(IAP ’12) Deborah Hanus ’12

Deborah and Alorah Harman (2011, Course 1) took an early winter trip and traveled to Cambodia, partnering with the Harpswell Foundation, a women’s dormitory and leadership center located in Tuek Thla, Phnom Penh, to teach a series of workshops aimed at fostering creativity and innovation through engineering and leadership. By teaching some of Cambodia’s most talented students how they might apply their leadership to problem-solving in engineering, aim to (a) develop a network of women equipped to solve any problem creatively, with the critical thought of an engineer, and (b) motivate more women to consider studying engineering.

December 30: Final Reflections

Between living with Cambodian university students, meeting impassioned social entrepreneurs, and befriending University-level educators, we feel that we have developed an appreciation for differences between the Cambodian education system and the American education — and some of the reasons for those differences.

All of the students and educators whom we have discussed our project with are excited by the idea of using hands-on design and engineering projects to (a) enable younger students to stay in school, (b) empower them to create, and (c) develop their skill set to help make a difference in their communities.

We aimed to forge a connection between Harpswell students, talented and ambitious rural Cambodian women who are being educated to take leadership roles in their country, and the local resources they have available to them to develop their critical thinking skills and innovate — hopefully developing their own ideas for service projects and start-ups. Although we only had three weeks there, we achieved what we set out to do. We keep thinking: if we could only have more time on the ground, we could push this further.

We would love to strengthen the connections between the Harpswell students and local entrepreneurship centers, facilitating creativity and innovation. We would like to provide resources for students on both sides of the exchange as they develop projects and companies that they can bring back to their home communities. We would like to develop the notion of an extracurricular engineering community at both the high school and college level. We would like to develop a system where the new and experienced students can teach one another the skills they need to effectively market and garner stupor for their projects.

This winter we developed the support system and connections necessary to put these plans into action, so that when we return at the end of the year, we will be able to develop this vision into a reality.

Som naang la-are,
Deborah Hanus ‘12 and Alorah Harman ‘11

Buddy shot

December 25: ITC GEE Students Building a Community

Cambodian universities do not have final exams until the end of January. So in mid-December, a few students in the Institute of Technology of Cambodia’s (ITC) Department of Electrical Engineering (GEE), which has been working to develop a greater sense of camaraderie in their university, decided that the department needed an end of year party. The aim of this party was to (a) bring students together, (b) celebrate the fact that MIT’s D-Lab had chosen to collaborate with ITC students, and (c) have a good time.

My new friends were among the students and they invited me to join them in their festivities. The party was a great success. I have been to other parties in different cultures where, because I have not spoken the same language as the other guests, I felt left out. This was not the case here; it was a really welcoming event. Although no one at the party spoke English except when addressing me, I had a fantastic time.

It was great to see first-hand that, despite everything that we had heard about students being individuals, who often do not have time or resources for community, they could come together to create something great, celebrate and support each other. This bodes well for our plan for next year: to create an active project-based engineering club that will be integrated with the student entrepreneurial community.

December 24: Leading a workshop at SmallWorld

During a conversation with our new friends from ITC, we determined that entrepreneurial students in Cambodia face a unique set of challenges. In the aftermath of the political turmoil caused by the Khmer Rouge regime, the culture encourages keeping quiet and taking care of your own affairs, rather than building relationships with strangers, developing a community, and publicizing your work.

We decided to discuss this as well as ideas for positive future change in local communities at a workshop hosted by SmallWorld.

By discussing the challenges we faced in our universities, we developed a framework describing how MIT’s student network was different from ITC’s student network. MIT has well-developed communities around dorm-life, student groups, and project-based classwork, whereas ITC’s on-campus student life is nearly non-existent. Again, SmallWorld members highlighted the fact that there are no dormitories on-campus, so students go home to rented rooms (usually shared with several other students) all over the city. There is no system set up to fund student groups, so if they want to hold an interesting event or lecture, they cannot pay the speaker or order food. Often they cannot even get their school officials to lend them space in a classroom for a student group to meet.

We discussed several of the ways that the students could use the Internet to garner publicity and support for themselves and their organizations. We looked into international funding opportunities for social entrepreneurs in particular, pulling up applications online while brainstorming about what seeding a small business in Cambodia might look like. We also shared theories on personal branding to develop an effective online persona. Rithy, one of the SmallWorld Founders, wrote this article, publicizing the event.

Over the course of leading this workshop, we were able to discuss potential point of growth and improvement with each of the attendees. Although at this point, much of the advice I gave repeated advice that I, as an MIT student, have received frequently, much of it was new to the workshop attendees, and we enjoyed sharing our experiences with them. Furthermore, more than half of the participants were female students working to develop networks in their universities and communities. this encouraged us in terms of our plans focused on encouraging women’s support networks and women entrepreneurs in particular.

