Sunday, June 29, 2014

Emmanuel Primary School

We worked at 3 different primary schools in Phnom Penh this time, 2 government schools and 1 run by an NGO.  Both government-run schools are rather chaotic.  The students attend schools for 3 hours each day.  There are frequent breaks - 5 in one afternoon.  Many students are reluctant to return to the classroom when the break is over.  Some teachers are not there in the classroom when the classes are in session.  Some students are so poor they do not have pencils at home.  Others seem to have unlimited funds for snacks, and many motorcycles come to pick them up after school.  Teachers are paid a little more than US$100 per month, barely enough for one person to survive, and certainly not enough to feed a family.  Hence some schools charge additional fees. Many teachers have other jobs on the side.  Hence teaching at the school does not get their full attention.  Some students do not come to class because they cannot pay the additional fees.  Others stay away because they cannot sit still in class, or otherwise old enough to work. 

Emmanuel Community Primary School is set up to take care of children in poverty, who do not, or cannot attend government schools. The school charges no fees.   Here the students are much more disciplined.  The teachers seem to be quite young, and care about the children more.  When we teach the children using the tabletPCs, some of the teachers sit at the back, listening attentively. Boys and girls work together enthusiastically.  

The school has a computer room, with a number of old computers bought with donations.  Many of them have broken down.  We cleaned and fixed some of them, and donated 3 more laptops.  We set up a proper network, and installed a library of e-books and other learning resources.  The school director, a pastor, seemed quite happy about it all.  They have already a plan to build a high school next door. 

We have actually known the school for several years, when it was under different management and it went through a period of uncertainty.  The school looks quite promising now and we are planning to come back. 

Friday, June 27, 2014

Food Spider of Cambodia

Was it a bit foolhardy for this man to let the spider crawl all over his hand, without knowing whether the fangs had been taken out?  

Apparently if you take out a spider’s fangs it will die because it cannot eat.  So this spider’s fangs were probably not taken out.  But this is a restaurant that serves fried spiders.  So this spider was probably going to be someone’s food soon anyway.  So the fangs were perhaps taken out.  In any case, the man didn’t know. 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Fruits of Cambodia

Cambodia is blessed with fertile soil, plentiful water, abundant sunshine - and mouth-watering fruits.  Here are some samples.   All over the city, there are piles of durians.

Very sweet pineapples and young coconuts.

Two brave men tacking a “small” jackfruit.

Mountains of rambutans. 

This porcupine-like fruit is sour but tastes fresh.  

Peeled, roasted bananas, which I dare not try. 

And roasted, banana-filled sticky rice wrapped in leaves, which I like very much.  

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Lab in Suitcase (improved) in Cambodia

Last year, we developed and brought a “Lab in a Suitcase” to Cambodia. It is basically a small file server linked to a wireless router, with an e-library - a bunch of e-books - loaded into the server.  Using a smartphone, students can access the e-books and enjoy a lot of the benefits of Internet technology without actually being connected to the Internet. 

This year we enhance the e-library with a lot more teaching materials such as animations, games, videos, etc.  We used “Lab 2” at San Sok Primary School to support the running of mathematics and science workshops, which also make use of e-microscopes.  

We also deployed the e-library at Emmanuel Community Primary School.  Since they have electrical supply, some old computers, and Internet access, they do not really need the Lab in a Suitcase.  

Prior to installing the e-library, we fixed several of their desktop computers,  which were really dusty and in bad shape.  We also donated 3 laptops, and fixed their network.  While running a workshop for their students, we also training some of their teachers.  The operator of the school, Pastor Bien, was very happy with the result.  Hopefully, the improved network and the e-library of resources can make the students’ learning more enjoyable and effective. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Learning and teaching in Cambodia

Cambodia is a very poor country.  Education level is very low.  The teachers are poorly trained and poorly paid.  Schools lack resources.  Teaching methods are very traditional, and rely very much on one-way lectures and memorisations.  Class time is short.  There is little homework.  Some students cannot do homework at home because they have no pencils.  Teachers are paid so little they have to supplement with part-time jobs.   

Yet there are some extremely diligent students. This girl’s notebook (paper version, not a computer) is amazingly neat, and actually colour coded.  She must be the teachers’ pet.  Yet she is not the only one.  

