In May, Carson York was among 11 University of Central Arkansas students who traveled to Rwanda to primary-school children in impoverished Rwanda hands-on learning in math, technology and science.
"I’ve always wanted to help out," York said. "I’ve always wanted to go to Africa [but] I wanted to have a purpose for going and not just be a tourist."
UCA students got a glimpse of a country desperately trying to overcome its past. Rwanda is recovering from genocide that ran rampant in the mid-1990s but remains an impoverished country that is slowly trying to use education to raise the country’s standard of living.
Students who went on the three-week trip taught Rwandan children about electricity by using a "squishy" circuit. They made homemade clay with flour, used color beads to build bracelets that showed the different variations of the water cycle and talked about the endangered mountain gorillas.
UCA students drew Rwandan children outside of the typical lecture-oriented learning structure in Rwanda and into a practical, hands-on experiences and experiments, said Jayme Millsap Stone, director of Learning Communities at UCA.
"Seeing the learning on the children’s faces — and seeing the learning on our own students — their lives have been transformed," Stone said.
Stone and Leah Horton, residential master of the STEM Residential College and assistant chair of biology, both went to Rwanda with the group of UCA students.
The trip was so successful that university officials are designing a program to send UCA students to Rwanda to teach for the next five years, Stone said. The program would focus on teaching children, not through lectures, but through interactive experiments they can see, touch and manipulate.
Learning-service, study-abroad programs often are a one-time project, like building a health center, but UCA will have a program that is meant to last, Horton and Stone said.
"It’s long term, and it’s sustainable, and there’s nothing else like it," Stone said.
The new program would focus on three aspects.
UCA students will bring books, teach experiments and bring new learning methods that can be reproduced by Rwandan teachers. While the program has a math and sciences focus, Horton and Stone said they hoped to bring in other disciplines that can be used together. For example, music might help students remember science lessons better, Horton said. A lesson on electricity might turn into a lesson on geography and rugged terrain, she said.
UCA students would also teach things like canning at a local village. The skill will help people learn to survive and thrive economically, Stone said. Lastly, the program would create a fund to help a 11-year-old deaf girl get into a good school, have the opportunity to go to college and possibly come to UCA to study.
"We can help and show them how to have a better life, and it’s nothing that we’ve given them other than our own education skills," Stone said.
Horton said the university will also look at ways to fund the program to make sure that the learning-service trip is affordable. This year, the trip cost UCA students $6,500 each.
York said he used money he saved, some donations from his parents and a scholarship to go to Rwanda. The trip is worth it, he said.
The lessons that UCA students shared with more than 500 children were well-received. Rwandan teachers took notes during the experiments and asked UCA officials to return and to expand the lessons to more children, Horton said.
"[Children] loved it," she said. "They liked getting their hands on things that made the theory of the lessons make more sense."
Horton said while the trip helps Rwandans, it also helps UCA students become more culturally aware.
"The world is bigger than Conway," she said. "It’s good for our students — it gets them out of their own little bubble."
York said the experience opened his eyes to how people outside of the US live. He gets asked why he didn’t just teach in the US, but York said he believes in helping people who are so much worse off than those in America. He wants to make a difference, he said.
"It’s for the good of mankind," York said. "If we can teach their children and they go to college, maybe they can elevate themselves from a third-world status."