December 23: School ceremony celebrating new curriculum

Youk’s new curriculum teaching the history of the Khmer Rouge regime is currently being deployed one high school at a time across the country. He invited me as a special guest for a the ceremony at Wat Koh High School

Although the ceremony was beautifully carried out, with formal uniforms, songs, and traditional music, the most memorable moment for me was when I stepped through the gates onto the high school grounds. The layout of the buildings and the courtyard was exactly the same as at that at the Tuol Sleng torture site that we visited last weekend. Although I knew that the prison had originally been a high school, it was jarring to get a better picture of how such a space could alternately contain torture devices or happy students in uniforms excited for the day’s festivities.

A link to the official gallery of images from the event
( http://d.dccam.org/Projects/Genocide/photos/The_Anti-Genocide_Memorial_Inauguration_at_Wat_Koh_High_School_December_23_2011/index.html )

December 20: Meeting with local educators to discuss critical thinking

Today we had two meetings which taught us about many of the practicalities of implementing a curriculum in Cambodia. We met both the designer of a curriculum and a university instructor.

(1) Curriculum Design. We rang the bell outside of the dark gate and shifted our backpacks as we waited under the hot December sun to be let into the Documentation Center of Cambodia. Through a series of introductions, we had managed to get an appointment with the center’s Director, Youk Chhang. As one of the forefront individuals dedicated to educating the public about the events of the Khmer Rouge Genocide, his name appeared on informational signs in Tuol Sleng and his survival story had been featured on the audio tour of the Killing Fields. By the time the receptionist directed us to the Director’s office, we were unsure of what to expect of him.

Youk was exceptionally congenial. When he heard that we were students of engineering, he immediately diverted the conversation to poke some fun at the architects who had designed the new building for the documentation center. He said that they had submitted a beautiful design, but now he still needed to hire engineers to determine whether the design was structural. Within the first five minutes, the three of us were laughing like old friends. The rest of our hour-long meeting was fantastically productive as we moved around his office to see an instructor’s manual for the new governmental curriculum on the genocide, maps of developing regions in Cambodia, and even handwritten manuals written and illustrated by soldiers instructing their peers how to kill their victims.

We discussed the MIT TLL (Teaching and Learning Laboratory) methods of teaching critical thinking. Youk attended university in the US, and had a lot of insightful thoughts to share. He had integrated this into the curriculum on the Khmer Rouge regime by comparing the causes and acts of the regime to mass atrocities in other countries.

(2) University-level instruction. Down the street, we met our friend, an American Sociology Instructor. She had been in Phnom Penh for over a year, teaching classes at the local university: Introduction to Sociology and a Senior seminar, Sociology of Fashion. Both Alorah and I are former Liberal Arts compatriots turned engineers, and in our humanities classes, we are accustomed to classes being led by informed student discussion. Our friend explained to us that she often had difficulty facilitating this. For example, on a given day, she might give the students a hand-out summarizing a few concepts from their readings. To spark conversation, she would ask a subjective question about the concepts, but often she had trouble coaxing the students to do more than define the concepts as they had been defined in the books. “They’re really intelligent,” she told us, “but it is hard to know what to do, because they have never had to learn any way other than memorization.”

It was fantastic to develop connections with both of these people, comparing the active hands-on learning that we had become accustomed to in our engineering classes to the education-style presented in Cambodia.

We also received an important piece of advice from an MIT professor of communication while asking for resources. She reminded us:
“As you probably realize, you’ve stepped into a really thorny issue because you are coming up against a whole host of things, including cultural norms. My best advice is to go slowly … In the West, a variety of things count as “evidence” to support a position: numbers, authorities, history, analogy. Remember that [your logic arguments] come from a Western perspective.”

We understand that it is our responsibility to do more than go in with a prescription coming from our own background and try to apply it in Khmer culture. We are also excited about the ways critical thinking has empowered our thought processes, and feel optimistic about the place for more deliberate self-definition through design-thinking in Cambodia. The well-received advice reminds us to remember and recognize our own biases as we move forward.

Students prepare to leave their home by moto

December 19: Teaching at Harpswell: Lesson Design and Implementation

When we arrived at the Harpswell Foundation, the students were in the process of learning how to write an academic essay. Harpswell recently spent some time selecting a textbook for non-native English speakers, and had a strong curriculum prepared geared to guide students towards critical thinking and leadership rhetoric.

