Teaching on the run

Life lessons from a 100-mile expedition in the Indian desert.

Rebecca Byerly
Adriana Rossi plays games with students at a village school in northwestern India.
Rebecca Byerly
Youth ambassadors’ ran 168 miles over seven days in sweltering heat across the Thar Desert in northwestern India.

Over the past five days, 18-year-old Canadian Emma Cook-Clarke and three other young people from India and the United States have run more than 100 miles through the Thar Desert, a seemingly endless, sweltering stretch in northwest India.

Except for the occasional passing camel herd, grazing water buffalo, groups of surprised children, and huge horn-squelching trucks, the route is monotonous.

To do a more thorough job reporting on the feat, this reporter decided to join the run. It's my first day and I lag a quarter mile behind. Only 10 miles in, I already want to quit. Though I'm an experienced ultramarathon runner, this is one of the most difficult terrains I have ever traversed. It's hot, flat, and seems to go on forever.

A decade older than Ms. Cook-Clarke, a recent high school graduate, I wonder how, at such a young age, she has the drive to keep going. But then I realize what propels her. This is much more than a run. It's an expedition with a purpose. Her role as a youth ambassador, one of four who were selected for the expedition, is to reach beyond her perceived limits and use adventure as a medium to educate, inspire, and empower.

While budgets for education are being cut across the US and Canada, this innovative program called impossible2Possible (i2P) offers learning tools free of charge to any school that signs up, exemplifying where education is headed in the 21st century.

Unlike many of the virtual classrooms that have popped up across the US in the past five years, i2P does not rely on government funding and is touted for being interactive. The organization gets most of its money from corporate sponsors such as Gatorade and relies on donations from Apple and BGAN Satellite for its technology. Called "21st century learning" and "truly groundbreaking" by Apple's Distinguished Educators, a program that recognizes K-12 and higher education pioneers who use Apple products to transform teaching and learning, i2P is already being recognized for its unique approach.

Tears stream down Cook-Clarke's face as she runs toward the aid station, a white sport utility vehicle at the side of the road. "I'm fine," she says as she wipes her face and takes a big gulp of Gatorade. But judging from the limp in her left leg, she's not fine.

Her fellow youth ambassador Jessica Kenny, an American nursing student at Lake Erie College in Ohio, points a hand-held camera at her.

"How are you doing right now, Emma?" Ms. Kenny asks. Normally, this would be incredibly annoying, but sharing struggles is part of what i2P is about. In a few hours this video will be broadcast to hundreds of schools across the US and Canada, and several in India and Europe.

Bringing the world to the classroom

Ray Zahab, a world-renowned adventurer and founder of i2P, says the vision of the organization is to "use adventure to encourage a generation of leaders whose direct experiences and education will prepare them to lead social and environmental action all across the world." The program, he says, tries to do this by "using the concepts of experimental- and challenge-based learning to create curriculum that will engage students and teachers like Adriana Rossi."

Ms. Rossi, a seventh-grade teacher who uses the i2P videos in her class and has attended two i2P expeditions, including the trip to India, says this kind of out-of-the box learning could make a lasting difference.

The ability to visually follow youth ambassadors as they visit local hospitals in India and interact with children in the villages they run through, she says, gives participants a richer understanding.

"To be able to communicate live with these ambassadors in a place that most kids are not able to travel to is phenomenal, and it makes it real for them," Rossi says. "So, when they are learning, they are getting excited about it."

This is exactly what Mr. Zahab had in mind when he started the program. "We believe that integrating technologies and using them in ways that are entertaining, educational, and informative is the landscape of the future for education," he says.

In 2007, Zahab himself ran 50 miles a day for 111 days across the Sahara desert. The run was documented in the film "Running the Sahara," produced and narrated by Matt Damon, and designed to raise awareness of water issues in the Sahara.

He says that the best way to share the experience with students is to put this cutting-edge technology in the hands of young people and let them tell their own stories. This is why he selects "youth ambassadors" for each expedition. The youth ambassadors in India were a diverse group, from Cook-Clarke, who is spending the year backpacking through Asia with her mom, to Hashveer Singh Saluja, a Sikh who is finishing his master of business administration degree in Jharkhand, India. Mr. Saluja says that even though India is his home country, he had no idea how difficult it was for people at the village level to get access to health care.

