Global Outlook

Liberia

Imagine a first-grade class with 60 students ranging in age from six to 17 years old. The class is being taught in a large open room in an abandoned building, alongside four or five other classes, or outdoors, subject to the heat, humidity and seasonal winds and rains of a tropical climate.

This is a typical scenario in the West African nation of Liberia, a country recovering from the lingering effects of 14 years of civil war that caused its infrastructure to collapse. As a result of the wars, which ended in 2003, the education system suffered, schools were destroyed and the national literacy rate fell to 58 percent. Though classrooms are overcrowded, enrollment in Liberia's schools is low, and many teachers are instructing at levels they barely achieved themselves.
Here at Emmanuel, Associate Professor of Mathematics Education Kimberly Sofronas was looking for ways to make learning more purposeful. During the fall 2011 semester, she began collaborating with her former University of Connecticut classmate and Liberian native, Dr. Blidi Stemn, associate professor of mathematics education at Hofstra University, on how to help restore systems of education in Liberia. "The methods of teaching and learning at schools in Liberia are focused on memorization and rote learning," Dr. Sofronas said. "We would like to open the door to more active learning."

She tasked the students in her "Elementary Mathematics Methods" course at Emmanuel with designing and developing mathematical games and instructional materials for a school that Dr. Stemn is developing in Harper, a coastal town of nearly 18,000 and the capital of Maryland County in Liberia. Before her students began the project, they participated in a Skype session with Dr. Stemn, who exposed them to some of the cultural differences they would need to consider in developing mathematical resources for Liberian students and teachers.

"That aspect of the project was a challenge," Molly Sherer '14 said. "We couldn't make a game of fractions using 'pizza' or 'pie,'" as pizza is not a familiar food to those living in rural Liberia. He recommended that they use "cake" as a model for their fraction game.

Dr. Sofronas encouraged her students to be as resourceful as possible when designing their games, as schools in Liberia, as well as many in the United States, work with extremely limited means. With a materials budget of $25, Sherer's group engineered a "math Scrabble," modeled on the game "Smath," which uses numbers and operations instead of letters and words. Rather than purchasing ready-made materials, the team crafted five elaborate laminated boards and sawed and painted more than 500 wooden pieces by hand. After researching current math games, Rebecca Benigno '13 and her group created a memory game with various decks of cards including division, multiplication, equivalent fractions and digital/analog time.

"I think the fact that we knew we were sending our games to real children in Liberia made us work a lot harder than we would have on any other assignment, because we knew that we would be making a difference to these children who had never been exposed to math games before," Benigno said.