Students work on creating a website during a class at the Liger Learning Center, a school in Phnom Penh that emphasizes courses in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. (Dene-Hern Chen for VOA News)
Students work on creating a website during a class at the Liger Learning Center, a school in Phnom Penh that emphasizes courses in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. (Dene-Hern Chen for VOA News)

PHNOM PENH - On a leafy campus near Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, a group of 50 schoolchildren are benefiting from a bold educational experiment with a dual aim: to turn out youngsters who can improve the country, and to develop a model program that can be replicated internationally.

In 2012 staff from the Liger Learning Center interviewed hundreds of children across Cambodia to find the most promising students. Eventually 25 boys and 25 girls were selected. Each received a scholarship – full board and tuition.

Thirteen-year-old Seyha was one of those chosen. His impoverished parents were thrilled.

“They support me a lot because they wish they could go to this school when they were my age. Because when they were my age, it requires a lot of like money and working to get to school. And this school pay – we pass a scholarship and it’s free,” said Seyha.

The Liger Learning Center's main building on the n
The Liger Learning Center's main building on the non-profit's compound near the Cambodia capital. In addition to the main building, the campus has a science building and dormitories for the students, all of whom live on site and get home five times a year

Most of Liger’s 50 students are, like Seyha, from poor families. In Cambodia, with its weak education system, to be born poor is to have little or no opportunity.

The Liger school wants to change that – for these 50 students, for another 50 students next year and, in the long term, for the country.

U.S. businessman Trevor Gile, who co-founded the school with his wife, was in Cambodia last week, and told VOA that the aim is to help people help themselves, rather than just give away money. That means those who attend the school, also pledge to give back.

“We have essentially promised to these children: come to us, we’ll see you through your high-school years. Now in return, and one of the reasons that we are so focused on making sure they identify with their own culture, is that it’s going to be a poor investment if we turn out this brilliant young person who’s ready to take the world by storm and they leave Cambodia and never look back. That will not be the desired outcome, not by a long shot,” said Gile.

Although education in Cambodia is slowly improving, the well-regarded education minister has been in the job just two years and has a mammoth task ahead.

Students listen during a presentation on creating
Students listen during a presentation on creating web slideshows during a class at the Liger Learning Center. (Dene-Hern Chen for VOA News)

Teaching methods at government schools, for example, revolve around rote learning of specific subjects with a focus on passing exams.

Gile’s deep pockets mean Liger is ahead of other schools. Each Liger student, for instance, has a laptop; they engage in project-based learning and experiential education aimed at helping them reach their potential.

Liger’s country director Dom Sharpe hailed the efficacy of learning by experience.

“Experiential learning is a huge part of what we do here. The students here spend a lot of time out of the classroom, out of Phnom Penh, and sometimes even out of the country. So that’s very different. Learning by experiencing something, you’re never going to forget it,” said Sharpe.

Seyha, for instance, worked with a team of Liger students to research and write a book about Cambodia’s wildlife. The book will be published in January, and it and another book the Liger students wrote about the economy will be distributed in schools nationwide.

Other Liger students have entered a robotics competition in Singapore or recorded podcasts about Cambodian subjects.

Ultimately, said Gile, the Liger Learning Center is about more than helping Cambodia to progress.

“Some people have from time to time thought that this might be a rich guy’s pet project. It’s absolutely not the case. We went into this intending to create a model, a model that could be replicated, outside of Cambodia virtually anywhere. And in order to do this we have to be fiscally responsible. The model has to be self-sustainable and to make economic sense,” said Gile.

To date, Gile is pleased with progress.

“So far it’s working in spades. And so I’m quite confident that we can show the results that we promise we can deliver, and at that point it’s only logical, it only makes sense, that other like-minded individuals and organizations around the world are going to say hey, I like this idea, I think we can work together and expand it,” he said.

Gile expects that by 2025 there will be at least 10 Liger schools in the region and beyond.

By then, this class of 12- and 13-year-olds will have long since graduated and, if all goes according to plan, will be using the skills they’re learning here to help Cambodia move forward.