The students make do with very basic tools, such as hand-made protractors.  Yet many are quite keen.  

What we hope to do is to bring in fresh ideas and appropriate new technology. In addition to e-microscopes, we use tablet PCs to show animated lessons, lessons masquerading as games, videos, …   We teach in small interactive groups, making the students work together and learn together. Part of it is out of necessity - we simply do not have enough equipment so the students have to share.  The larger reason is that students often learn better in groups. 

We plan to keep coming back.  In a small way, we hope to make our own, hopefully lasting, contributions.  

Saturday, June 21, 2014

e-microscope biology at San Sok

The location is Kamoughn Primary School, in San Sok in the north west of Phnom Penh. A bunch of children are crowding around an e-microscope.  They are studying an ant that a student caught earlier in the day.  They are then asked to sketch what they see, an image of the ant magnified 50 times.  They are guided by students from HKPolyU in our service-learning subject “Technology beyond borders”, and students from AHRDI, a Cambodian community college. 

Some of the children do a very good job sketching the ant, particularly considering that they see a computer, a microscope, and an ant in such detail for the first time in their lives.  Sitting in their midst is Mr. Fong Ngai, director of Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office (ASEAN), responsible for 10 South East Asian countries.  

The e-microscope consists of a frame that holds up the iPAD, a holder for a lens in front of the iPAD’s camera for increased magnification, and a holder for a slide with the specimen.  It was made using a 3D printer, just in time for this project in Cambodia.  

Our students went through months of lectures and workshops. They learned about service-learning, the digital divide, appropriate technology solutions, Cambodian culture, teaching methods, linking academic studies to community service, and proper reflections on their service experience.  They collected a lot of teaching material such as videos and photographs, and prepared their own lesson plans, teaching material and worksheets.  All these hard work culminate in 5 days of service here in San Sok.  We all find it wonderfully rewarding.  

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Multi-discipline Service-Learning in Cambodia

This year we brought a big contingent. Actually 5 different teams.  An IT team of 40 students teaching mathematics, science and IT, using our “(Computer) Lab in Suitcase”. It includes a microscope attached to an iPAD that we designed and built ourselves using 3D printing techniques.  A hotel and tourism team with 20 students helping a social enterprise guest house improve its operations.  An optometry team with 13 students doing eye examinations.  A student-initiated team of 10 students doing heath promotion in the slum. A staff development team of 3 participants.  These 86 students and staff are supported by 12 staff members from our Office of Service Learning and 4 other departments.  Later our president is coming to visit the students with 4 other staff members.  That pushes the contingent to over 100 people. 

In addition to that, we are joined by ~40 local community college and university students, who are our partners and interpreters.  

Our services will be carried out at 2 primary schools, a village and a slum in San Sok, the House of Rainbow Bridge orphanage/hospital for children with HIV in the city, Emmanuel Primary School near the garbage dump in Stung Meanchey, the orphanage HappyLand out near the airport, and a guesthouse near Russian Market.  

It is an amazing undertaking.  We went through several days of orientation, cultural training, and final preparations last week.  We have just completed the second day of the services.  Even now, we can scarcely believe that we have pulled it off.  

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Mini-Lecture on recycling at Stung Meanchey Garbage Dump

A visit to the old garbage dump at Stung Meanchey is part of the cultural training for our students on service-learning. In the past 3 days, I have taken 100 students and staff to the garbage dump and the slum around it, in 4 different batches.  Because the government stopped dumping fresh garbage here, the mountain has subsided, and grass started to grow over it, turning the mountain into a low-lying, green-covered hill.  But some people still dump garbage here illegally.  

I took the students out to the middle of the dumping ground.  Standing on old garbage, and circling a pile of freshly-dumped garbage, we explained to the students why clear, heavy plastic bottles has more recycling value than colorful, light plastic films.  

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Robotics Programming in Myanmar

For a week, our students are running workshops on robotics programming at 2 universities in Myanmar.  Dagon University and University of Computer Studies Yangon.  The attending students are mostly undergraduate students, with some masters students and young teachers, in computer-related fields.  

