'Global Classroom' links Arkansas and Romanian high school students

Richard Gammill
Sunday, August 21, 2016

A brainstorming session between two Nazarene friends resulted in a ground-breaking, globe-spanning experiment. It united two groups of students from Batesville, Arkansas, and Sighisoara, Romania, to solve community needs. The project has provided an opening for a Nazarene Romanian pastor to mentor youth in the Sighisoara high school.

The story unfolded when Dr. Roberta Bustin asked her friend, “What can we do to reach out to the youth in my city? After almost 20 years of ministry, we still have not found the answer.”

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Roberta is a volunteer with Nazarene Mission Corps., the mission-sending arm of the denomination that matches willing volunteer missionaries with ministry opportunities around the world. Before going to Romania in 1997, Roberta taught chemistry at Lyon College in Batesville. For nearly 20 years, she has had a “boatload” of mission assignments: teaching, preaching, church planting, and more.

Her friend, Jeanne Roepcke, is a teacher at Batesville High School.

“I have an idea,” Jeanne told Roberta. “It is something that has never been done before, but I think we can make it work.”

Jeanne is the facilitator for the EAST program in her high school. EAST is the acronym for “Environmental and Spatial Technology.” It began in 1996 and has expanded to nearly 250 schools across Arkansas and four other U.S. states.  A unique model in modern education, it is a project-based, service-learning program. The classes use high-end technology obtained from the most progressive fields in the world. Jeanne is leading seven of these classes in her high school.

“EAST is designed to enable my students to tackle a new problem, take a team approach and come up with their own solutions,” Jeanne said. “We will take the program to Sighisoara and see what develops.”

Jeanne’s school and the Batesville community enthusiastically adopted her proposal. The first step was to establish and equip a laboratory for the high school in Sighisoara. A $5,000 grant preceded financial and material donations from the business community. People donated thousands of dollars worth of supplies, including three laptop computers, a 3-D printer, and a projector.

Back in Sighisoara, Roberta advertised the venture as an opportunity for students to further their knowledge and use of English. School authorities approved the concept and 10 students signed up. The facilitator would be Relu Cristurean, local Nazarene pastor.

ImageIn September 2015, Jeanne went to Sighisoara with two Batesville students and two technicians to open the laboratory. In the first year, instructors focused on teaching the students to use the software, develop three-dimensional animation, use Adobe Photoshop software, create three-dimensioned objects, and more. Ten Romanian students come to the Nazarene church at least twice weekly and meet with the Arkansas students by way of Skype, working around the eight-time-zone separation.

"This may not sound so different from some American classrooms, said Amanda, a Batesville student. “Yet, it highlights the way in which EAST can meet educational needs anywhere and prove transformative, regardless of borders or cultures.”

Her classmate Emma added, "Our Romanian classmates are very smart kids, really nice kids, too, and you can tell they really want to learn."

Pastor Relu is there to work with them.

“Participating in the EAST program is something new for me,” he said. “I get to build relationships with these 10 students. This is a good experience. The students are very bright and eager to learn. We talk about many things and I tell them about Romanian history and geography. I also have opportunity to talk about what it means to be a Christian. One student asked me for a Bible.”

The Romanian population is more than 70 percent Eastern Orthodox and, thus, virtually everyone identifies culturally as Christian. Pastor Relu says, “I tell them having religion won’t help you. You must have a relationship with Jesus Christ.”

ImageA couple of last year’s students have graduated. One of them wants to return and help Pastor Relu teach the new term. Through the classroom partnership that Roberta and Jeanne established, this young pastor with three children has found a way to build relationships with the youth of his community.

This year the EAST program will expand to the nearby Romanian village of Tigmandru, a poor village that provides its children with limited education. As the EAST students wrestled with the extreme needs in the village, they focused on a single priority. Food becomes scarce during the bitterly cold winters, shutting down even the indoor greenhouses. Weeks of discussions between Batesville and Sighisoara students led to an innovative project.

The Batesville students designed small, three-level hydroponics growing units to be installed in private homes, using available materials such as soda bottles. With the 3-D printer, they designed nozzles, valves and other components. The classes in both Sighisoara and Tigmandru plan to employ the same technology in the coming academic year.

The Batesville community has gathered and shipped the materials needed for the in-home “farms,” including vegetable seeds, pumps, tubing, zip ties. The Romanian communities are gathering soda bottles and other available materials.

ImageThis is the first international project done by an EAST class. It is providing more recognition in the two Romanian communities for the Church of the Nazarene. And the residents appreciate Pastor Relu for his significant involvement in working with the students who are learning teamwork and technology as they meet community needs.