Biology Students Make Preparations For Rwanda Trip, Virunga Mountains

After hiking up the volcanic Virunga Mountains, senior Libby Lyon was a mere two feet from a juvenile gorilla. Shocked, she jumped back. She soaked in the view, in awe that an entire family of these endangered animals were so calmly staring back at her.

Two of the juvenile gorillas childishly played around with each other, an adolescent napped on a bed made of leaves off to the right, babies climbed on their mothers and the silverback was a mere six feet away, seemingly unphased by the group of humans in his home.

Gorilla trekking is one of the many activities UCA students partake in during the science learning and service study abroad trip to Rwanda that Leah Horton and Jayme Millsap Stone lead each summer. With only about 800 of the species left in the world, trekking is an experience students cannot get anywhere else.

Horton, lecturer 1 and assistant chair of the UCA Biology Department, and Stone, part-time instructor and director of learning in UCA’s History Department, presented this study abroad opportunity to students in 2012. Due to a precautionary ruling after the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Western Africa, last summer was the first time the trip did not occur.

“This was a very precautionary decision [by the university],” Horton said. “Ebola was 3,000 miles away from Rwanda. So from my perspective, I didn’t think there was much risk.”

However, she said she understands why the university did not want to take the risk. The program would probably never have happened had UCA not accepted its first Rwandan residential scholars in 2010.

These students lived in the Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) residential college, where Horton was the resident master. Through that connection, Horton got to know the scholars, who accompanied her on science outreach programs for local children, such as science nights at elementary schools.

“They participated and really saw the value of the hands-on science for little kids, [which is]very different than the Rwandan elementary education system,” she said.

Summer of 2012, when the scholars were to return to Rwanda for an internship, they asked her if she would help plan education activities to do while he was there. It was then that the idea to start the “Science and Society” study abroad opportunity began.

Horton went through Bridge to Rwanda, an International Non-Governmental Organization, to develop an itinerary and focus for the trip. The group planned to focus on service learning and science education in primary schools, Horton said.

“We wanted to plan lessons that were hands-on but were also sustainable in that environment so that the teachers could get the materials necessary locally,” she said.

The first summer, the lessons taught were on electricity, the water cycle and conservation of mountain gorillas. The lesson plans develop each summer, the most recent lessons being about magnets, acids and bases and the properties of water.

“It was such an amazing experience getting to see how other children learn on the other side of the world,” Lyon said. “Their resources are limited so it was fun getting to do small handson experiments with them.”

Horton said she views this program as an irreplaceable opportunity that not only allows students to help a developing country, but also solidifies bonds between the Rwandan scholars at UCA and the other students because it allows for them to share their country and culture.

Many relationships were also built between the group and the Rwandan community.

“It’s all about development continuation,” Horton said. They have a relationship with the village Kanembwe, where they have started working on beneficial products such as fuelefficient cooking stoves called “rocket stoves” and teaching the citizens how to can their food for preservation.

“Firewood is their primary energy source,” she said. “They do not have electricity; they do not even have access to electricity. They have to gather their firewood and sometimes, because of the land pressure that’s there and how many people are in Rwanda, they may spend four hours a day just looking for firewood.”

Horton said if there was a way to limit how much firewood they would have to gather each day, that would be a big deal. Resource development and science education are not the only services the group extends.

The group also dives into the country’s history. One moment in Rwandan history the group makes certain to not overlook is the 1994 genocide.

“We visited museums, memorials and heard firsthand accounts of the horror that people witnessed during that time,” Lyon said. “Rwanda is still hurting from that tragedy, but they have done such a good job of honoring those who died and moving on from that time.”

Many people in developed countries cannot imagine happiness as the prevalent emotion in a place that has experienced such poverty and devastation.

However, Lyon said one of the things that stood out to her was the joy the local children with so little resources had. “Joy is a universal language,” she said.

Secondary school in developing countries is rarely a guaranteed opportunity due to cost, and when a student requires disabilities services, the cost skyrockets.

After the group learned this, it decided to support a young deaf student, named Dorcus. Dorcus is one of three daughters of a local Rwandan family, all of whom are deaf.

Even primary schooling, when students have to go to a school that provides sign language teachers, racks up in tuition. The family could barely afford to send their daughters to school.

The group met Dorcus their first summer and she immediately impressed them with her abilities and interest in the lessons.

“We felt so committed to her, as a group, that we agreed to contribute and pay her school fees through secondary school and all of the students who go on the trip have the opportunity to contribute,” Horton said.

Through fundraising the group is able to pay her school fees, buy her uniforms and pay her sign language teacher each month. Each student contributes only $35 annually.

On average, 15 students accompany Horton and Stone on the trip each summer. The students spend the prior semester taking either a biology elective taught by Horton to prepare them for the manual work or a sociology course taught by Stone teaches that focuses on the culture and environment of the country.

The rough cost estimate for the trip per student is $5,500 to $5,600. Students had the opportunity to explore the culture through travel and interaction with the locals.

Lyon said the group visited coffee plantations, saw Lake Kivu, visited a hospital in Kigali, saw movies, received hand-sewn dresses made from local fabric, haggled for souvenirs and even sang karaoke at a restaurant during their free time.

“Looking back, I almost forgot about the things that seemed so odd and sometimes annoying because those aren’t the important things I remember from the trip,” Lyon said. “Things like extremely cold showers every day, WiFi that may or may not work, the lamb that was questionable as to whether it was really lamb or not and the crazy driving.. [Most importantly], I remember the faces of the children who had such a huge impact on my life in such a small amount of time and the relationships I built with people who I will probably never see again but will always remember.”

The experiences obtained from the trips have also affected Horton’s teaching methods. Getting student to understand how their interests of study fit into a global context is a goal she’s made prominent in each of her classes.

“Whatever it is that you’re interested in, there are ways that can be used to benefit people,” she said.

As Horton hoped last spring, the program is returning this summer.

“We’re really trying to get our students active and involved in the community to see what effects and differences students can make, even as college students,” she said. “We want to continue to build what we’ve started [in Rwanda]. There’s just so much to do.”

Stone will teach cultural studies in the spring, while Horton teaches special topics in biology to prepare the students going on the trip. However, chemistry lecturer Faith Yarberry and English professor Brian James will be the faculty leading the trip.

This article originally appeared in the Sep. 23, 2015 print edition of The Echo.

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