In late 2019, a group of eleven Boxers, found ourselves deep in rural Cambodia, in Ratanakiri Province near the Vietnam border, emotional and unwilling to say goodbye to the incredible people we had just spent two weeks getting to know and working closely with.
We were there to contribute to the Know & Grow Project, started 5 years ago by CARE Cambodia, which is focused on empowering marginalized ethnic minorities in the Ratanakiri region by providing access to technology and 21st century skills. Box.org partnered with Team4Tech, a nonprofit organization that connects talented professionals fromdifferent technology companies to underserved students around the world, who in turn partnered with CARE Cambodia, to work on this project. CARE Cambodia is a development organization fighting global poverty with a focus on working with women and girls to bring sustainable changes to their communities and they've been engaged in the Ratanakiri Province via the Know & Grow Project since 2015.
The Know & Grow project aims to expand the life options of ethnic minority adolescent girls and boys by providing access to quality education, teaching 21st century skills and equipping teachers and students with the knowledge and skills needed to be engaged, global citizens. This project has already impacted 3,000+ teachers and students, motivated students to go into STEM fields, and inspired the integration of technology across more schools in rural Cambodia, which will hopefully continue long after the conclusion of the project.
If you're interested in watching a video that summarizes our project and partnership with Team4Tech, check it out here. And for more details, read on below!
The Box team worked with Team4Tech and CARE Cambodia over the course of four months, including two weeks in Cambodia, engaging directly with the impacted teachers and students. In the eight weeks leading up to our time in Cambodia, we met weekly with Gail Shen, the Program Director at Team4Tech leading our project, who coached us through our project planning and prepared us for those very intense two weeks in-country. Gail led us through Team4Tech's Immersive Leadership Development Curriculum, where, in the words of Allen Li, one of the Box volunteers, we were "able to learn valuable leadership concepts - growth mindset, customer-centric innovation, inclusivity, communication and collaboration, and decision-making under ambiguity, as well as [our] capacities around problem solving and critical thinking."
Each Boxer was part of a sub-team, focused on a different piece of technology, which also met weekly to build workshops and lesson plans tailored to the Ratanakiri schools’ IT trainers, teachers, and students. Throughout all of this preparation and training, we also spent time fundraising over $30,000 for the project.
After the workshops, lesson plans, and leave-behind resources were finalized and all training was completed, it was wheels up for us and we arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital, in early December.
Many of us do not work in the same office and had never met one another in person before so when we arrived, we had a day and a half to meet each other, practice our workshops, track down lost suitcases that contained resources for those workshops, and go through safety and culture briefings. After all of that and a long 9 hour bus ride out to Ratanakiri, we arrived in the community we came to support.
We worked at three different schools, training teachers and students on 5 specific technology/STEM tools:
- RACHEL servers: Building upon last year’s project, Allen advanced the use of the RACHEL servers (which mimic an online learning environment in schools without wifi) with a refresher course and many additional resources, including new lesson plans and digital science simulations.
- Scratch: By using the Scratch desktop (offline) editor, Annelies Browse and Will Chassaing introduced the creative, systematic, and collaborative world of coding through stories, games, and animations.
- Makey Makey: Bringing together technology and the physical world, Meghan McEneaney and Andreá Smith inspired students to use real-life objects (like water, leaves, and aluminum foil) to control their computers via circuits in the Makey Makey kits (and by using Scratch coding).
- Lego WeDo: By combining physical building bricks (Legos!) with easy block coding on tablets, Roxy Galvez and Elisa de Serrano helped the students learn about sensors and motors, pushing them to creatively engage with engineering principles.
- Sphero Mini: Using a programmable spherical robot, Ari Alvarez and Laurel Bonsack taught student and teachers how to build the foundations of computer science, incorporating arithmetic and geometry.
The teachers and students were hungry to learn it all. After one of our first days of teaching, Meghan said "I saw the lightbulb. I couldn’t have felt more purpose than in that moment of curiosity when [the student] asked ‘what is next?’”
And they picked it up quickly. A few of the sub-teams even had to make up new lesson plans while we were there because the teachers and students were learning everything so fast! Roxy felt “humbled and reminded to not underestimate the abilities of others due to a lack of resources.”
Andreá articulated just how eager the teachers and students were to learn: "They came in on weekends and holidays, just to have the opportunity." In fact, there were so many students who wanted to participate that not everyone could fit into the classroom. Students were hanging though the windows to catch bits of the lessons.
“Technology is a gateway and connector for opportunity,” noted Elisa. It was clear that simply by gaining access to technology that we take for granted, this group of teachers and student felt more confident in their technical/STEM abilities and empowered to master the lessons.
On top of the technical learnings, the students, especially the girls, learned firsthand that with the right tools and education, they can go into any field or career they want. Jan Noorlander, CARE Cambodia's Deputy Country Director, stated "you should not underestimate how important it is for a young student to see a group of very experienced persons coming into their school [...] and they’re women. It’s really a very strong message to those girls: 'I can be that too.'"
Annelies reflected "in my experience, oftentimes it is perception that holds us back - perceiving that coding is too complicated or foreign to learn, [...] that the barrier of language will be insurmountable, that only men will have technical jobs. If I had held on to these perceptions for this project and in my life, I wouldn't have the skills that I have now [...] and I wouldn't have seen the powerful moments of achievement from the students who coded their first program."
As you might imagine, this level of commitment and connection from everyone involved led to strong bonds that formed quickly and each night we left the schools hugging our new peers and friends goodbye.
Laurel said it beautifully when she observed "for how much trauma the country has been through together, it was incredibly inspiring to witness profound resilience and joy in each person we met." We didn't just walk away with budding friendships and new Facebook friends, we came out of this experience knowing that because of our work and the foundational work of many others before us, across 92 teachers and 1,437 students, "94% reported an increase in technology knowledge and skills" and "72% reported that their new technology skills have increased their work efficiency."
"The ability to have genuine impact in places like this is powerful, sometimes even scary, but proves to me that we all need to be making efforts to leave our comfort zones because the ability to do good around the world is so high right now," reflected Will.
We also gained leadership, communication, and teamwork skills in a way we wouldn't have in our day-to-day jobs. Said Meghan, "this has been not only an experience for the teachers and students; it’s really an opportunity for us to grow as leaders and to face some challenges that we might not in the office.” Our photographer and videographer (and resident one man IT team!), Gordon Mak also noted that "the experience taught [him] the value of being present in the moment and to not let preconceived notions limit creativity."
As Andreá wisely said, “when you are technologically and economically rich, it’s important to share.” We're proud of Box.org, Team4Tech, CARE Cambodia, and the Boxers who were a part of this project and thank them all for their dedication and time. Especially in this trying and unfamiliar time, we're also thankful for all of the teachers around the world who are ensuring students still receive an education - thank you for all that you do.
From this project, we learned that education is the great equalizer and Ari eloquently noted that "we need to continuously make room for a conversation and assessment of how our respective talents and resources can help scale global and local impact. This isn't one person or group's job - we all need to be awakened to the ways we can pitch in."
Team4Tech is pledging to #KeepStudentsLearning during the pandemic so if you're looking to make an impact, please consider donating to their work.
Akun ("thank you" in Khmer)!