One thing we noticed when we arrived at the dormitory and began observing classes was that it was not uncommon to have the students read the concepts in the text aloud in class. On one hand, this is a nice method because it enables the students to do much of their learning and practicing in the classroom, surrounded by their support group and stimulated by a class-in-session setting. On the other hand, we hypothesized that we could use some of the active learning methods that we had learned at MIT to make their learning experience even more engaging.

Although the text presented the different steps of the writing process in a thorough format, we found parts of the reading a bit abstract or verbose. Both of us noted that when we had studied languages previously, we tended to pass through a stage where simply reading a sentence aloud with proper pronunciation is hard work, let alone comprehending the full meaning. Once goal we had in our lessons at Harpswell was to make sure the students weren’t reading more while comprehending less. With this in mind, we decided to augment our lessons with some principles suggested by MIT’s Teaching and Learning Laboratory for active learning.

We read each chapter of the text, distilling out what we thought were the most important and useful concepts and developing examples from our lives. We described each concept to the students for a few minutes, before breaking them up into small groups to work on exercises. For example, in one of our first lessons, we were focusing on paragraph structure, so instead of having the students read sample paragraphs, we have students envelopes with cut out sentences and asked them or organize them, justifying their arguments.

While students worked in their groups, we traveled around the classroom, visiting each group to ensure that they weren’t getting stuck, following the example of our TEAL classes at MIT. At the end of each exercise, we reviewed each group’s answers, and checked for understanding. The girls responded extremely positively to these exercises, collaborating with sharp intensity and clearly both teaching and learning from their peers.

We also wanted to personalize examples wherever we could to make the learning process as relevant as possible. For example, in the course of studying paragraphs, instead of sticking only to sample paragraphs from the text, we were able to read and analyze select paragraphs from one of our favorite books, “Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide.” In this way, we fostered lively discussion and were able to check both the students’ reading comprehension as well as our cultural understanding as we discussed their perception of the reading.

In one of the final exercises, we asked the students to convince us of their opinion on one of two topics: (a) “Why hasn’t there been a woman Cambodian Prime Minister?” or (b) “Is child labor OK?” It was inspiring to see that most of their responses were full of hope and passion. When answering (a), most of the girls said that there had been few opportunities for women to be educated in previous generations, but that now more more women were in school, a woman would become Prime Minister soon.

These exercises allowed us to teach the girls useful skills for their future leadership positions, and also to gain a better understanding of challenges women face in Cambodia and how they perceive their futures and the futures of women around them.

In total, we are teaching 4 different classes to a group of about 50 girls. We are excited to have such a rare opportunity for feedback from a large group of focused women.

Neighborhood in the Riverside district

The Mekong River

December 18: SmallWorld, a collaborative workspace for the Phnom Penh community

We had just caught a tuktuk to a new part of the city and were feeling that familiar excitement that goes along with complete disorientation. Skye had invited us to visit a local group which she said was similar in ways to an entrepreneurship center. We had no idea what to expect, but had lit up at her description and were excited to investigate. Following Skye’s instructions of ending up close to the Panasastra University, we were waiting on her call with our pseudo-functional less than reliable mobile phone. We walked down a back alley to the main street trying to ring her number, passing an impassive family watching a small television screen. We were feeling a little lost, but still grinning.

After a little while of wandering, we were able to reach Skye. She told us not to worry, that she was sending her friend to come show us the way. We moved to in an open space, waiting in anticipation. A few minutes later, a man approached us, wheeling his bicycle beside him and waving. He introduced himself warmly as Rithy and said he would lead us to our destination. On the way, we asked Rithy about his background. From our earliest moments of interaction, it was clear that he was a sharp entrepreneurial mind, warm and personable, and quick to elaborate smoothly on both his future plans and his impressive credentials.

Rithy brought us to the center, a productivity-focused workspace they had named SmallWorld as an nod to rapid globalization. Quickly we were introduced to SmallWorld members, and received a tour through the house, which the organization had only recently secured and was in the process of renovating. A feeling of change, of progress, emanated from the cleaning supplies and half-arranged rooms, and the excitement in the air was palpable. Rithy beamed as he told us about their plans for hosting and supporting multiple small businesses in the workspace. He told us about the importance of placing emphasis on a community, and on the idea of work as a joyful pursuit leading to personal and spiritual growth. In the future, SmallWorld may feature such quirks as a massage room supporting blind masseuses, a roof bridge connecting two sides of the house, and a climbing-wall challenge with a prize of discounted coffee for any brave enough to reach the top.

