Guest Post: Eugene Lim on Calculus in Haiti

By Sean Carroll | July 13, 2010 2:31 pm

A little while back we advertised that Eugene Lim had volunteered to visit Haiti to teach in a university there over the summer, and would be reporting back about the experience. Here’s Eugene’s write-up — a powerful and affecting look into conditions there, and the spirit of the students.

———-

I noticed a puzzled look on Vicky’s face — she was squinting at the blackboard filled with equations describing how the subtitution rule in integral calculus works. She is one of my better students whom I know to be following my lectures well. I took it as a cue that I have not made a point clear, and I knew I must fallen back into speaking as though as my students are native English speakers. They are not — they speak Haitian Creole, and I was trying to teach them basic intro to mathematics in English and and a smattering of Creole.

Hello from Fondwa, Haiti, elevation 850m, Population 8000. For the past twenty days, I have been teaching a group of enthusiastic Haitian university students at the University of Fondwa. As I mentioned in my previous post, the university lost all its buildings during the Jan 12 quake. At the moment, we are using an abandoned warehouse as a temporary campus. It has no roof, so we put a tin roof over to keep the rain out. We use tarps (thank you USAID) for our windows to keep the rain out. There are 3 classrooms and an office. Some of the students have lost their homes in the Jan 12 earthquake, so the university allowed them to stay inside the warehouse.

unifwarehouse

We have no running water and a few solar panels for power. Water is obtained from wells, from a spring (about 15 minutes walk up hill), and from the regular rain showers we have been getting — hurricane season is upon us after all. This often led to me wondering whether I should be wishing for rain so we can fill up our water tank, or for the sun so we can charge up our batteries.

Many of the students are extremely enthusiastic. In my first full day, when I was just waiting for a teaching assignment, Deb, Vicky and Everest approached me and asked me in halting English what I would be teaching. I told them I would probably be teaching them math, and they said they have not had a math professor for the entire semester, and oh would you help us with some of these problems. So I ended up working with them right there and then. Turns out that these vanguard of students have been trying to teach themselves math from some books. They have had some confusion with concepts that one would expect from being self-taught, but they were sharp and intelligent. I found it a joy to work with them. Deb in particular, is especially strong and spoke some English, so I hired him as my Teaching Assistant who can also translate for me. Given his mathematical acumen, I started teaching him more advanced topics in a special class.

deb1

I was assigned to teach two classes in four weeks — an Intro to mathematics (for first years) and the vaguely titled “Business Mathematics” class to the 4th years. After a quick evaluation of the students’ ability, I ended up deciding that I am going to teach the first years differential and integral calculus — useful things to know whether you are going to be an agronomist or a manager. For the “business math” class, I chose to teach them some basic statistics — with the goal that they should be able to deal with frequency and probability distribution functions when completed.

English is not a widely spoken language in Haiti, so it was a challenge to teach the classes. However, I find that we can make a lot of headway with a mixture of my rudimentary Creole and the combined English knowledge of my students, assisted by a dictionary. The classes understandably proceed slower than usual, but that is not always a bad thing in pedagogy. After a hesitant start, we settled on a good system where some of the more capable English speakers would translate for the other students in real time. Sometimes, some of the more advanced students would volunteer to teach a difficult concept which they have grasped to the class in Creole. The students are generally attentive, and eager — I am often asked to teach extra classes.

teach1

When classes are not in session, I am kept busy with students who wanted to learn more, or have questions about math or English. I find these impromptu discussion sessions the most rewarding — I can teach the students at the pace at which they are learning. As a personal bonus, I have the luxury of having the students teach *me* Creole. Although I am assigned a very good Creole teacher, I learned most of my Creole from such constant interaction with the students.

kids2

Living conditions in Fondwa are rough. I am staying in a semi-collapsed building with a couple of volunteers from the US (Rohan Mahy and Reuben Grandon), and a rotating roster of Haitian teachers, most who live outside Fondwa : unfortunately qualified teachers and lecturers are extremely scarce in Haiti. Our quake damaged building has no running water, no power, and red “X” marks on parts of the buildings that are unstable — a non-trivial indicator since we are still experiencing aftershocks (I personally felt three so far). On the other hand, we have a great view — on a clear day, we can see distant Leogane northward and the Gulf of Mexico, 80 km away.

