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Bringing a Love of Science to Cambodia’s Rural Students

August 27, 2016

As sheets of rain pounded the Phoum Khmer Primary School yard into puddles, sixth grader Kim Yi read with her friends in the library. Ignoring the torrent outside, she paged through the colorful illustrations in Can it Rain Cats and Dogs?, a children’s book that answers questions about the weather like, “What happens when air masses bump into each other?”

Kim Yi wasn’t always keen on reading books about the weather — or stars or oceans for that matter. Science just wasn’t a topic her Cambodian village much talked about. And that didn’t change when the science books arrived at her school.

Then last year Room to Read ran a pilot program to encourage students to read the science books. A year later, Kim Yi found herself checking them out to share with her family. What changed?

Students began reading science books at Phoum Khmer Primary School after a Room to Read pilot study instructed teachers how to get them engaged.

A first for the Khmer language

Before the books arrived, the villagers of Phoum Khmer were too busy working on farms, selling goods in the markets or fishing to think about science. It’s no surprise the World Economic Forum found that out of 140 countries, Cambodia ranks 118th in innovative scientific research and 122nd in quality research institutions.

To help get students more engaged in science, Room to Read Cambodia got permission to translate Scholastic’s popular Question and Answer series into the Khmer language. Room to Read also edited some of the text to make it more relevant to Cambodian students.

“This is the first science book series ever published in Khmer,” said Room to Read Cambodia’s Country Director Kall Kann, who presented the initiative to the Cambodian Ministry of Education as a way to address the dearth of science books for early grade students.

Do asteroids ever strike Earth?

The series covers a wide range of science topics and asks the kinds of questions kids like to bug their parents about — things like, what makes a tornado twist? does a star have points? and do asteroids ever strike Earth?

School librarian Layheang Lin regularly shares science books with her students...

Room to Read Cambodia worked with local businesses to print 480,000 copies of the books and distributed them to its partner schools. Each package includes guidelines on how to use the books in the classroom and as supplementary reading materials.

There was just one problem. The students weren’t reading them. While most fiction titles in the libraries were worn from use, the science books stayed in like-new condition. Room to Read’s Research, Monitoring & Evaluation team found that only 17% of students remembered reading any of them.

“Many students find the science books hard to understand,” offered Layheang Lin, the school’s librarian. “They’d rather read fiction.”

Cambodian schools start teaching science in the fourth grade, but it’s not just hard for students to learn — it’s also hard for teachers to teach. Most public schools can’t afford any science equipment much less a lab. They rely on government-issued textbooks, many of which have no illustrations.

…and students enjoy learning about science now that Lin is using library activities to engage them.

Piloting an intervention

Evidently fostering students’ curiosity about science in rural areas like Phoum Khmer required more than good books. That’s when Room to Read’s researchers, publishing team and literacy coaches sat down to brainstorm a solution.

They decided to pilot two interventions in Kampong Thom Province. In the first, librarians in four schools read two related science books to students during library period. The librarians were trained to spark students’ curiosity and keep them engaged with questions before and during the reading. In the second intervention, four fifth grade teachers from the remaining schools conducted in class research activities based on the science books. Students were also asked to come up with their own research questions related to what they had read.

At the end of the 12-week pilot, 62% of students in the teacher-based intervention liked or remembered the science books compared with 40% of students in the librarian-based intervention. But what wowed the team is that students from the first intervention has started going to the library to read the science books on their own, even borrowing them to read to their families.

In Cambodia science textbooks often don’t have illustrations. Teacher Ny Soo uses crude chalkboard sketches to teach his students about soil types.

There will be a scientist yet!

“Science is important — it helps students understand the world around them,” remarked Phoum Khmer’s director Chantheun Oeung. He pointed at the science books on the shelves, which had gotten worn out since the intervention last year. “I asked our librarian to keep reading them to our students. The knowledge they gain will make them smarter and help prepare them for secondary school.”

Sixth-grader Tri has read all 40 books in the series. Her classmate Ratana’s favorite books are The Sun, The Moon, and The Seven Continents, favoring their pictures to the ones in the fiction books. Like Tri, he takes them home to read to his siblings. Kim Yi also checks them out, but for a different reason. “I read them to my mother. She is unable to read to me since she is illiterate.”

Thanks to the interventions, and to their continued practice in the library, science is no longer a strange topic of conversation for the villagers of Phoum Khmer. As Chantheun put it hopefully, “There will be a scientist yet from Phoum Khmer!”

Sixth grader Tri holds up her favorite science book, about planet Earth.

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