GradSWE Overseas, Liberia

Engineering demos begin – SUCCESS Camp 2017

Standing at the front of the class, sweat running from my brow to behind my ear, smiling wildly. Looking at nothing and everything at once. The first sentence you speak in front of a crowd is the hardest, the leap into the pool. I wrote the word “MENTORSHIP” on the dry erase board in large block letters. I turned back to the class. They looked at me, attentive, poised. I felt a conflicted mix of panic and delight at their eagerness. A few seconds passed, and I took a deep breath. I jumped in. It was Friday afternoon, and my first time teaching at camp.

There are two paths you can take once you embark on a public speaking journey. Either after a few sentences you can feel a calm settle in or you can lose every thought in your brain and stumble along, unsure if you are even forming complete thoughts along the way. I have experienced both, and while they begin with hints of insecurity, one path is clearly more pleasant than the other. I waded through the shallow end of the pool, waiting for which this would be.

It was a unique thing that happened. I have taught classes in the US, and in those situations, I’ve felt varying emotions – excitement, inspiration, contentment, glee. Of all the groups I’ve taught, though, I’ve not ever felt lifted by a group of students. Raised hands, numerous thoughtful questions, engagement without reservation. I had witnessed this from the sidelines for the past few days at camp, but now I was viewing it from the front of the room. The students were elevating me. My thoughts became clearer as I rose above clouds. My voice became more animated. I passed out worksheets after what was supposed to be my intro discussion and realized that already an hour had passed. I opened a bottle of water and drank the entire thing at once, shaking my head in splendid disbelief.

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Proposed bottle rocket designs

The first hands-on engineering activity, bottle rockets, began as I floated away from the podium. Sarah had presented the scientific concepts the day prior, but now it was time to build. In small groups, the campers were given empty 1.5 L bottles, a battery of other supplies, and asked to use their knowledge to construct a rocket that would fly the highest. Nine makeshift workstations popped up around the room.

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Maria measuring the nose cone
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Bottle rocket building

Nose cones from colored construction paper. Fins from cardstock. Clay for weight. Hot glue guns lying in wait, molten strands falling from their nozzles and hardening into opaque lumps on the flat brown paper bags atop which they sat. When the electricity cut off at 5 PM, proto-rockets were stashed in various corners of the room out of sight of other groups’ prying eyes. Even when there’s no prize, it’s always a competition. The launch was scheduled for “sunny and clear hours” on Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday of next week.

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Decorating bottle rockets

After dinner that evening, we bid Caroline adieu. She was our first UM team member to head back to the US, back to work, back to some semblance of her other life. It was difficult to see her go, because I had enjoyed getting to know her, but also because it reminded me of my ever-dwindling time I had remaining in Liberia. We were one week in. Camp was halfway over.

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UM SWE team at UL Fendell Campus (L-R Jill, Aeriel, Sarah, Kirsten, Val, Caroline, Becca, Melinda)
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