Thul Rithy, a founder of the collaborative workspace SmallWorld. SmallWorld’s mission is to ensure passionate, idea-driven youth have access to an enjoyable and productive work environment.

Needless to say, we were tremendously inspired by the collective energy at SmallWorld. Not an hour into our visit, we found ourselves sprawled on the floor next to Khmer students, leaning over giant pieces of white paper with flip-chart markers, brainstorming our thoughts on growing a community fostering productivity and social change, editing each other’s text, giggling, and continuously ramping up our enthusiasm.

The brainstorming process

Workshopping some of our ideas for the engineering-design club with an engaged local perspective was invaluable. By the end of the evening, after a great discussion, we had been invited to gather our thoughts on the experience and present a workshop to SmallWorld on relevant social business concepts. We accepted with enthusiasm.

SmallWorld is an incredible precedent to observe. It was extremely meaningful to see such a holistic locally grown solution to the need for productivity-based collaborative communities in the Cambodian student and small business worlds. This group gives us hope for the future, and energy to continue with our own initiative. We hope very much to interface with such grounded, future-thinking people again.

December 17: Meeting with two student community leaders, cultural awareness

Today we scheduled a meeting with Chanthan, a Khmer student at Institut de Technologie du Cambodge currently studying electrical engineering. We’d been introduced to by a mutual contact and MIT student who had met him while participating in IDDS in Ghana. We were excited to finally meet him in person and talk to him about ideas for local projects and workshops.

The meeting turned out to be even more exciting than originally planned as Chanthan brought along his friend and fellow classmate Skye. Skye, also a student of electrical engineering at I.T.C., recently started a student group focused on students tutoring other students. By brainstorming with her about the logistics of her group, we discovered several barriers she faced that we take for granted when developing a student group in the US.

One problem Skye deals with is lack of community and consequent lack of funding. Universities in Cambodia lack the same sense of shared experience and resources as those in America. Students tend to live in monasteries (if male) or with relatives in the city, and don’t use university networks for social connections and identity as much as their American counterparts.

It was extremely validating to see that our hypothesized need of continuing informal instruction and a learning support group structured to build confidence and enthusiasm did in fact exist on the ground, and even better, was being addressed by local students.

Skye and Chanthan were both amused by and attracted to the idea of planned communities, such as MIT dormitories and living groups, where certain values and character are cooperatively preserved over time. They explained that for them, this could result in an encouraging network of peers. Our conversation was energizing. Brainstorming together like this is the first step towards developing new ideas, or remodeling existing ones for a different cultural context.

Later in the day, Skye and Chanthan brought us to the genocide museum at Tuol Sleng, a former Khmer Rouge interrogation and torture site. Before entering, we wanted to make sure that our new friends were comfortable revisiting a difficult part of Cambodia’s history. Chanthan nodded, clarifying: “We do want to come. You know, not just like tour guides, we want to experience it with you.” We walked through the gate together into the deceptively peaceful schoolyard.

Skye at Tuol Sleng museum

It was difficult to see the barbed wire, small cells, and iron relics of the school’s grim past. Walking through the museum, we read historical documents, looked at mug shots of victim families, quietly taking in a couple hours of history, with Skye and Chanthan occasionally adding personal stories or clarifying facts.

Sign at Tuol Sleng musuem

Later in the afternoon, we took a tuktuk out about an hour from the city center to visit Choeung Ek, also known as “The Killing Fields.” Once a Khmer Rouge death camp, Choeung Ek has since been transformed into a place of healing where Khmer people can confront memories and stories from a confusing chapter of the country’s history. The site, a beautiful orchard, can be chillingly visceral. The bodies of victims have been exhumed from the mass graves and respectfully preserved in a central stupa, but fragments of bone, teeth, or scraps of clothing still surface from the graves when it rains.

We spent a couple hours at Choeung Ek listening to survivor’s stories, stories of horror and human confusion, presented respectfully and empathetically. It was one of the most inspiring educational centers we’d ever seen. There, we as visitors could bear witness to the plight of the victims, brought out into the open, and pay our respects. The country’s treatment of the genocide is an important part of Cambodia today. This experience helped shape our concept of contemporary Khmer character.

December 15, 2011: Meeting Phnom Penh: lunch in Russian Market

Tired, so tired, but it feels good to be here. The first night, we traveled from the airport in a tuktuk, an open air cart pulled by motorcycle. We drove on bumpy roads, adventure in the air like the salty taste of sea breeze, here a smell of dust, trash, overripe fruit. Impressions of a night city: tropical air on skin, luggage shifting in the cart each time we took a quick turn, bright lights, Khmer script, guest houses, pharmacies, three girls rode by piled on the back of a motorcycle and giggled at us when we waved.

