Nestled in Thailand’s remote northern mountains, the hill tribe population of Doi Tung, Chiang Rai province was an ethnic minority group all but forgotten by the Thai government – a small population with different social and religious traditions, and historically infamous for illicitly growing opium poppy. The community faced challenges of infections, diseases, a weak social structure and environmental degradation.
Since 1988, the not-for-profit Doi Tung Development Project (DTDP), an operations arm of the Mae Fah Luang Foundation under Royal Patronage, has worked to eliminate those problems through providing the Doi Tung people with sustainable livelihoods. Today, the hill people are entrepreneurs who grow coffee, tea, and other crops, such as macadamia nuts and strawberries, that cannot be grown in other parts of the country. They are socioeconomically sufficient, but still able to embrace local traditions and spiritual beliefs, using their own dialect and wearing traditional clothing.
The area’s school system was developed by DTDP, and now educates approximately 1,500 children from six diverse ethnic minorities in eight schools. Teachers in the schools, however, typically stay at the schools for only a few years before moving on to schools in less remote locations. Without a committed population of teachers, the schools have a difficult time maintaining long-term educational continuity and growing an educational curriculum. The education in the schools is Montessori-based, emphasizing life skills rather than academic strength, but the high teacher turnover rate means that students often have an inconsistent curriculum.
Jeanne-Tania Sucharitaves, an IBM senior technical analyst in Thailand at the time, saw an opportunity to help DTDP, and to help develop a curriculum that remained consistent despite the ever-present changes in staff. She began discussions with DTDP to explore what IT could do to assist the school system.
With funding from an IBM Centennial Catalyst Grant in 2011, Jeanne and a group of IBM volunteers made the commitment to help DTDP establish a Doi Tung Montessori website to enhance the sustainability and growth of the Montessori approach in the Doi Tung schools. The project’s goal was to build a sustainable solution to collect, maintain, and continuously develop the curriculum, materials, and resources used among the eight DTDP schools.
Starting in February 2012, IBM volunteers collected the requirements from DTDP project representatives and developed a website. This website allows Montessori teachers from different Doi Tung schools to access a central online location to learn about the Montessori education system, to store all Montessori educational information and teaching materials, and to share experiences via a forum board system to continuously improve the educational system at Doi Tung schools. Other IBMers have provided remote online support by providing system integration testing for the website. In June, a team of four IBM volunteers traveled to DPTP headquarters in Chiang Rai and delivered the website with a training session for DTDP administrators, who will continue to maintain the website for future use.
During this process, Jeanne relocated to the United States to work at IBM’s site in Vermont, but has continued to have an interest in the project she started. Other volunteers stepped up to help, including Paranee Reymondon, who took over as the project coordinator, and Rungtip Swangnan, as project manager.
A sustainable, self-sufficient community education system
The ultimate goal of the project is for the schools to develop a capacity to deliver high-quality education to the children of Doi Tung, and to continue to do so in the future when support from DTDP comes to an end.
“I would like the students, including the teachers and DTDP staff, to feel impressed and be inspired by IBMers, and by the fact that IT promotes better living and connects them together,” Jeanne says. “I personally hope that the children will grow to become strong leaders in their own community. I’d like for them to have a curious mind – never stop learning – and always find the best for their own community.”
Jeanne says she enjoyed the process of starting conversations with colleagues “outside my comfort zone” about community work and how IT could help the world.
“I think this chance came at a good time when IBM was celebrating its 100th anniversary, and IBMers in Thailand were eager to contribute to society,” she says.
Jeanne says that when it comes to volunteering, close to home is often the best place to start. “Explore around your community and see what challenges there are and needs it requires,” she says. “Then, you can think about whether these challenges are affecting you, your family, or the way you live. If so, think about what you need to do to change or improve the situation. Some people start with what interests them the most or the skills they have to contribute to society.”