Science & Tech

After bloody revolution: Bringing science back to Liberian classrooms

8 min read

Harvard chem professor, doctoral student share science passion with teachers

Adam Cohen and Ben Rapoport needed materials to conduct a science experiment, but supplies were hard to come by.

Cohen, assistant professor of chemistry and chemical biology and of
physics in the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Rapoport, an
M.D./Ph.D. student at Harvard Medical School and the Department of
Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology
, were in the West African nation of Liberia,
devastated by two civil wars that ended in 2003. Its classrooms had
been stripped during the wars, leaving Liberian teachers and students
with few resources beyond the desire to learn.

So Cohen and Rapoport went shopping for limes.

A short time later, their trip to the open-air market was done and
they had what they needed: limes, metal nails, and copper wire. Soon
they were demonstrating how to make a simple battery to Liberian
science teachers, daring them to feel the admittedly small electrical
current on their tongues, and offering a hands-on illustration of
scientific principles that across the war-devastated nation are taught
mainly through lecture and memorization.

“That’s what we want to do, teach relevant science and make it self-sustaining,” Rapoport said.

Liberia presents fertile ground for Cohen and Rapoport’s efforts.
The nation, founded in 1847 by freed American slaves, was torn by two
civil wars that began in 1989 and ended in 2003. The wars killed
hundreds of thousands, generated tales of beheadings, torture, and
other atrocities, and devastated the nation’s infrastructure.

Though the fighting has been over for several years, its effects are still apparent.

During their two weeks in Liberia in June, the two scholars were struck
by the bare classrooms and stripped labs — even metal drawers were
taken for sale as scrap. The years of war had seen schools abandoned,
leaving nearly a generation of adults with little education. During the
war, soldiers took what they needed, removing metal from buildings not
damaged or destroyed in the fighting, killing livestock, and burning
rubber trees for charcoal. On the palm oil plantation of the family
that hosted Cohen and Rapoport, machines with key parts missing lay
rusting in the underbrush while the oil harvesting — crushing and
extracting the liquid from oil palm fruits — was done entirely by hand.

“Education is the one thing you can’t steal from people,” Cohen
said. “People are very open to new ideas there and there’s a tremendous
amount to do.”

During the course of their trip, Cohen and Rapoport visited the
University of Liberia at Monrovia, the Liberian Ministry of Education,
several civic groups, and 10 schools, doing some classroom teaching but
mainly focusing their efforts on providing science training for the

The two strove to make their presentations as hands-on and relevant
as possible, demonstrating several simple experiments that could be
done with local ingredients. For example, they showed faculty and
students how to extract DNA from local produce using kitchen utensils
as laboratory equipment and easily obtained chemicals, such as soap,
salt, and rubbing alcohol, as reagents.

They also added a module on nutrition after seeing the distended
bellies of children across the countryside, a sign of kwashiorkor, or a
deficiency of protein and micronutrients. Protein-rich foods are
available, though they’re not typically given to children, whose diet,
they observed, is almost exclusively made up of high-starch foods such
as rice and cassava, often cooked with palm oil. Meat, for example, is
considered a food for men, Rapoport said, but nuts, beans, and eggs are
all available locally and would add protein to a child’s diet.

Most schools had little by way of laboratory equipment. What was
there was often locked away unused or broken in a way that might be
easily fixable, if parts were available. At one school though, the pair
came upon a laboratory complete with equipment such as scales, beakers,
and microscopes, some of it still bound in packing material. The room,
however, had been padlocked and unused. When the two asked to get
inside, the headmaster had to send for a key to open the heavy metal

The layer of dust on the equipment spoke of their lack of use. The
teachers, Rapoport said, didn’t know how to use the equipment, so he
and Cohen conducted an impromptu lesson on basic laboratory skills,
weighing a cell phone and different liquids to spark a discussion of
density. It wasn’t long before a few students entered, then more, and
the lesson eventually drew 30 students into the unused room.

“There was this beautiful lab, all laid out, but it had never been used,” Rapoport said.

Wherever they went, the complaints from science teachers were the
same: no equipment, teaching that was theoretical and by rote, and a
lack of job prospects in scientific fields — the medical school has
only 50 slots — that keeps student interest low. The two stressed that
science learning isn’t only important if one wants to be a doctor or
scientist. Understanding the scientific method and how to gather and
analyze information is important in a host of fields.

“For me, part of science education was memorizing facts, but a big part of it was fostering inventiveness,” Cohen said.

Though this year’s trip was exploratory in nature, Cohen and
Rapoport are already thinking about what to do next. They’ve begun
constructing an online journal, The Liberian Scientist, in an effort
they hope will not only provide a showcase for what science is being
conducted in the nation, but also help build the scientific community

Though computer equipment does exist, much of it is broken or
heavily virus-infected, Cohen said. He’s thinking of purchasing USB
flash drives, loading them with antivirus software, open source
software such as Open Office and Wikipedia, and perhaps electronic
versions of key texts, such as medical books, and sending them over.
Though he and Rapoport are still assessing the results of this year’s
trip, they’re also talking about returning next summer, spending less
time running around the country and more time in focused workshops
aimed at teachers.

Cohen and Rapoport became interested in Liberia back when the two
were in high school together at Hunter College High School in New York
City. While there, they met Asumana Randolph, a science teacher
originally from Liberia who worked as a technician in the science labs
and adviser to the science club and to students’ independent research
projects. The two said they learned a lot from Randolph, who stayed
connected to his large family in Liberia, often shipping home needed
materials. (Once he collected thousands of shoes and shipped them off.)
Randolph eventually created a nonprofit organization, the I-Help
Liberia Project
, to help in the effort and got the school involved,
bringing some high school students back to Liberia with him.

Randolph said it was very gratifying to see two former students
take up the cause to help Liberia, particularly since he had always
preached that, as a scientist, one should not live in a world bounded
by a laboratory, but reach out and help people as well.

“It is all about, ‘I’m going to leave this world.’ You ask yourself what do you leave behind?” Randolph said.

In this case, Randolph said, Cohen and Rapoport are tackling a task
critical to Liberia’s future because science underlies all development.

“If you talk about transportation, you’re talking about science. If
you talk about public health, you’re talking about science,” Randolph
said. “If you want to look at Liberia for the next 10 years to come,
you have to look at the science curriculum and teach students how to
think for themselves. Development in Liberia cannot happen without a
strong science background.”

Cohen said he had always meant to visit Liberia and this summer
finally put the trip together. He and Rapoport remain in touch with
Randolph, who helped organize the visit. Randolph scheduled trips to
various schools and put Cohen and Rapoport in touch with family members
who hosted them. The two said that though people typically think that
aid always flows from the United States to other countries, in this
case it was Liberia that exported an important mentor to the United

Cohen said the trip has already borne some fruit. The first day
after he returned, he hosted a group of seventh-graders from New York
City. He showed them the lab and then showed them some photos from
Liberia and told the students the story of students there. He heard
recently that the class has decided to sponsor a class of Liberian
seventh-graders, helping them stay in school. He said he is also
working with the Harvard Islamic Society to raise funds to rebuild a
local mosque that was damaged during the fighting.