our help. Heidi adds, “My biggest takeaway is that we need to do something and we have the capability to do something. We have so many resources at our fingertips that we take for granted. We have the Hunter community, we have the PTA which supports us well, we have textbooks by our standards are falling apart but by Liberian standards are the only textbooks they have and extremely valuable. There is a lot of enthusiasm, but there is not enough action and I hope to change that. The path isn’t entirely clear but I would really like to harness the enthusiasm of everyone that Mr. Randolph energizes and bring this project to the next level.”
Hunter students have so many opportunities to reach out and help our student counterparts in Liberia. It doesn’t have to be inventing scientific tools or donating hundreds of dollars. It can be as simple as picking up an extra pencil.