I had just returned from six months in Rwanda when I read Barry Sanders’s Commentary “Asked to speak in a developing country? Say yes!” (Physics Today, April 2016, page 10). My experience is much more limited than that of Sanders, but I fully agree that undertaking a teaching assignment in a country such as Rwanda can provide a unique opportunity for both the students and the lecturer.
I had the fortune to be a Fulbright Scholar at the College of Science and Technology at the University of Rwanda, where I taught undergraduate quantum mechanics. I had a class of 21 third-year students composed of 15 men and 6 women.
The students lack many of the resources that those in the West take for granted. Only four of my students owned computers; in fact, computer access on campus was very limited. That in itself was problematic, but less so than a range of cultural issues that created barriers between student and teacher. Creative thinking, individuality, and class participation do not seem to be elements that are stressed in the Rwandan educational system—although attempts are under way to change that. English comprehension was also an issue. Rwanda changed its official language from French to English in 2008, and my students had about half of their education in each language.
It quickly became clear to me that conventional teaching methods would be less than effective. By proceeding at a much slower pace and allowing students to converse among themselves, I found that they began to gain confidence, ask questions, and even come to see me during office hours. By the end of the semester, the students were proud to have succeeded in a subject as difficult as quantum mechanics. My interactions with them, and all the contacts I made with Rwandans throughout the country, have affected me in ways I could not have imagined. Hopefully, the students were also left with a positive lasting impression of our time together.