Nevertheless, our humble abode is a palace compared to the conditions that most Haitians live in. Many of them have lost homes in the quake; some of hem are still living in tents. Ironically, many of the stone buildings collapsed, while the wooden ones survived. I visited one of the tent cities of Port-au-Prince — they are hot, dusty, crowded and so incredibly unsanitary that they seems like epidemic timebombs waiting to go off. Every single building left standing suffered some form of damage from the quake — sometimes looking past the intact facade will reveal a completely collapsed back portion of the house. This does not stop Haitians from living in them. There is a strong sense of communal spirit among rural Haitians, more than once, I was told by the tenants that their house was “kraze” (destroyed) in the gudu-gudu (quake) and they are living in that “kind madame’s” house. Our neighbouring house, a wooden structure no bigger than the size of a school bus, is home to thirty men, women and children.

The Haitians are very friendly. After getting past the initial bemusement (and amusement) of being called “blan” (white man) in the first few days, I find the Haitians incredibly hospitable, and resilient in the face of such hardship. Wherever I go, it is easy to smile and call out a “bonjou” or “bonswa”, or “komen ou ye” (how are you?) to people passing me or just doing chores in front of their houses. I have a special love for the Haitian children — they are the most energetic and playful bunch of kids I have ever met. A group of them would show up at our house from time to time, screaming the names of us *blan* volunteers, and we would end up playing with them until we are exhausted. It is poignant for me to know that some of them have lost siblings and parents in the quake.

I will be leaving Haiti in a few days. Personally, I found the teaching experience and my interactions with the Haitians incredibly fulfilling and rewarding. But it was also very sobering to see the damage, destruction and human misery caused by the quake. There is a lingering sense of not having done enough, and that there is so much more left to be done. I do plan to come back again, and perhaps learn enough Creole to teach in it next time.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Guest Post, World
  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Great post, Eugene, thanks. What is the situation with textbooks and materials?

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  • Aaron

    I would love to do something like this when I am a professor!

  • MT-LA

    Eugene, I would just like to say thank you. The fact that there are still good people like you in the world tips the cosmic scales away from the evil of BP, Halliburton, et all.

  • olderwithmoreinsurance

    Thank you for your efforts Dr. Lim. While I take considerable issue with WHAT you are teaching, just the fact that you are there and a friendly face more than makes up for it. I feel the same way about the great number of Peace Corps volunteers I’ve met: what they’ve taught or done usually doesn’t matter nearly as much as what they’ve shown.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark Trodden

    Great work Eugene!

  • Paul

    Dear Eugene,

    Good work! But Haitians are a religious people. Please don’t ruin that for them in your work there by spreading the narrow mindedness of atheism.

  • Charon

    “Please don’t ruin that for them”

    Wow, how patronizing can you get? Presenting reasoned argument might change someone’s mind, and that’s “ruining it” for them? Because Haitians can only deal with a limited set of ideas? Or they can’t think for themselves, and accept whatever random philosophical ideas are handed to them?

    This was just a bizarre comment for another reason: he was teaching them math. What on Earth does that have to do with atheism or religion?

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  • http://magicdragon.com Jonathan Vos Post

    Great guest-blog by a dedicated teacher with heart!

    Reminds me of how my wife, while she was doing her Physics Ph.D. and then Post-doc at the University of New South Wales, dealt with the sudden influx of refugee Cambodian “boat people” by volunteer teaching in a local Buddhist monastery at night, after the kids had done chores, gone to school all day, and now sat on the wooden floor by candle-light eager to know more about the mathematical structure of the cosmos.

    Or my teaching at a Continuation High School for kids on the cusp of expulsion for drink, drugs, weapons, gangs, or pregnancy. Or my choosing to teach at predominantly African American and predominantly Latino schools in “bad” neighborhoods.

    There is an unbounded demand for dedicated teachers among children who already have been dealt a bad hand, and still want to play their cards as best as possible.

    Bless you, Eugene Lim! And thanks for sharing this, Sean et al!

  • Paul

    Charon,

    I’m just saying. In case Eugene has any ideas about trying to spread the closed mindedness of atheism. It’s closed mindedness because atheists can’t reason towards the conclusion that God doesn’t exist or that religion is wrong or false.

