Just as Thomas Bridgeman began talking about how much of our water goes down the toilet - literally - the Internet connection beaming a class of sixth graders from South Africa to the Ella P. Stewart Academy for Girls terminated.
He said he hoped he hadn't said the wrong thing.
With just a couple breaks for technical difficulties, sixth graders at the Stewart Academy used the computer communications program Skype to share a cyberclassroom yesterday with same-age "learners," as students call themselves, from the Sol Plaatje Primary School in Mmabatho in South Africa's North West Province.
The topic: the use of water in daily life.
Mr. Bridgeman, assistant professor of environmental sciences at the University of Toledo, pointed out that Americans use far more water every day in large part because the country has more fresh water to use. About a quarter of the water consumed everyday in the United States is used to flush toilets, he said.
"The average American family uses about five times as much water a day as you do in southern Africa," Mr. Bridgeman told the students at Sol Plaatje.
He displayed a map showing the Great Lakes, saying the lakes hold approximately one-fifth of the world's fresh water.
The Sol Plaatje students, who spoke in well-articulated English, explained that they live in a semiarid country where their annual rainfall is much lower than the world's average. Still, much of what they do with water and how they live is quite similar to their counterparts in Toledo.
The Sol Plaatje students described homes with multiple bedrooms and bathrooms, washing machines, and modern kitchens. Their school, they said, has a tennis court, soccer field, even a swimming pool. Class sizes are much larger - a maximum of 40 learners per class - compared to the 20 to 25 typically seen in the United States.
The students also described a water purification system that treats water in much the same way water is treated in Toledo and piped into homes and businesses.
Isabel Escobar, associate professor of chemical and environmental engineering at UT, demonstrated how river water and water from the ocean can be purified. She filtered dirty water through sand and crushed charcoal, then showed how membranes can filter even the tiniest particles of salt from seawater.
The oceans, she said, could provide a sustainable source of drinking water in the future, which could go a long way toward reducing disease and deaths caused by unsafe drinking water.
Sponsored by the Toledo chapter of The Links, a women's service organization, the international classroom was arranged with the help of Reuben Mosidi, a school psychologist with Toledo Public Schools who grew up in South Africa. His sister, Betsey Ntshabele, teaches at Sol Paatje and appeared briefly on camera to say hello to her brother. The two exchanged greetings in their native Setswana.
When Ms. Ntshabele suddenly walked out of the camera's view, Mr. Mosidi turned to the Stewart group and said, "I just told her she looks beautiful."
Stewart sixth-grader Deanna Kyle said after the 90-minute interactive class that the South African students are a lot like children here.
"They live just the same - just like us," she said.
Mr. Mosidi said Sol Plaatje Primary School is in a suburban area where students likely are from upper-middle class families.
"It's not your typical school, say, in a rural area," he said. "It's in a suburban area like a Perrysburg, so some things are not typical."
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