Words by Julie Fitz-Gerald

A high school shop class in London, Ontario pushed the boundaries of convention when they built a mobile computer classroom destined for students in Tanzania. The project was first dreamed up by teacher Matt Rock of London Christian High School in January 2019. He knew from past experience that when students have the opportunity to apply the skills they’re learning to real life, the impact can be huge.

With a projected budget of $30,000 and no plan B, Rock put the idea to his Grade 12 students: a 40-foot shipping container-turned-classroom. With nine students in the shop class, each one would be responsible for a component of the design, including structural, electrical, solar, interior and exterior design, and IT.

The students were stunned. “At first I was pretty surprised,” says Caleb Kodde, 18, who was in charge of the interior design of the mobile classroom. “I didn’t really know what it all included, I just knew that it was big right from the start, and I was surprised our class would be doing something that big.”

There’s no denying the scale of the project was ambitious. Fellow classmate Liam Dykstra, 18, says most of the students had doubts in the beginning. “It seemed like a pretty big stretch. We were just nine students and to do this massive project, send it overseas, and raise all the funds that we needed—we all definitely had doubts,” he admits.

Despite the uncertainty, the class jumped into action, led by Rock, who quickly transformed the classroom into a business space. Each student had a desk, office chair, computer, lamp, and plant. A coffee maker was brought in and couches completed the room, making it feel more like an internship than a high school class. With the smell of coffee wafting through the air, the students gathered together each morning, leading off with devotions and then jumping into their work.

As with most large-scale projects, roadblocks are sure to pop up. The initial plan to use solar power was brought to halt due to steep costs. “The solar was a great idea, but it didn’t really make sense with our budget. It was just too expensive, not to mention the maintenance and upkeep of solar panels. I had to adapt on the fly, and that was good. I learned the skill of working with different companies and industry professionals, and I had to be pretty flexible,” Jonathan Vanderspek, 18, explains. Fortunately, the group learned that the Amani Primary School in Tanzania, where the classroom would eventually be sent, was connected to the grid and could tap into electricity.

Community mentors helped with a number of roles, teaching students the ins and outs of the tasks they’d taken on. As the electrical designer, Dykstra was connected with a local electrician who provided invaluable insight throughout the process. “There were two industry people that I reached out to and they were very helpful during the project. They were unbelievable with teaching me things, and I learned a lot during the project,” says Dykstra.

From January until June 2019, the metal shipping container morphed into a mobile classroom with seating for 20 students plus a teacher, complete with 22 computers, air conditioning, a projector, fans, and three windows. Raising funds became a faith-building exercise for both students and teacher, as projected costs began to surpass the initial budget of $30,000. Rock got in touch with a friend in the business world who contacted 10 companies on his behalf, asking for donations of $2,000 each. That’s when the calls started to roll in.

“One morning we raised $10,000 alone,” says Rock. “Each time I answered the phone someone had donated another $2,000. It was an amazing demonstration of God’s provision. I’d like to say there was an overwhelming peace, but a sense of fear and faith were present the whole time. But that’s real life. It was one of the richest jewels to take from the whole thing, to see God’s faithfulness in how He provided for that.”

In total, Rock and his students raised $46,000, while the charity Hope Story raised an additional $10,000 and connected the Ontario school with the Amani Primary School in Tanzania. Kodde, Dykstra, and Vanderspek, who are currently taking business-agriculture at Algonquin College, say building the mobile computer classroom taught them life skills and deepened their faith in God.

“It hit me that anyone can make a difference,” explains Kodde. “Nine students from LCH made a difference, and we accomplished our goal. The challenges we faced, the team bonding, they’re definitely life skills.”

Building the classroom forged an unbreakable bond between the Ontario students and the Amani Primary School. “It’s affected us, and it’s affected a community on the other side of the world. It’s amazing,” says Dykstra. “I’ll remember this for the rest of my life. I’ve taken this project into my life and really thought about it. It was amazing seeing the support throughout from our teacher and our community, and our faith in God—I’ll always remember it.”

An article on this Tanzania school project was originally printed in Faith Today.