When she was first approached about the idea of opening a global classroom in Romania, Jeanne Roepcke, facilitator at Batesville High School, had a fairly pragmatic reaction: great idea, but “we’re not going to Romania.” The time, the distance, the money. All seemed like significant obstacles.
Of course, like most EAST programs, Batesville is no stranger to overcoming challenges. That’s why, on Sept. 22, 2015, Roepcke and two students were standing in the Little Rock airport, bound for Sighisoara, where they planned to install a 3D printer, laptops and associated software to connect their own classroom to another half a world away. The equipment was purchased with a $5,000 grant from Citizens Bank in Batesville. Airfare was paid for by the school district.
“I’ve been in EAST for five years and never seen the whole town come together for a project like they have for this one. From getting started through partnerships, to the funding contributions, to the way we’ve had so much support and interest from the community. People are so excited for this project,” said senior Jon Ward, team leader for the project.
For junior Amanda Okolo, setting out was a surreal moment that had started when she’d been invited to make the trip.
“I was like, yeah right. I just couldn’t believe it at first. But Ms. Roepcke said, ‘No, I have the ticket for you if you want to go.’”
The whole thing had started some months before when the class was connected with Roberta Bustin, a former chemistry professor at Batesville’s Lyon College who is now a missionary living in Romania. She was aware of EAST from past partnerships and saw an opportunity to grow an academic after school program there, which operates independent of the local school and has to supply its own funding.
Jon recalled that early idea.
“One of the cool things about this town, it’s very ‘touristy.’ One of the students in this class hand-makes and sells these local emblems. While normally EAST projects are intended to solve a community problem, the original goal in Romania was to teach these students how to use 3D design technology to make the emblems on a computer and 3D print them to sell and support their class.”
The arrangement has Batesville students offering instruction first thing each morning at 8 a.m. local time, which is the end of the day Romanian time. It started, for the EAST class, as uncharted territory, since they’d never seen or spoken with the Romanian students, all of whom are proficient in English, before being connected. And there were some surprises.
“We’d talk to them online face to face and tell them something about Blender, a program for digital design and animation,” said Jon. “While they would all look at the screen and write some notes, none of them would touch a computer. They’re just so not used to applying what they learn.”
It’s not that they are unlearned -- far from it, said Jon and Amanda. It’s just that the American students saw what they interpreted as a sort of cultural memory of communism, the ruling ideology when the parents of these Romanian students were young, during which asking questions and doing more (or less) than instructed was generally frowned upon. Even today, Jon said, the education system is very rigid, all built toward a final test before graduation.
“These students are very smart kids, really nice kids too, and you can tell they really want to learn,” said Amanda. “But this is so different for them, just like it was for all of us walking into EAST for first time. They’re used to having people tell them what to do in class.”
But that’s changing. Questions are commonplace now. What started as a means to support a fundraising idea turned into real project-based learning. Indeed, some Romanian students have surpassed some of their Batesville instructors in Blender. And it’s led to new kinds of outreach.
“In the spring we began the process of assisting our Romanian classmates while they implement hydroponics drip systems in the nearby village of Tigmandru,” said Emma Whiteaker. “The students we’ve been working with all year are using the skills they've mastered to 3D print the parts needed to create the drip system. The goal is to provide a sustainable food source in poor villages during the cold Romanian winters when fresh produce is unavailable.”
With the 2016-2017 school year, Batesville will begin setting up another Global Classroom in Tigmandru.
Jon said the experience has been an amazing opportunity for growth on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, and he’s excited to see new opportunities for more interaction in Romania.
“These kids are really smart and can tell you anything, but they often don't have opportunities to think creatively in class or to innovate. Normally, school all leads up to passing a specific test to be successful,” he said.
That may not sound so different from some American classrooms. Yet, it highlights the way in which EAST can meet educational needs anywhere and prove transformative, regardless of borders or cultures.
“I don’t want to say we’re changing the future of a country here,” Jon said, “but I think this is what these kids need, this chance to explore, to think outside the box they’ve been forced to be in.”