Students at the Tassah Academy (Cameroon AFRICA) use a donated tablet computer to connect their classroom with a classroom in California (USA)

It is no small feat to connect students in Cameroon, West Africa, with students in California, USA, to learn collaboratively online. The challenges in connecting teachers, combining curriculum—not to mention finding a good Internet connection and power source—are just the tip of the iceberg. “The real challenge is communication, or rather finding a way for teachers and students from different cultures to trust and understand each other enough to work together,” explains Laura Preston, a Monterey Institute of International Studies Masters Candidate, and Intern with International School-to-School Partnerships.

Laura recently returned from Yaounde where she spent much of the summer assisting ISSP to develop a global school-to-school classroom network to help students’ improve their education through collaborative e-learning. ISSP is gearing up for the start of the ’14–’15 school year by reaching out to teachers in the Monterey Bay Area as well as those at Tassah Billingual Academy in Cameroon.  When intern Laura Preston requested to visit the school, Bih Janet Fofang, founder and principal of Tassah Academy, did not hesitate. She invited Laura with open arms to her school as well as into her home as a guest, making the ties between ISSP and Tassah Academy even stronger. ISSP’s focus is to help teachers to collaborate and team-teach their respective students, focusing on environmental topics and themes.

By utilizing simple tablet devices, students can now share data and compare and present findings with their counterparts across the globe, while also learning about different cultures and ways of life.

Laura Preston receives flowers from Tassah Academy students, 7/2014Laura’s visit to Cameroon was successful in bridging the physical barriers between the teachers and schools. By learning how to the use the technology in the classroom and by initiating Skype conversations with their counterparts in California, the teachers at Tassah Academy felt more excited than ever to start the first live interactions of this kind in Africa. But how do you connect people virtually who have never met in real life?

Although at first apprehensive, with some help from their new friend “Ms. Preston” from ISSP, collaborating with Californian teachers now does not seem so frightening after all. “I cannot imagine Skyping with a complete stranger from across the world,” admits elementary school teacher Atoh Moses, “but if I see a familiar smiling face, I know we can all become friends.” Teachers from Aptos Junior High and El Sausal Middle School in Salinas were equally impressed with their colleagues, and immediately signed up for the program following the Skype conversations.

More exciting was the beginning of an exchange amongst the middle school students. Although students in Cameroon had heard of California, most of the American students had no idea where to locate Cameroon on a map. Towards the end of their school year, several teachers asked their students to create videos of themselves asking questions. Both American and African students were eager to know about each other’s lifestyles, including what they eat, what they do for fun, and what their school is like. By putting faces and voices to their fellow students, the children at Tassah Academy felt closer to California and the students there, and more eager to learn science with their new friends next year—and vice versa! They enjoyed working with ‘ipad-like’ tablets, and love the idea of working with their global classmates even more. “I hope to travel to America someday,” stated one student, excited by the idea of meeting her friends in person in the future.

This may prove to be a way to entice students in California to be more interested in academic science exchanges as well, a field that is often considered “boring,” or is overlooked by teachers trying to improve their students’ skills in other subjects to prepare them for high-stakes tests. “I want my students to be excited about science, but also to see a place outside of their world,” explains Robin Putney, a 7th grade science teacher at El Sausal Middle School in Salinas, California, where many of her students do not travel outside of their tight-knit community. Rob Provost, a science teacher at R. L.  Stevenson School —a private school in Pebble Beach, Califormnia— believes these exchanges with students in the developing world, will be a wonderful experience for his science students who live in a very privileged community. RLS School is beginning an exchange through ISSP with 2 schools in Kenya, East Africa.

As everyone becomes more excited about the exchange this coming school year, there is still plenty of work to be done. Unlike your traditional exchange program, ISSP’s classroom partnerships are more in depth, and require more teamwork and commitment between schools, and therefore stronger relationships.

As Cameroon and California start online connections this year, this is just the beginning of a worldwide exchange program.  Jonathan Berkey, founder and Board President of ISSP, was a Peace Corps volunteer and staffer in Kenya from 1988–1992. Berkey said, “Emails are now coming in regularly from schools around the world, and ISSP hopes to grow quickly to keep up with this increasing demand.” As partner schools are being developed in both East and West Africa, ISSP is also making connections to schools in Latin America. “We are very excited about our mission to create a ‘global classroom,’ engaging students in school-to-school exchanges in science, technology and cross-cultural understanding,” states Berkey. If successful, this program will fundamentally change the educational opportunities of teachers and students globally, empowering them to engage, share and learn on a new and exciting level.