Immediately after checking in at the Goldiana Hotel, we collapsed. The next morning, we awoke after a few hours of sleep, refreshed and ready to meet Phnom Penh.

Good morning, Phnom Penh

A man cooked us eggs outside and we drank coffee and ate pineapple, sitting beside the main road, flanked by a fleet of tuktuk and moto drivers.

After packing, we caught a ride to the Tuek Thla Harpswell dormitory, which was about 20 minutes away. Directed inside the four story sand colored building, we met the house manager, Varony, who led us to the guest room, where we were able to talk to the current leadership residents Becky and Kim for a while. Becky volunteered to take us out and show us around, so shortly after settling in, we headed off to grab food at Russian Market.

On the way to Russian Market

During the 80’s, following the Vietnam occupation, many foreigners in Phnom Penh were Russian and items from the Eastern Bloc were prominent in street markets. The architecture of Psar Toul Tom Poung, also known as Russian Market, has changed overtime but the closely packed shops, food stalls, and various curios continue to attract foreigners and Khmer people alike.

Stepping inside the massive tent-like structure we were immediately overwhelmed by a maze of scarfs, silver, wood, crafts, fakes, and motorcycle parts, quickly absorbed into a melting pot of people oozing out of every nook and cranny, spirited Khmer conversations full of nasal tones emanating from all around. Steam and the smell of drying fish enveloped us as we followed Becky into the food area at the heart of the covered complex.

I locked eyes with a scraggly cat wobbling by underfoot as the
 woman at our stall cried out a greeting and waved hastily for us to
sit down at the bar. We pulled out the plastic stools, which scraped
on the dusty concrete floor, and sat as she quickly began assembling soup bowls for us. I tried to keep up with the thread of Becky’s conversation as my eyes and ears were pulled everywhere around us. We were talking about trying to meet up with the other teacher, Lara, as the first coffee was plunked down in front of Deborah with a lilting “Aw-kun.”

Our food stall

The woman had run out of flat noodles and yelled to a nearby stall, motioning. Another vendor, hair tied back in a Khmer scarf, dutifully grabbed a thick handful of her own flat noodles, handing them precariously to ours over the bar. We wiped the spoons they gave us with jasmine scented napkins as our soup arrived in front of us. I added a giant tablespoon of chili to my bowl, grabbing a pair of chopsticks to help. The steaming broth was amazing, shredded chicken and bean sprouts piled on top.

Lara had arrived. “Are those snakes?” She was looking at pale formless meat hanging from a nearby stall. “Yeah, those are snakes.”

The four of us wandered through the covered market, dazzled by the colors, the noise, followed by a chorus of “Lady– lady–” as vendors struggled to get our attention

Leaving the complex, we made plans to meet with Lara for lunch the next day. It was close to four in the afternoon, and we were already 
getting tired. Back at Harpswell, we met several students who had just finished cooking dinner. Dinner was water mimosa with a small amount of pork and amok spices served over rice. After dinner, we discussed our plans to visit a friend-of-a-friend from MIT, and then we finally crashed, completely exhausted.

December 14, 2011: Women who will make a difference in the world

“Well, I do have my future plans…” The woman in front of us admits with a grin.

We are sitting at a small concrete table next to a shallow fishpond in the Harpswell Enclosure. Leena, a student living at the Harpswell dormitory, had arrived on her moto a few minutes before and, seeing two new faces, she’d appr
Quickly, we connected as young people, as engineers, and began sharing about our lives.

Leena studies biology and chemical engineering. She is notorious around the dormitory for working long hours. Early on in our conversation, she tells us about her passion for biology. She mentions her farming heritage, and explains how it led her to study natural sciences.

Eventually, she says, she will own her own chain of factories and revolutionize the food packing and processing industry across all of Cambodia.

We give her big eyes, astonished. She smiles sweetly.

“For now, it is just a dream.”

These are the women we will get to know in the next few weeks: women who have fought to personal and academic success, often in the face of massive obstacles; women who will make a difference in the world.

We are here to implement critical thinking coursework and to build connections in the local community, especially connections between young people and women interested in starting social businesses or community initiatives.

Additionally, we hope to build connections for a long term 1 year project upon our return, working in concert with the Cambodian government on an education project.

These next weeks, we will partner with local NGO The Harpswell Foundation to learn and teach their critical thinking curriculum with a focus on Design for Empowerment philosophy. We hope to inspire women to design-think their way to creative business models or innovative solutions to local problems, and to equip them with brainstorming and self-evaluation techniques to aid them in this process.

« All Posts