Filling a Hunter to Learn

By David L.V. Bauer
FOUR: Rhodes Scholar David L.V. Bauer recently helped give science workshops in Liberia.

This past February, I traveled to Liberia to help give workshops to science teachers on how to teach "lab classes without labs" as part of a team from the iHelpLiberia project. Liberia is a West African nation tucked into the corner as the coast turns from the Gulf of Guinea on the south to face the Atlantic Ocean on the west. It has been six years since a U.N. peacekeeping force deployed at the end of a 14-year civil war and four years since the election of a new government.

I was traveling with my former high school mentor from Hunter College High School (and Liberian expatriate), Asumana Jabateh Randolph, and with Heidi Baumgartner, a junior at HCHS. We landed at night at Robert's International Airport and drove an hour and a half to Monrovia, the capital. The house we were staying in, the nicest one in the neighborhood, had no running water or electricity.

I had worked with a Liberian group in New York while in high school, and was familiar with the country. I wasn't prepared for how much had been destroyed during the war and had yet to be rebuilt. "It's very hard to explain how much 'nothing' there is," I told relatives on the phone.

We hadn't contacted the government about our trip so that we could see the conditions for ourselves (and not be shown 'model' schools instead).  At each workshop, we talked about different ways of teaching lab classes, how to engage the students and how to use battery- and solar-powered technologies they had available.

We had brought sets of donated graphing calculators (the TI-83, commonly used in U.S. classrooms) and sensors that connected to the calculators and allowed them to instantly "become" scientific instruments that could measure things like temperature, pH, conductivity, and oxygen gas concentration. With the calculators, students could make graphs and devise experiments that required readings overnight.

Dividing our time between the capital and the countryside, we traveled up-country to Ganta, on the border with Guinea. Outside the capital, reminders of the civil war remained: U.N. checkpoints every 30 kilometers checked for weapons and the main road was still littered with craters from explosive shells.

We stopped to give workshops at the Booker Washington Institute in Kakata and at Gboveh High School in Gbanga, where 50 science teachers arrived from the town and nearby villages to attend. In Ganta, we arrived to find 40 teachers, but no free room. We gave the workshop in the middle of a soccer field.

Driving back to the capital early in the morning, I was struck by the crowds of children walking along the side of the road - all heading to school. And despite the war-worn roads, there is law and order in the form of a new national police force (people call them in emergencies, which is a pretty good vote of confidence), a vibrant free press, and free primary education.

I've not been able to remember a single child I met in Liberia who wasn't excited about school. Education even trumps food in some cases, as I learned from a student at lunchtime who was balancing a scoop of rice on his ruler. He had only enough money to buy a spoon or a ruler, and found that his ruler could do double-duty at meals.

David L.V. Bauer is a graduate of the Macaulay Honors College at The City College of New York and a 2009 Rhodes Scholar.