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Empowering through knowledge

By Dr Dimitrina Trendafilova

It was my first lesson after the 2018 summer holidays with the second-year students in one of the Diploma Programme (DP) chemistry classes and I was eager to know how they spent the summer holiday. They all looked grown-up. I asked them to write down their personal “mission statement” and to discuss in small groups which talent or skill they discovered in themselves during the last year. The students then shared their reflections with the whole class. I always find these moments very emotional as students open up and talk freely about their experiences. I was listening to them and my sense of pride was increasing with each story. I felt I was participating in their lives; I was contributing to their growth.

There was one story, in particular, that I knew I had to share with the entire UWC and IB community. When Peter had returned home to South Sudan in May, he found his father under house arrest and, as the sole breadwinner, the whole family were left without means to live. In a matter of days, Peter came up with a solution. He went to his former school and asked whether he could help in the chemistry lab. The head of the school asked Peter what he had learned at UWC during his first year, realized that this boy had a lot to offer and hired him for three months with a small salary. The money Peter that earned became his family’s entire income.

Just a year earlier, Peter had arrived in my chemistry class with non-existent laboratory skills, but his eyes were full of curiosity. He proved to be a quick learner and even decided to do his DP extended essay in the subject. He shared with me that there is a pressing issue in his country—people (including children) drink homemade alcoholic drinks without any knowledge of their alcohol content. We both agreed that this was a topic worth investigating.

The method Peter chose required the use of a spectrometer, and he became quite an “expert” in using it. By the end of the academic year, Peter was so confident that he managed to explain the principles of spectrometry to the teachers in his former school. He even went to the university lab (after obtaining permission from the country’s government) to synthesize one of the homemade alcohols, and raised the interest of the researchers there. The widespread use of homemade drinks and the health issues this creates prompted the government of South Sudan to take measures and ban the production of many such drinks. And Peter has a dream—to bring at least one spectrometer to South Sudan so that he can show how the apparatus works. I cannot think of a better example of empowering through education. I am convinced that our students will make a change if supported and inspired.

This is how I see my role in the classroom—to help students connect the knowledge they acquire with the potential for action in the outside world. Scientific knowledge is a powerful tool when applied for a greater good in society. I feel empowered too—the diversity in my classroom is a catalyst which offers another way of teaching chemistry.

This post was first published by UWC International. Dr Dimitrina Trendafilova teaches DP chemistry at UWC Adriatic in Duino, Italy. A former faculty member at UWC SEA, UWC Mostar and UWC Dilijan.