Expeditions with focus

Whether they are in Siberia, the Amazon, or India, the twice-yearly expeditions are chosen for the educational topics they will cover. In India, the focus was world health. An earlier expedition to the Amazon looked at biodiversity, while the curriculum of expeditions to Tunisia and Siberia focused on water.

A team of educators and professionals who are experts in the topic develop the curriculum for each expedition. In India, they posed a health question each day. Greg Wells, a physiologist who specializes in health and performance in extreme conditions, led the health, education, and nutrition unit. He created an interactive video that shows him testing the blood lactate levels of the youth ambassadors at different intervals.

Though I could think of better rewards than getting my finger pricked right in the middle of a 20-mile run, Dr. Wells says the data is invaluable and shows the correlation between health, nutrition, and exercise. He plans to wrap the videos of the experiment into his classroom curriculum at the University of Toronto.

Rossi says that learning about health care in India from the lives of people on the ground opens the eyes of her seventh-graders. "My students get that in countries like India, they have health problems but they don't see it, so it does not actually mean much to them," Rossi says. "But when they get to see it like we do with i2P, that makes it real to them. And the conversation is completely different because now they are real people, and they are seeing it that way."

Though it is unlikely that many of the Indians interviewed by the youth ambassadors and education team in local clinics, hospitals, and villages fully understand the mission of i2P, most of them appeared happy to share their lives with strangers.

One of my most memorable experiences during the expedition was watching the youth ambassadors connect with thousands of students through live streaming video in the middle of the desert. They were bombarded with questions ranging from "What do Indian people eat?" and "How do people in India go to the doctor?" to "How are kids in India different or the same as kids in North America?"

Cook-Clarke replied to this last question by saying, "Most of the kids we've seen have a lot less than in North America, but that does not mean they are not happy." While these questions may be basic, they show the interest these young people have in learning about another place and people in real-time.

But it was a video made by a class of fourth- and fifth-graders at Bentheim Ele­mentary School in Hamil­ton, Mich., (vimeo.com/32987655) that inspired the youth ambassadors. After nearly a week with no shower, sleeping in tents every night, and fending off cobras and scorpions, the youth ambassadors watched a group of kids sway back and forth while singing the Journey song "Don't Stop Believin'." The opportunity to see the positive response of the students appeared to make the runners feel more connected to the i2P mission.

Measuring success

Programs like this leave a lot of room for improvement, and the impact they have on young people is hard to quantify. Impossible2Possible, which was founded in 2008, is still in a developmental phase. The i2P team agrees that to become a sustainable model for education, the videos and course curriculum being created now will need to be archived. This way teachers can plan far in advance how to best use the videos in their curriculums. But given the daily stress that teachers are under, and the constant pressure to achieve high test scores, it is often hard for them to find time to explore new education models.

Rossi says she tries to educate interested teachers about the program during teacher workdays, and that it is critical to get the administrations of participating schools on board. But she says the rewards of the program can be measured in the hallway.

"Anytime you do something new in a classroom, you are not going to notice it right away," she says. "But when I hear students talking about it in the halls, or in that parent-teacher conference, when the parent says, 'You know, my kid came home from school the other day and said you did this in class' – how often do you hear that when you are reading out of a book?"

Zahab hopes that this is just the beginning of i2P's education program and says that in the next five years, as technology develops, there may come a time when the youth ambassadors are brought to the classroom through holographic imaging.

In the meantime, he says, i2P will continue to inspire young people one expedition at a time. The next expedition will be in Africa in October 2013 and will focus on food security and water. Zahab says it will be the largest project to date with more youth ambassadors and longer distances between the countries.

"We are out here trying to convince young people that we can all be amazing at something," says Zahab. "What we want to do at the end of the day is tell young people all over the world that, yes, you can accomplish the extraordinary. We are also showing them that the world is an incredible place, and it does not end in those four walls in the classrooms. The world is your classroom."

For Cook-Clarke, running more than 170 miles through Rajasthan was the beginning of her extraordinary education. Through her efforts, it's possible the youths who watched her struggle will be inspired to push their limits and be more active players in finding solutions to global problems.

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