"Live together - learn from each other - be there for each other" - under this motto, school partnerships have existed between the Ingeborg-Drewitz-Gesamtschule (IDG) in Gladbeck, location of the office of the zdi-Zentrum I+I=Z.Gladbeck, and two schools since 1986 in Zambia, Africa.
Guntram Seippel, teacher of technology and chemistry, has been in charge of the Zambia AG since 2003. Since then, there has been a clear STEM reference in the voluntary AG. Under the heading "Light for Learning", students are planning photovoltaic systems for the African partner schools, among other things. The highlight is an annual, reciprocal, four-week student exchange in which the participants install the photovoltaic systems on site in Zambia. This makes the partner schools less dependent on the public power grid. Although the Zambian schools are connected to the network, network overloads have so far repeatedly led to power failures. German and Zambian students work hand in hand to improve the infrastructure. During the return visits to Germany, people live and learn together and work on joint projects on the subject of climate protection and resource efficiency. The project has already received several awards for this commitment, including as a "Place of Progress" and in 2016 with the German Climate Prize of the Allianz Environmental Foundation and internationally with the National Globe Award Zambia. In 2019, Guntram Seippel received the TalentAward Ruhr for his commitment. And this year, the Ingeborg-Drewitz-Gesamtschule was once again recognized as a "school of the future" by the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
We spoke to Guntram Seippel about the project, the German Climate Prize and the importance of STEM know-how in an international context.
Mr. Seippel, Zambia AG has been in existence for more than 30 years. How did the AG come about?
In 1985 a delegation from the Zambian Church visited the Evangelical Church of Westphalia in Schwerte. You have to know that many Zambian schools have a church background and are affiliated with churches. For this reason there were many teachers among the church delegates from Zambia. In addition to the exchange on spiritual topics, the visitors also dealt with the German school system. This is how the Zambian delegation found its way to the Ingeborg Drewitz Comprehensive School in Gladbeck. During this visit, the idea of the school partnership came up and the headmaster at the time was enthusiastic from the start. A year later, the first group from Zambia was a guest in Gladbeck.
The core element of Zambia AG is the exchange program. What is it about?
Since 1986, students who are interested in Zambia and exchange have come together in Zambia AG. First of all, it's about finding out something about the country, about life there and the differences to life in Germany. The AG is organized in such a way that the students remain in the AG for two years. In the first year, guest students from Zambia come to Germany. Our Gladbeck students take the Zambian students into their homes so that they can then get to know them better and more intensively. And then in the second year we go down to Zambia.
The exchange program is primarily about intercultural exchange. The majority of our students may know European countries from vacations, but long-distance travel is uncommon. In this sense, participation in Zambia AG is a groundbreaking life experience for most participants.
Since 2004, the STEM subjects have played a major role for Zambia AG. How did that happen?
I took over the management of Zambia AG in 2003. Since then, we have integrated the technology lessons into the project, specifically photovoltaics. We have installed solar systems on the roof of our comprehensive school and photovoltaics is a central part of technology lessons anyway. During the first exchange that I led in 2004, when the Zambians were our guests, we organized project days on the subject of photovoltaics. Together with our guests we looked at the systems on the roof and learned how the technology works. In this context, the idea came up to set up such systems in Zambia as well. The “Light for Learning” project, which installs photovoltaic systems on Zambian school roofs, was born.
What is the “Light for Learning” project about?
The two Zambian partner schools are connected to the electricity grid, but there is no electricity for 1/3 of the day. And that is quite a problem for the students at the partner schools, because they go to so-called boarding schools, i.e. boarding schools. In Zambia, the sun sets at 18.00 p.m., which is exactly when the students’ learning time begins after school has finished. Without electricity, they cannot use this learning time. Through our “Light for Learning” project, we have been able over the years to supply all the classrooms of our Zambian partner schools with solar power. Now all students at both schools have the opportunity to study all day long. As a result, school graduations have improved. The facilities are now looked after and maintained by the Zambian students themselves. Then you realize that the projects are really sustainable and bring something lasting.
In 2016, Zambia AG was awarded the German Climate Prize for the "Light for Learning" project. What distinguishes the price?
The German Climate Prize is about sustainable environmental projects. In Germany there are numerous schools that install photovoltaic systems on their own school roofs. That alone is not a reason for being nominated for the German Climate Award. The intercultural and social background of our project is the decisive factor and the reason why Zambia AG has been very successful in competitions for several years. The continuity of Zambia AG and the reciprocity of the exchange program with an African country are unique in Germany.
Apart from the prize money, how is Zambia AG financed?
Here in Gladbeck, the teaching material required for the preparation is financed by zdi. In this way, the foundations of the group work can be laid and the students can examine how such complex systems are structured. Photovoltaics is on the one hand a topic in technical classes, but above all in group classes. zdi provides a reliable financial basis to be able to continuously implement such projects. This basis means that all competition funds can be put into the construction of the solar systems on site in Zambia. But prize money is also exhausted. In principle, we are always looking for competitions or companies and sponsors who want to support the project. Unfortunately, this is not regulated in the long term, but a constant search for new financing options.
How important are intercultural exchange and knowledge transfer in the STEM field?
The exchange is very important for both sides, the German and the Zambian, to think outside the box. Through projects like Zambia AG, the students realize that they can take responsibility not only at home but also worldwide. And they get to know the needs, fears and advantages as well as disadvantages of people in other cultures. Be it the corona pandemic or climate protection, these are global problems that can only be tackled together in an international union. The students experience this up close in intercultural exchange programs.
With knowledge from the MINT area, as in our example of photovoltaics, something can really be achieved. It is important for students to broaden their own horizons beyond the school technology lessons and to learn what MINT everything is needed for and what can be achieved with MINT know-how. This gives the students a completely different perspective of the world and their own perspectives. Through projects like “Light for Learning” they notice that they can change something even with their limited possibilities.
You have been managing Zambia AG for many years now. What fascinates you personally about the AG? What has been your highlight over the years?
For me as a teacher, the entire project is of course unique because you can watch the students grow. When our students arrive in Zambia more or less on their own, they have to take control of their lives to a certain extent. Namely in things that are completely normal for us here in Germany and that we don't think about. It starts with running water, which the Zambian partner schools don't have. The project simply has a lot of learning potential on several levels.
My highlight is that our project is also bearing fruit locally in Zambia. A former Zambian student studied physics after leaving school and now works as a teacher at another school. We inspired her to promote MINT at her school and to initiate a similar project. She is now carrying our idea further and more and more schools are being equipped with photovoltaic systems.
Mr. Seippel, thank you very much for the interview!