For Karen Krieger, the best part of teaching in Cambodia has been seeing her students use their potential to learn and solve problems faced by a poor country with a tragic history.

“It’s watching those kids do more than you thought any kid could do,” said Karen, 60. “These kids are going to help (Cambodia) develop. We haven’t found this motivated a bunch of kids anywhere else.”

“It’s exciting,” said her husband, Jan Krieger, 58. At parent-teacher conferences, he said, Cambodian parents are often in tears and bow repeatedly because they’re so appreciative.

Many parents can’t read. They may earn just $3 to $7 a day as rice farmers or garment workers. They’re in awe that their kids are learning English and how to use computers.

Karen is starting her sixth year at the Liger Leadership Academy, a private nonprofit school. Originally a science teacher, she now is the college and career counselor, trying to help the first 50 students who will soon graduate to find college scholarships in India, Thailand or the United States.

The Liger Leadership Academy has been reported on by the BBC, CNBC and Forbes magazine. The school was founded in 2012 by American tech entrepreneur Trevor Giles and his wife, Agnieszka, who fell in love with Cambodia while traveling. They invested a reported $15 million in the academy, which now educates 110 students.

Liger emphasizes education and entrepreneurship so students can become agents of change for their country.

Cambodia is probably best known to Americans for the “killing field.” The communist Khmer Rouge regime killed roughly 2 million people from 1975 to 1979 — about a quarter of the entire population and nearly all its educated people — in a genocide that ended 40 years ago.

To this devastated country, Jan said, Giles brought his philosophy that “one empowered individual is capable of changing the world around them.”

More than half of learning at Liger is based on doing meaningful projects, Karen said. “Projects” doesn’t mean students make robots from a kit.

It means “finding problems in the community and seeking solutions,” Jan said, “and sharing them with the rest of the country.”

Liger students have hosted a gender summit, raised money to put Cambodia’s first mini-satellite in space, developed an app to preserve the art of writing Khmer poetry, made news videos about soccer and created a bike tourism business.

Students researched, wrote and illustrated books about Cambodia’s economy and its wildlife, which have been shared with high schools around the country.

In biology, instead of just studying textbooks, students took on the project of combatting anemia. They melted old car parts into small “lucky iron fish” that families could drop into rice or stew cooking pots to get more iron into people’s diets.

When students learned by solving problems, Karen said, “they learned deeper” than if they were just trying to pass a test.

The Liger students are impressive, Jan said. At 15 they can stand up before audiences and give TED-style talks with facts and passion.

The Kriegers have been teaching for about 25 years — since they ran the Yellowstone Conservation Corps and discovered the impact it had on teens. Half their time teaching has been in other countries. They raised their two kids while teaching in Honduras, Mexico and Argentina.

“We wanted to give our kids the gift of being bilingual,” said Jan, who taught Spanish at Bozeman’s Chief Joseph and Sacajawea middle schools for 13 years. Karen was an adjunct instructor at Montana State University for several years.

They were teaching in Gabon in Africa before they learned about the Liger academy. They return home to Bozeman for Christmas and summer breaks.

Jan taught in Cambodia for three years and then returned to Latin America, where he could interact more easily with Spanish-speaking communities. He is teaching this year in a nonprofit Costa Rican school that focuses on the environment. Karen plans to join him in a few months and keep working with Liger students via the internet.

She’s trying to find sponsors and scholarships for her Cambodia students so they can go into the larger world, learn new ideas and skills and bring those back to their country. It would be neat if someone would sponsor them in Montana, Jan said.

“We want to make the world better,” Karen said. “We believe young people can make a difference.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

Gail Schontzler covers schools and Montana State University for the Chronicle.

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