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Villanova Engineers Bring STEM Education to Cambodia

At the rocket launch, students’ faces reflect excitement, joy, surprise, amazement, even a little fear.
At the rocket launch, students’ faces reflect excitement, joy, surprise, amazement, even a little fear.

Service has long been one of the cornerstones of a Villanova University education. In the College of Engineering, it has taken a variety of forms, from regional STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education outreach, to global project-based learning experiences. This dedication, both to education and service, recently led to a unique STEM outreach opportunity, one involving middle school students in a rural community in Cambodia.

Since 2012, the College of Engineering has sent student and faculty teams to the remote Ratanakiri region where they have worked with the Caramanico Foundation Cambodia (CFC) to provide local children with access to a quality education. Established by Anne and Tom Caramanico PE, CE ’71, MSCE ’83, the CFC built the first Caramanico School in 2006; today its four rooms serve 230 students in seventh through ninth grades. In summer 2014, Boratha Tan ’16 ME, a Cambodian Villanova student, supervised the building of an adjacent preschool and kindergarten designed by Villanova engineers. It recently opened its doors to more than 70 students and is the only school of its kind in the province.

During the 2015 winter break, a Villanova team made the annual trip to the region, but with a new assignment: Develop and lead a series of science and engineering workshops for the school’s eighth- and ninth-graders, nearly 130 students in total. Team leader Alex Poultney ’14 ME, ’15 MSME, volunteer advisor Ean Mulligan ’09 ME, Elana Ames ’17 ChE and Caroline Franchino ’16 ME—prepared a variety of workshop activities including air-propelled rockets, rubber band cars, water sample testing and raft-building.

The week culminated in a tower-building competition that required the CFC students to come up with their own ideas and work under a deadline. The top two winning teams, plus three exceptional student leaders, won a trip to the first Cambodia Science and Technology Festival held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in mid-March.

Weeks after returning from Cambodia, Alex Poultney beams when describing the experience. He talks about Rithy, an exceptionally bright 10-year-old and the grandson of Monie, the CFC’s in-country manager. “Rithy told me that the activities he participated in provided the most fun he had ever had, and he meant it,” says Poultney. Fascination, excitement and a sense of discovery were nearly universal responses from the Cambodian students. Poultney recalls, “While we worked with individual groups, the others would come to the classroom windows to watch.” Caroline Franchino adds, “Seeing the students' faces during the workshops was priceless; they enjoyed and learned more than I could have hoped.” Perhaps the highlight of the team’s experience was realizing that they had excited kids about science and engineering who may never have developed an interest in those areas otherwise.

Anne Caramanico credits the Villanova team with the students’ undeniable joy, “The projects you selected could not have been better. Add to that your natural teaching ability and willingness to connect to the students, and you provided them with a truly life-changing experience.”