Students in science literacy class in Birmingham talk with Chilupula, Zambia, 8,000 miles away, via Skype. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)
Birmingham— There was a definite buzz in classroom 600-C as students chatted and typed questions on tablets, laptops and iPads, waiting for the lesson in science literacy to begin.
After a few clicks on a teacher’s laptop and a few anxious minutes of waiting for an Internet connection, it happened: Victor Phiri, standing in a small village in the African nation of Zambia, was inside Birmingham Covington School, waving to students.
At the same time, the classroom of middle school students from Oakland County was now 8,000 miles away in Africa, waving to villagers there.
The exchange was made possible by Skype in the classroom, a free global education platform that allows teachers to connect with each other and guest speakers to create interactive learning experiences and enhance educational experiences for children.
Phiri spoke from Chilupula, Zambia, where village elders and members surrounded him as he took questions from the fifth- and sixth-grade students at the Oakland County school about local life and challenges faced by families who live in the African village.
A recent epidemic of hoof and mouth disease destroyed most of the village’s draft animals, such as bison and ox, leaving locals unable to farm their rice, maize and beans. The Birmingham school has embarked on a student-led community project to fund two tractors for the village through Project COPE Zambia, an effort to eliminate rural poverty. Their goal is to raise $12,000.
“Hello. How are you?” Phiri said to the students as they huddled near the laptop and whiteboard, where Phiri’s digital image was displayed.
“Hi. I’m good. How are you?” Covington student I’yana Bobbit said. “Where exactly is Chilupula?”
Students in Pauline Roberts’ and Rick Joseph’s combined class peppered Phiri, a COPE project director in Zambia, with questions.
They learned school is so far away for some of the children that many stay home and help their parents with farming. The tractors, the students learned, are expected to triple the village’s harvest and help 300 people with food while building a sustainable local economy.
“It was so exciting. It was so far away,” Kylee Haddad, a sixth-grader, said after the Skype chat. “It was cool I could communicate with him using Skype.”
Skype in the classroom is a network of 69,664 teachers around the world who are collaborating on 3,000 lessons, according to education.skype.com.
It also includes Mystery Skype, an educational game invented by teachers.
John Kernan, Covington’s instructional specialist, said Skype is a cost-effective way for teachers to enhance curriculum and create learning opportunities.
“One of the great things about technology is it makes the world accessible to you. You don’t have to pay for field trips. You can take them on this fantastic journey,” he said.
Birmingham Covington’s motto is “Learn globally, serve locally.” Principal Mark Morawski said Skype helps student understand the “why” of a service project, instead of focusing on the fund-raising.
On their own, students began making jewelry from used plastic gift cards and toothbrush handles to sell to raise money for the project.
Afterward, students were assigned to write about the three most interesting facts they learned from the experience and what new questions they had. Joseph said there is no substitute for a truly global project.
“If you want to motivate them, give them a real-world experience where they can help someone,” he said.