How the project began
(The main characters: Paul Kenton was a physics teacher for 35 years at a small college in Montreal, Canada who also taught an introductory electronics course, and a computer applications course. He retired in 2009. Madi (Madhavi) Mantha is a banking consultant who is now working for an AI start-up. Bounchan Her used to live in Phoumieng – his parents still reside there, but he now lives in Luang Prabang and works for the Mekong Riverview Hotel.)
Madi and I were heading to Singapore to check up on our daughter Maya who was doing a term abroad – the modern evolution of the gap year. Since it was a long way to travel we also decided to visit Hoi An, Vietnam and Luang Prabang, Laos – both of which had been recommended by close friends.
A few weeks prior to the trip I had a beer with a former student, Ivan Savov, who apart from writing physics and math textbooks, is involved in some educational technologies aimed at third world villages without internet access using small, local servers to supply micro-networks. See more: https://learningequality.org/kolibri/ ; https://learningequality.org/ka-lite/
Ivan described physics simulations he’d been working on; this got me thinking about my old computer applications course which used the Visual Basic (VBA) language. Though I’d forgotten much of VBA programming after 14 years, the applications still ran, and I’d made detailed notes for my class.
The current drive to introduce coding even to young children led me to check online what was happening in Hoi An and Luang Prabang public schools. Not much, it turned out. I did, however, find a drop-in center in Luang Prabang called Big Brother Mouse that has kids using the free MIT-based Scratch programming language to learn coding by creating simple computer games. (Scratch doesn’t involve actual typing of code. Instead, it provides blocks of code in “geometric containers” that are dragged, dropped, and automatically connect together much like Lego blocks. It’s only necessary to know the generic function of each block to build a program.) http://www.bigbrothermouse.com/whatwedo.html
It struck me that kids being kids there surely were some nerdy ones in secondary schools who would love to make their own simulations using VBA and Newton’s 2nd Law (after all, who doesn’t like the 2nd Law). And since VBA is built into Excel which comes with most computers, there would be no need to buy any software. So just before the trip I posted a few simulations online, along with my old VBA class notes and an explanation of Newton’s Laws, and was looking forward to meeting a few eager young minds.
Alas, the Laotian and Vietnamese public school systems had been devastated by the war and subsequent political upheaval, and are still struggling to recover. Little science is being taught, and no computers appear available. In Hoi An, however, I did get to spend a pleasant half-hour talking with students in an English language class at a school I’d been scoping out for possible science classes. The teacher had caught me skulking around and peering into windows, and cheerfully dragged me into her classroom. Among other things I described the excellent Ken Burns & Lynn Novick “Vietnam” series, which has been dubbed into Vietnamese.
The photo in the next box is of Paul with some of the English students in Hoi An, and the teacher in the yellow jacket.
In Luang Prabang the owners of Joy’s restaurant – a good place to eat – are a Lao/Australian couple with a teenage son attending a local private school. They explained the unfortunate state of the public schools, and I was resigned to remain “sitting on the bench” and just being a tourist.
But luckily on arrival I had enquired with the Mekong Riverview Hotel owner and staff about secondary schools with computers that might be teaching science, and had explained what I was trying to do. By our third day word had spread through the hotel grapevine and I was approached by one of the employees, Bounchan Her, who asked if I might help him upgrade his computer skills. I pointed out that physics simulations would not be of much use to him, but would gladly do whatever I could. http://mekongriverview.com/ (A delightful hotel & a treat!!)
In fact a few days later I was able to introduce him to Carol Kresge who runs MyLibrary in LP, which is an impressive drop-in center where anybody go to improve their computer skills. Carol also teaches some of the kids a bit of science, is well-connected locally, and generally does impressive development work. http://www.thelanguageproject.org/index.php/the-libraries/my-library-luang-prabang
Over the course of our stay Madi & I got to know Bounchan and learned that he came from a small village, Phoumieng, which unfortunately we were never able to visit.
When we returned to Montreal I spoke regularly with Bounchan on WhatsApp and gradually learned about his village. It quickly became clear that the situation was difficult: the village needs electricity, and improvements to its school and agriculture. Because Bounchan’s parents had been able to send him to a private school in LP he was able to get a decent education, learn English, and find a job in LP – which is something that no other villagers have been fortunate to do. He is now determined to improve conditions in his village, and has some good ideas.
In mid-April I started investigating NGO activity in Laos -- there are very few recent projects, and the availability of solar electrical generators -- nothing popped up on Google searches except for a defunct store in the capital Vientiane. But, being so close to China, solar generators are available in LP, just not listed online. http://www.directoryofngos.org/ingo2/projects
And then in the last week of May Bounchan sent the first set of photos of the village; Madi & I were immediately struck: how could we not help?
It turned out that Bounchan had already installed a small solar generator at his parent’s house, so he was familiar and confident with their installation and operation. A proof-of-concept installation was made on June 23rd, 2018; its success made us determined to electrify the entire village.
The next photo is of Bounchan & Paul.