By the end of their academic year in June, nine Cambodian whiz kids between the ages of 10 and 12 had done something that many won’t in a lifetime: they wrote a book.
The Cambodian Economy, published in English with Khmer translation, is a 160-page primer on key business sectors in the Kingdom. Presented alongside clear charts and colourful illustrations, the material is designed to be easy to understand and accessible for all students, whether they’re from Phnom Penh or remote provinces.
But rather than economists, the book authors — and the team of researchers who brought the material together — were all students 12 years and younger at the Liger Learning Center, a private school located outside central Phnom Penh.
Over the next two weeks, hundreds of copies of the book will be delivered to Hang Chuon Naron, the Minister of Education, Youth and Sport, and distributed to government schools throughout the Kingdom.
“The ministry goal is to distribute two books to every secondary school in Cambodia, so that [kids] can learn and … can know more about what their country [is] doing right now,” explained co-author and student Nuon Sineoun Samnang, now 13.
The idea for The Cambodian Economy came from a meeting between the minister, students and school organisers in 2014, according to Dominic Sharpe, Liger’s country director.
During the meeting, Naron said that he hoped to shape economic development in the Kingdom through education.
“We thought longer about that, and then thought: ‘Well, you want to change the Cambodian economy through education – what do Cambodian children know about the economy?’” said Sharpe.
So school organisers decided to incorporate a book into Liger’s project-based learning curriculum. In just a few weeks, students travelled around Cambodia conducting interviews with industry leaders and individual business owners. All 50 of Liger’s students participated in the research.
Nine students then served as hybrid writers, editors and translators, taking a quick plunge into the world of publishing. Each of the students was responsible for several sections — tourism or construction, for example.
“The hardest part is to fact-check, because there are many facts and [lots of] information,” Samnang said.
Each page is written in both English and Khmer. For students who only began learning English a few years ago, this translation work is particularly impressive. “Sometimes, we know the word in English and we know its definition in English, but we don’t know the word in Khmer,” explained Oun Sreyneang, 12, another co-author.
Liger students had published a small e-book before, on the Phnong people in Mondulkiri, but project managers wanted The Cambodian Economy to have maximum reach. “In Cambodia, if you want a huge number of people to read the book, you’ve still got to go with print,” Sharpe said.
Liger, set on a wooded plot of land in Meanchey district, appears to be a kind of educational utopia.
The school opened in 2012 with the first cohort of students — 25 girls and 25 boys — handpicked from underprivileged schools around Cambodia. In this year’s search for the second cohort, recruiters have travelled to 20 provinces.
The facilities are first-rate. There are 3D printers, top-of-the-line tools for robotics, photography and computer programming, and a laptop for every student. The school even seems to have its own language: teachers are known as “facilitators” and the school’s unique learning modules — seven-week projects — are “explorations”.
Founder Trevor Gile, who runs the Liger Charitable Foundation which supports the school, envisioned a space to shape promising students into “change agents” for Cambodia, according to Sharpe.
The students behind The Cambodian Economy may have already made it there.
“This is going to go — in the minister’s words — to around a million of their peers,” Sharpe said.
Direct donations provided funding for The Cambodian Economy, and the project continues to be supported by merchandise sales. Students worked with a desktop publisher in Chicago, but the book was printed here in Cambodia.
In collaboration with NGO Art in a Box, Liger students have already written and illustrated another book on wildlife species in the Kingdom. It will be released and distributed to government schools in January.
For students like Sreyneang, that’s not enough. “I just want to read it every day,” she said of The Cambodian Economy. “I hope that I will write one more book, or more than one more book.”