The study of computer science here tend to be more theoretical than practical.  Hence the students, even the more senior ones, find robotics programming challenging.  They have to deal with motors, sensors, control signals, strategies, …  Our students, most of them first time teachers, are doing fine.  They are learning a lot from each other.  It is a great project.  

Towards the end of the week, there will be a competition at each university among the different groups.  It should be fun.  Too bad I cannot be there to see it.  On my way to join the Cambodia team. 

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Service-Learning with Robotics in Myanmar

 Late night on Friday, our team arrived in Yangon.  Yesterday, we went to Dagon University and University of Computer Studies Yangon (UCSY) to check out the venue where we are going to run workshops on robotics programming from Monday to Friday.  We brought our own US9.99 robot car sets, and designed a series of lessons to introduce the concepts of robot programming, the control of the motors that power the wheels, the capture of sensor input, the determination of environmental situation based on sensor input, the development of tactics to achieve goals, and turning derived tactics into control signal for the motors. We laid out some intricate tracks with obstacles for the robot cars to tackle.  There is, of course, going to be a competition among the students taking the workshop.

Both Dagon and UCSY took the workshops very seriously.  Dagon moved 30+ computers to a big hall, to give us space to work and to run the competition.  UCSY gave us a big air-conditioned laboratory, and removed a lot of computers to give us space to work.  

Our students checked out the computers, compatibility of software, the projectors, and laboratory environment.  They took to the tasks enthusiastically. They also realised that they need to make some changes to their teaching plans and material.  So they have work to do today.  We are all looking forward to the opening on Monday. 

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

June 4

This is the 25th anniversary of the June 4 Massacre at Tiananmen Square in 1989.  If I were in Hong Kong, I would be attending the candle light vigil at Victoria Park this evening.  Unfortunately, I am in Malaysia.   However, my wife alerted me to a photograph on the Canadian Consulate’s Facebook page. Here it is, as a sign that we have not forgotten it.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

What is so attractive about Engaged Learning?

The conference is “Engaged Learning and ICTD (Information and Communication Technology for Development) in the University Curriculum. It was organised by the University of Selangor, in collaboration with the Asian Institute for Development Communication (AIDCOM), Cornell University and the United Nations Asian Pacific Training Center for Information and Commmunication for Development (UN-APCICT) 

My talk was assigned  the title “What is Unique and Attractive about Engaged Learning”.  Te sub-title that I gave it, “The Hong Kong Polytechnic University Experience”, said it all.  My talk was the last one of the day, and we were running an hour late.  Yet my talk was very well received.  There was no time for questions and answers.  Yet many came up to me later to commend us, ask questions, and to look for advice.   They were impressed that we dared to, and were able to make service-learning credit bearing and compulsory.  That we are doing it in such a large scale, offering 38 subjects with 1,900 students in this academic year.  That we are sending hundreds of students overseas, to 5 different countries.  That we are sending students to Rwanda, which sounds exotic and even dangerous.  That we are so systematic and serious in teaching and assessment. …

It has to be said that it was not really planned this way.  I did not dare to think that it was possible, and certainly not in such a short time.  It was obviously God working.  And I am thankful.  

Monday, June 02, 2014

Blue Mosque of Selangor

I am in Selangor, Malaysia for a conference.  About a kilometer south of the hotel is the “Blue Mosque” of Selangor.  It is formally Masjid Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah.  

I walked around the compound and took some pictures.  The atmosphere was open and peaceful.  I saw few people.  When I approached the prayer hall, there was a sign that said, “non-Muslims are not allowed inside the prayer hall”. I stopped, and intended to just listen to the prayer.  The prayer was apparently recited in Arabic and I could not understand a word.  But the chanting had a soothing effect. 

A friendly volunteer took me inside and sat me down at the back.  The dome was huge.  It was not colourful as the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.  But it was impressive nonetheless.  There were some women in a group to the left.  There were quite a few children wearing the white and green uniform of religious schools.  There were some, but not many men.  

The volunteer guide lamented the fact that so few people came to pray at such a cavernous mosque, which was said to hold more than 20,000 people.  

Outside the mosque, kids, and some adults, showed that they love ice-cream just like kids elsewhere.  I have not seen an ice-cream sandwich for some time.  I was hungry and it was tempting.  But I resisted the urge.