Peace Corps Liberia Science Fair (part 2)

With all data recorded and clothes packed, Samuel and I were on our way to Kakata!

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The science fair ran for four days and three nights at Doe Palace (the same place that I received my pre-service training). For many of the students we brought, it was their first time living with modern conveniences like running water, flush toilets, hot showers, constant electricity, etc. It was also the first time many of the students had eaten three meals a day (Liberians typically have just one really big lunch or dinner). Ma Cici, our Liberian cook encouraged everyone to eat lots of bananas to keep them regular. The poop talk was oddly reminiscent of my first stay at Doe Palace.

One of the first things we did after we arrived with our students was to take them on a tour to show them how everything worked. On the one hand, it was fun to show off these “modern wonders”, but on the other it pained me to see these things gazed upon as pillars of status and luxury. The prevailing attitude here is that all these conveinences allow each and every American/westerner to sit back and enjoy a work-free life of constant entertainment and comfort. “Relaxing” and “enjoying yourself” with material wealth comes to be seen as the pinnacle of existence and a reasonable purpose in life. It breaks my heart to see how the consumerist culture in America instills and supports these toxic values around the world. These attitudes perpetuate poverty and undermine people’s interest and ability to engage in creative, technical, and entrepreneural pursuits.

So I was thankful when it quickly became apparent that there was no time to worship the relative luxury we stepped into — we had too much cool science work to do! Samuel and I had to work fast to prepare a poster and a Power Point presentation to share our great research with everyone!

Other groups had a little bit of a head start because they worked on their Power Point presentations at site (I don’t use a computer at site. I only use my netbook for organizing photos when I go into town — it doesn’t even have Power Point). So I had Samuel write down as much as possible in his copybook and I transcribed it to a Power Point presentation for him on one of the shared computers in Kakata. I let him operate the computer a little bit (it was his first time touching a computer!), but I ended up doing most of the computer work, as there was no time to learn all the skills that Samuel needed to do it himself.

We stayed up late that first night working on the Power Point and then scrambled around the next morning to build a poster. We finished the poster in the nick of time, and hung it alongside everyone else’s in the presentation room.

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The three judges for the science fair were all Liberians — one had a background in chemistry, one led a technology youth club in Kakata, and the other was a principal, if I remember correctly. They went from poster to poster reading and asking questions of the students.

While we were waiting for the judges to get to Samuel, we had a chance to look at everyone else’s posters. It was really fun to see what the other students had worked on! There were projects about everything from biogas to neuroscience.

There was even a project closely related to Samuel’s! One team studied the rate that gas evaporated from mayonnaise jars to see how much gas stations wasted by leaving the tops off. We decided our projects were brothers, and became fast friends with the other group.

Samuel was pretty nervious about fielding the judges’ questions, so we practiced going through the poster beforehand. I was careful to stand back and not jump in as the judges looked over the poster and asked Samuel their questions. Even though I could tell there were some communication gaps between Samuel and the judges, I was very impressed by Samuel’s stage presence and relaxed manner with the judges. Still, when the judges left, he breathed a big sigh of relief. Only the Power Point presentation was left now!

After lunch fellow volunteer Chris Piccione organized the kids in a session of grassroots soccer, a bunch of fun activies with soccer balls and blankets that are designed to educate communities about malaria.

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We gave everyone some free time after grassroots soccer to play with the extra soccer balls. When those games started winding down, I checked in with Samuel to see if he had any energy left to rehearse his presentation, and was surprised to find that the poster session that morning gave him a huge confidence boost — he was energized and ready to rehearse with gusto.

After going through some slides with him, I realized that he was trying to memorize everything word-for-word, and getting noticably stressed when he couldn’t quite remember the exact way we had said something before. When I realized what was going on, I encouraged him to not worry about having the exact words — just to focus on communicating what he already knew. “This isn’t a quizzing contest”, I told him.

Let me explain the significance of that last remark: In Liberia, the most popular way to show off intellectual prowess is in the contest called “quizzing”. In the same way you might find a debate team in America, in Liberia schools have quizzing teams. In this game, an announcer reads a random question (like, “name the five major rivers in Liberia” or “define simple machine”) and students race to buzz in and give their memorized answer. If their answer matches the textbook word-for-word, they get their point. Any small deviation, and no points are awarded. There’s no need for the participant to understand the answers being given in any way — if you can say the words, you get the point.

So you can see why Samuel was so worried about wording things correctly — that’s what he’s used to being graded on! He noticeably relaxed when I told him that nobody in the room knew the “right” way of wording things because it was his original research. He knew more about his project than anyone in that room, including the judges. There was no reason to be intimidated by them! His goal wasn’t to show off how smart he was by confusing his audience (like someone might do in a quizzing contest), but to help everyone understand what his project was about.

As this sunk in, Samuel became more and more comfortable improvising during his presentation. By the time we finished practicing that evening, Samuel’s delivery was strong and confident, and he knew it. He looked ready for anything!

That evening, we all watched Jurassic Park. Science fiction isn’t a commonly viewed genre in Liberia (people normally watch American action movies and African soap operas), and so we had to explain to some of the kids that no, we don’t actually have dinosaurs in America.

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Samuel was so wiped out from the day he fell asleep in the first ten minutes of the movie. The next morning during breakfast, he laughed as he told me that he couldn’t stay awake. I asked him if he at least got to see the dinosaurs. “You mean the big big animals?”, he answered, “yeah I was awake for that”. “Good!”, I went on, “did you see the dinosaurs start to eat the human beings?”. His eyes widened in shock. “OH!!! WHAT??”

After breakfast, it was time for presentations. Samuel did one last run-through with me, and then he was ready! We all moved to the lecture hall, and the presentations began.

Next: Peace Corps Liberia Science Fair (part 3)

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