David Johns remembers his former student's incredible thirst for knowledge. Rob Sharwood describes his former teacher as one in a million.
Decades after Mr Johns taught Dr Sharwood at St Stanislaus College in Bathurst, the pair have reunited to help East Timor teachers make a difference in the classroom.
The Islamic School of Canberra principal and ANU ARC CoE Translational Photosynthesis research fellow hope to inspire East Timor teachers to help their students reach their full potential by sharing simple experiments and new ways of lesson delivery.
"We can actually expose people to cutting edge science and a way to help them teach their students, to get them to aspire to go to university and things like that," Dr Sharwood said.
It's a journey the pair know well. Dr Sharwood once believed he was headed for a life as a fourth-generation sheep farmer. Hard work at school and the guidance of Mr Johns saw him study at the Australian National University and, eventually, Cornell University.
Things were different in the 1990s - Mr Johns wrangled a class of 35 students without the help of a laboratory technician. But it's nothing compared to the 60-strong classes teachers in Maliana head, often without tertiary training. Some walk for hours to get to school, and resources are few. Rote learning is the main method of instruction.
It's with this in mind that Mr Johns and Dr Sharwood plan how best to get their message across.
"We were always very focused on the fact that these guys have no money, let's go find what we can walking down to the shop, what can we find down the village or the market that's going to help the teachers and not going to cost a bomb that reinforces what they're trying to teach," Mr Johns said.
Dr Sharwood added: "My main thing was to encourage free thinking. As a scientist we have to have free thinkers. Rote learning was just surprising."
Mr Johns reflected on the applause of teachers when they shared Dr Sharwood's story, which also served as inspiration.
"A limited financial situation, the limited opportunities that life provides, shouldn't be a limitation on what you learn," Mr Johns said.
"If we are going over there enabling people and developing capacity in people who wouldn't otherwise have that, that's an enormous gift for them. It gives significant meaning to what we do."
Mr Johns and Dr Sharwood will travel to East Timor next month.
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