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MCLA Physics Professor Adrienne Wootters on a Fulbright Fellowship in Rwanda

05/12/2010

Rwanda classFor MCLA Physics Professor Adrienne Wootters, the opportunity to swap a New England winter for the warmth of Africa and countless cups of Rwandan coffee was just too tempting to pass up. But, besides the opportunity to stretch beyond her social and professional comfort zones, the real bonus of her Fulbright Fellowship is her association with a group of kind, resilient people whose lives remind her of what's important in life.

On sabbatical in Rwanda this semester to teach physics to students at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (KIST), Wootters said her biggest surprise about the country is the contrast between the deep beauty and lushness of its hillsides and the dire poverty that exists there.

"The land of Rwanda is as close to the stereotypical view of Eden as one can get," she said. "People are not poor because the land does not provide for them; they are poor because there is not enough acreage to support them. ...People live very simply: about 5 percent of the country's homes have electricity and indoor plumbing." 

During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Wootters' students were children.

"The statistic I have heard is that 90 percent of all children witnessed at least one violent murder during the 100 days of the genocide," said Wootters. However, "They do not let their past stop them. They are busy looking toward the future."

Her students' educational upbringing largely consisted of reciting and rote learning in a classroom with 50 to 70 students, one teacher, and one chalkboard and no electricity. "The very lucky ones are able to go to a secondary school where they have a few more resources, like electricity, but still no books," she said.

In stark contrast, "American college students correctly expect that they will have easy access to textbooks, library facilities and the Internet. Rwandan college students have no such promises made to them. They are 100 percent reliant on their professors for primary information -textbooks are prohibitively expensive. There may or may not be relevant texts in the library."

Although KIST is the country's technical university, "Internet access is unreliable; and if you can find a free computer, it is usually crawling with viruses. If a student is fortunate enough to be able to afford a flash drive, he or she shares it with others," Wootters explained. "When I get home I am going to personally kiss the feet of every person in the IT department at MCLA. You never know how good you have it until you don't have it!"

Despite its lack of resources, she's become quite fond of the country. "In particular, I find I am emotionally invested in the success of the students of KIST," said Wootters. "I fully expect to stay in contact and return when I can." 

In addition to teaching two courses, Wootters works with the KIST physics department on program review, and is writing a lab manual for their introductory labs.

"Both exercises, coupled with the luxury of time to reflect, have helped me think about ways the MCLA physics department can grow and improve, particularly in the area of active learning strategies," she said.

The experience of being the sole source of information for her students has led her to become passionate about the importance of development of open source textbooks. 

"There are several texts for introductory courses on the Internet, but very little for advanced physics courses," she said. "If people from poor countries are to have a chance to succeed in technological careers, they need access to information. The Web makes open source textbooks possible, but it can only happen if qualified people contribute their knowledge, time, and writing skills to the effort."

To read more about Wootters' African adventure, visit her blog at http://wootters.blogspot.com .