Friday, Aug. 17, 2012
Church brings robots to Haiti
Technology teacher uses mission trip to share hope through engineering
By Bethany Bashioum
Harrisonville High School technology teacher and robotics coach Jake Kohl recently had the opportunity to spend a week teaching Haitian children what he knows how to do best through gidgets and gadgets.
Five LEGO WeDo kits, and five Mindstorm robotic kits, like the tools used at schools across the country, including Harrisonville, were donated by LEGO Education for Kohl to take to Haiti as a part of weeklong missions trip with his church.
The 42-year-old, along with his wife, Paula, and sons, Jonathan, 15, and Ethan, 12, were a part of a 17-member team from Cornerstone Community Church in Harrisonville, who traveled to a region 30 miles north of the country’s Port-au-Prince capitol, July 28-Aug. 5, to help the Mission of Hope organization.
The organization began in 1997 by a couple who went on a short term mission trip to the Haiti, and watched an 18-month-old baby die on the way to a clinic. The couple later learned that the baby died from starvation. A year later they moved to the country and started a school built by the U.S. Army.
The organization has grown to include an orphanage of 65 children, a medical facility, a school of 2,800 students, and a church.
Kohl previously traveled to Haiti three years ago.
“As I listened to their story (on our first trip), two things triggered this crazy idea of bringing robots to Haiti,” Kohl said. “The first was the philosophy of the orphanage. These kids could not be adopted because Mission of Hope wants to raise up Christ-centered leaders to help change their own country from within. The second thing was the school, and where they rank at the top in the country for math and science. As a robotics and engineering teacher and coach at Harrisonville High School, I desire to motivate students who are strong in math and science to become engineers and problem solvers. If robotics can motivate students in Missouri, why not students in Haiti?”
In what is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, and having been crippled by a devastating 7.0-magnitude earthquake two years ago, Kohl was somewhat apprehensive about sharing his technology interests.
“When I told people what we were doing, some responded with, ‘Don’t they need basic needs like food and water,’” Kohl said.
There were times that Kohl said he was doubting about what he wanted to do, but looking back, he has realized the opportunity was being ordained by the work of God.
During their ministry in Haiti, Kohl spoke with the American missionary who serves as the orphanages’ activities director. Kohl said she removed the doubts, as she said that these children are not in need of food and water, but rather tools to help them grow up and help their country.
Kohl began using LEGO Mindstorm robotics in his classroom in 2010.
In December, he realized the kits he had received were missing a few elements and contacted his sales representative. He was also asked if LEGO could come do a video shoot in his classroom. The school’s robotics team assisted with the video, and his relationship with LEGO continued to grow.
Then, last year, Kohl began to feel the urge to go back to Haiti.
“God was putting pieces together, but I did not see the big picture,” Kohl said.
In March, he inquired to the orphanage director at Mission of Hope to see if they would even be interested in the LEGO kits, and received a positive response. Kohl went back to his sales representative, sharing his vision.
Within a week, LEGO Education and Pitsco Education, sent the 10 kits to Kohl. The materials were in value of more than $3,000.
The orphanage also did not have computer access, but an anonymous donation contributed three laptops.
Kohl was also able to gain insight on how to teach students who speak a different language from him from an individual he met at a LEGO Education conference prior to the trip who had taken kits to children in Cambodia and India. He was shown how to break the language barrier through visual directions and maps.
The LEGO Education robotics program is well known for their annual competitions around the world to foster the interest in engineering and development of problem-solving skills among students
“The goal is not to necessarily to get them into a competition, but the goal is to help them learn engineering and problem-solving skills to help them solve the problems in their own country,” Kohl said. “And that’s what we’re trying to do here (in Harrisonville) - to become engineers and technicians.”
In addition to introducing the LEGO robots to the children who varied in ages up to 19 year olds, the missions team also helped with Vacation Bible School, did work projects, and played with the Haitian children.
“As I think back, three things solidified my purpose for bringing robotics to Haiti,” Kohl said.
The first, a university that specializes in engineering, but was destroyed during the 2010 earthquake, has decided to move out of the city of Port-au-Prince, and is building a next to Mission of Hope.
It’s Kohl’s hope that the influence of the university will eventually help the students currently being served by Mission of Hope have the opportunity to pursue higher education.
Second, Mission of Hope’s school recently received broadband wireless Internet, which enable students to further develop robotic knowledge and Kohl’s robotic team to maintain a relationship with the students there via Skype.
Harrisonville’s robotic team was also able to chip in $350 to purchase equipment to bring a wireless Internet connection to the orphanage.
“The third, is the look and excitement on the faces of those Haitian children,” Kohl said. “One little boy name Oceaneal looked up at me with big eyes and a beautiful smile and simply said, ‘Thank you.’”