    Don’t get any ideas, Eugene! Religion’s a good thing!

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

      Paul: knock it off. This isn’t the place.

  • Ellipsis

    Since China is moving toward a more developed economy, is there any chance that companies like Foxconn could move a plant to Haiti (hopefully with a little better conditions, but Haiti needs to take what it can get in terms of jobs)? What Eugene is doing is marvelous, and people like him are what is shedding more light on this abused country. However I think everyone would agree that what Haiti needs most right now are jobs and factories producing things for the rest of the world.

  • Lonely Flower

    Dear Dr.Eugene,
    Thank you very much for your great work, as a human I feel very grateful to what you have done to my fellow humans in Haiti. I wish I would be able to do like you one day!

  • Eugene

    Sean : If you have any ideas about getting textbooks, email me. They are lacking in everything including textbooks though if you can find them in French, it’s even better.

    Paul : My students are religious, and we talked about atheism and Catholicism. They are definitely a lot more open minded and discerning than you gave them credit for. Perhaps you should take a trip down to Haiti and find out for yourself first, no?

  • Igor Khavkine

    Thumbs up!

  • Paul

    Eugene,

    I didn’t say Haitians are narrow minded. I just said that atheism is narrow minded. Anyway, I think it’s great you’re teaching them calculus and having these discussions with them.

  • wds

    @ellipsis: from what I know about Haiti it is lacking in a lot of basic infrastructure, is politicallly unstable and rife with corruption. It’s going to be hard to convince any company to invest in a country with such stability problems.

  • http://peeterjoot.wordpress.com/ Peeter Joot

    @olderwithmoreinsurance. What would your suggestion for a teaching topic have been? I’d opt for linear algebra as the most generally useful higher level math to know, but Dr. Lim said he’d interviewed the students … perhaps they already had a grasp of that topic.

  • Katharine

    Er, atheism isn’t narrow-minded – it’s based on facts. (And the burden of proof for existence of imaginary entities is on the person asserting their existence.)

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Honestly this is not about atheism. Please ignore the troll; subsequent off-topic comments will be deleted.

  • JimV

    Thank you very much, Dr. Lim, for the great work you did and this excellent write-up.

    Teaching is a wonderful experience when people want to learn. Seeing these students put up with bad conditions and a language barrier might open some eyes among American students.

  • Richard E.

    Congrats Eugene — it is a spectacular thing you have.

  • Michele Limon

    Eugene, absolutely great! Looking forward having you back on campus and catching up.

  • http://danielholz.com daniel

    Eugene, more power to you!

  • olderwithmoreinsurance

    @Peeter Joot I don’t really wish to say. The fact that Dr. Lim is there and the students like interacting with is really the important thing (though I will say that statistics is not at all a bad idea). In general, I’ve found that people teach what they know as well as what they know they can teach well (well, the latter really only applies to good teachers! and I’ve no reason to believe that Dr. Lim isn’t terrific)..

  • http://mirror2image.wordpress.com Serge

    @Ellipsis
    “Since China is moving toward a more developed economy, is there any chance that companies like Foxconn could move a plant to Haiti”
    Not likely. The major reason for moving manufacturing into China and SEA countries is their political stability. The situation in Haiti doesn’t looks like stable enough. Local risks far outweigh labor cost. However if they could get enough englsih-fluent educated people they have chance to get some share of software/IT outsourcing. That business doesn’t require capital investment.

  • Hiranya

    Eugene, you are an inspiration!

  • http://www.whereisyvette.com Yvette

    What an awesome post, thanks for sharing! So awesome to hear about people doing things like this, as when I hint I’m considering teaching in the developing world they tend to look at me like I’m crazy.

  • Sara

    The picture with the boy whom I presume is the one who was rather adept at math seems to have on it some differential equations. So was that extra course you were teaching him?

    I was especially inspired to see the students having tried studying on their own. It’s humbling, especially since, well-motivated students they are, could probably learn a great deal more on their own with better books. I do hope you return again, continue to enrich their lives, and provide an inspiration to us all.

  • Eugene

    Sara : That’s Deb. I was teaching him 2nd order ordinary differential equations. He is a first year and one of my best students. I do plan to return; Haiti has a way of getting under your skin (among other things that get under your skin, as Rohan said to me).

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Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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