Empowering Youth with Science in Haiti

By Dr. Beth Robelia | July 17, 2021

It all started with an email from my spouse, “Hey honey, do you want to go to Haiti?” I am always up for an adventure. A former colleague of my husband had forwarded a message from the director of Have Faith Mission School, an orphanage in Haiti, about coming for a long weekend to teach science. We had traveled before in developing countries; we had some idea about how difficult it might be to get ourselves and all the equipment we would need for teaching to Haiti. The magic words form Gina Wymore were “the kids are really excited about science.” My spouse and I both agreed that teaching motivated students would be refreshing. Gina agreed to pause all normal lessons for an entire week and let us take over the school.

Luggage for trip to Haiti

Our challenge was to create interesting lessons for young people from ages 3-17 with equipment we could fit in our luggage. We spent two straight months gathering, ordering, and building equipment. Meanwhile, we wrote curriculum and gathered ideas from everyone in our educational community. We reached out to anyone who could connect us with equipment or ideas.  We collected many donations, including 10 microscopes, goggles, test tubes, pipettes, and K’nex chipped in a large classroom set of building toys. We also purchased things from several local and online vendors.

Even with all the preparation, our time at the orphanage was a whirlwind. Young people wanted our attention around the clock. The students surprised us by how excited they were; we made Cartesian divers in soda bottles. Students control the pressure in the bottle to lower a diver to the bottom of the bottle to hook wire rings. We thought they would grow bored with the game and give the bottles back so we could make rockets with them later in the week. Instead, students took the diving games back to their rooms and slept with them. We had to buy more soda so we could have the bottles to propel the paper rockets. It was a good problem to have.

Cutting cardboard for paper rockets.

Launching paper rockets was an activity we devised for the youngest students. We made the rockets and let the students jump on a 2-liter soda bottle to create the air pressure to launch them. Thanks NASA. When I started launching rockets with the youngest students, my husband lost his class of older students. They disappeared to watch the excitement. The whole orphanage stopped to watch the launch of soda bottle rockets with an air compressor.

Not every lesson was a showstopper; however, based on evaluations filled out after we left, students remembered at least some of what we taught. Most teachers in Haiti lack the materials to make science lessons happen. We hope to make a difference in at least a small way. We left boxes of materials that were catalogued and stored in locked cabinets for teachers. We also worked with many of the teachers before we left. We wrote ideas for follow up lessons and left them with the school both in books and online in a Google Drive.  

The second time I introduced some Cognitively Guided Instruction math lessons to the middle grade students. One was so excited to solve a problem at lunch, she found cardboard and charcoal, as she had left her notebook in the classroom. Full disclosure I did promise a pack of gum to whoever solved the problem. It was motivating.

We had so much fun on our first trip, we planned a second trip during our spring break. This time, we brought our friend, an art teacher. We brought S.T.E.A.M. activities with “fabric engineering” (a.k.a. sewing) included in some of the lessons. We managed to get three sewing machines to Haiti. The students worked with my husband to build a new garden enclosure from bent PVC and wire fencing. It turned out great and is still functioning with tires filled with soil as planters. We concluded our spring break visit with a fashion show highlighting students’ work.  We had planned a third trip for March 2020 but COVID struct and the trip has been postponed. However, we did get some medical supplies on a plane traveling to the orphanage this summer.

We learned how to pack as much learning into one week as we could. We expressed our excitement, exhaustion and some exasperation in journal videos when we were there which helped us remember our mistakes and successes for the next trip.  We have inspired the school at Have Faith to include more science in the curriculum as well as invite more science visitors. We will go back as soon as we are able.

Dr. Beth Robelia is a contributing faculty member at Walden in Riley College of Education and Leadership. She lives in St. Paul, MN. She also works full time at an online high school teaching biology. In previous lives she has been a deckhand and a seamstress.

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