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Students at the Liger Learning Center participate in a robotics project
Students at the Liger Learning Center participate in a robotics project in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district on Monday. Hong Menea

Shaping the leaders of tomorrow

In a lush, gated compound 12 kilometres south of central Phnom Penh, the young minds that will one day lead Cambodia are being shaped – or at least that’s what one philanthropic foundation, which is investing millions of dollars in a unique, long-term project, hopes.

“When I was at [government] school, I just learned math and science. Here I learn about social business and renewable energy,” says 12-year-old Maya, one of 50 pupils at the Liger Learning Center, a school unlike any other in Cambodia.

Its first batch of students, which arrived in August last year and are currently in their second school year, were chosen from around the country following a rigorous selection process. They will receive a distinctive education that is specifically targeted at creating the next generation of Cambodian entrepreneurs and prob­­lem-solvers.

Aside from a practise-based curriculum that emphasises the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, alongside English and Khmer, the school prioritises hands-on learning and exposing the students to issues that will face Cambodian policy-makers and businesspeople in decades to come.

The fact that they are aged between 9 and 12 years old is no matter.

So far this term, they have camped out in Mondulkiri’s Seima rainforest learning about ecosystems, made a documentary about Angkorian waterways and worked on a bio-digester project with farming communities in Kampong Speu province.

On the day the Post visited, one class was covering robotics, another, microfinance, while one group of kids was learning architecture.

At the “Innovation Centre”, once a week the kids are left in a room with all manner of trinkets and building materials – think anything from bamboo poles to Play-Doh to fire hydrants – and basically left to their own devices to invent and build.

“The other day, they built a mini-golf course with a windmill and everything,” Dominic Sharpe, the long-haired, ebullient Australian country director of the Liger Charitable Foundation, which set up the school, says nonchalantly.

But despite throwing around words like “inspirations” and “explorations” to describe their programs, the school’s staff say they are deadly serious about what they’re doing.

“It’s not some wacky, hippy kind of school,” Sharpe says. “They will sit all the exams that other Cambodian kids sit.”

Although the range of activities and classes that the students take part in are so diverse they almost seem to be chosen at random, Jeffrey Holte, Liger’s learning coordinator, says the ever-changing curriculum never loses sight of an end goal.

“We have a very specific purpose of where we want our kids to be … and we take very seriously how we are going to get there,” he says as he walks around the 1.2-hectare campus in Meanchey district complete with mango, banana and jackfruit trees.

“We want them to be the future inventors and creators of the country. Everything is geared towards end goals – changing the lives of people here, making sure they are connected to their country and making a difference.”

A key part of the “difference” that these kids could make seems to be geared towards entrepreneurship and business. The foundation’s website, in its explanation of why the school was set up, argues that if only a dozen of the 100 kids that go through Liger succeed professionally – the next cohort of 50 kids will arrive in 2015 – “their adult contributions will in turn help thousands of people”.

“If just one of them founds a successful company, he or she may in turn change lives, and improve the living standards, of tens of thousands of people,” it says.

American Trevor Gile, who founded the Liger Charitable Foundation with his wife, Agnieszka Tynkiewicz-Gile, runs an investment firm and gives 30 per cent of his profits to the foundation. As a result, building socially responsible business acumen is one of the school’s key priorities.

Earlier this year, one class of kids set up a bag-selling business called “Carry It!” as part of an entrepreneurship “exploration”. As part of that, they created a business plan, took out a $270 loan from Liger, designed the bags, had them made at a disabled artisan cooperative, and managed to persuade a number of hotels to sell them.

“We learned about making business and the process of a business starting and ending. We knew a lot of businesses start and then fail,” 10-year-old Seyha, one of the “co-owners” of the company, says.

Carry It! made a profit, he says, some of which will be kept by the students, some used to buy books and stationary for children at an orphanage, and the rest “reinvested in the company”.

The programs at this ambitious school might seem a little much for pre-teens to handle – when they aren’t on a field trip, classes run from 8am to 4pm, with an extra hour of activities available – but they appear to be taking it in stride.

“No, I don’t get tired,” Dalin, a 10-year-old girl from Svay Rieng, says matter-of-factly. “I want to do more activities.”

The foundation has committed to funding 100 kids through to an overseas university education.

With that kind of money behind them, as well as the opportunity to live and study on a spacious campus under top foreign teachers, with laptops for all students, a swimming pool, and other perks a normal Cambodian schoolchild could only dream of, the risk of creating a sense of entitlement is a very real one, Sharpe says.

“These kids have got to know this is a gift and that they are not entitled [to it],” he says.

The students’ residences – although luxurious in comparison to most – are modelled on traditional Cambodian stilted houses. They have Cambodian house mothers, use squat toilets and scoop showers, and speak to each other in Khmer.

“The worst thing we could do is Westernise these kids . . . they will be more Cambodian than they would have been if they had stayed in their village,” Sharpe says. “They will know more about the culture, the history, and the problems [facing the country]”.

Kids return home for all school holidays and can phone their families every day, he adds.

“We needed to find families who realised the gift of education we were sharing.”

The children seem to be aware of the purpose of the school. “I can help Cambodia go up,” as Takeo-born Samnang, 11 – who started learning English a year ago – describes it.

Samnang is one of a group of kids working on a robotics project, learning how to program small robots that can respond to a simulated natural disaster on a model table.

“It’s not just robotics, but it [teaches] about a national disaster like flooding. We can know about what is happening in Cambodia and rebuild Cambodia.”

The foundation’s website says that even if its grand ambitions are not met and none of the students end up becoming successful leaders or entrepreneurs, their investment would still have given 100 kids a leg-up in life.

But according to the Liger team, after a year of school, that message is already outdated.

“The proof is in the pudding. There is no doubt that this has the ability to change Cambodia,” Sharpe says.

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