Alum’s TeachAIDS curriculum goes global

AIDS is a taboo and terrifying topic in much of the world. So how do you teach people to prevent or treat the disease? Piya Sorcar (’01) has developed a curriculum that has millions of people watching and learning.

In Rwanda, crowds who gathered outdoors to watch World Cup soccer saw Sorcar’s animated tutorials between periods in the game.

In Tanzania, an activist named Saruni Olodi wanted to show the programs in a village that didn’t have Internet access. Sorcar’s nonprofit, TeachAIDS.org, made the materials available on CD-ROM, but that didn’t work out exactly as planned.

“He told us he didn’t have Internet. He didn’t tell us he didn’t have electricity,” Sorcar said. Olodi managed to find a generator, fuel and a projector and show the tutorials on a sheet tacked over a classroom blackboard.

Sorcar started offering her curriculum in five countries in 2009. It’s now in use in 70 countries. Last year, she was named to MIT Technology Review’s TR 35 list of the top 35 innovators worldwide under the age of 35.

It’s been a relatively quick road from Boulder to TeachAIDS for Sorcar. She graduated from CU with bachelor’s degrees in journalism, economics and business information systems. She went to work as an economic consultant, and then went to Stanford for a doctoral program in education. As she began to plan her research, Sorcar read that India – her parents’ home country – was an international hotspot for AIDS, even though millions of dollars had been spent on education and prevention programs.

“Despite all this money, despite all the expertise, the knowledge level about AIDS was really low,” she said. “I wanted to know what wasn’t working.”

Her first research project involved 200 kids in a part of India where AIDS education programs had been plentiful.
The kids didn’t even know the basics of HIV transmission. “The number one question was whether there was a cure,” Sorcar said. After further research, she learned that the local teachers simply didn’t want to talk about the subject.

“They either thought they didn’t know enough about this health topic or felt embarrassed to teach about HIV, so sometimes they would just give the kids the materials to take home and read. Sometimes, they just wouldn’t talk about it at all.”

The students, in turn, were too embarrassed to ask. AIDS education groups used billboards and other advertising, but it’s harder for people to learn that way because the message isn’t reinforced and questions aren’t answered, Sorcar said.

As she saw how badly the education programs were faring “I started thinking, ‘Is there a way to teach about taboo topics without talking about them?’ ” That question became her dissertation topic, and AIDS her case study.

The result is an interactive software animation package that teaches people about AIDS. The stories are carefully tailored to the cultural mores of each community. If people can’t be shown kissing, for instance, a series of frames shows the human characters standing apart, and then standing closer together before the action moves to a pair of birds kissing on the limb of a tree.

“It’s whatever analogies, metaphors or characters resonate with the culture,” Sorcar said.

Because people are so sensitive about the subject, the stories must be “de-personalized,” she said. The characters are animated rather than portrayed by actors. They aren’t named to avoid discomfort if someone in the crowd has the same name.

The curriculum focuses on prevention and testing, including the key messages that HIV is asymptomatic but people who are tested can get treatment, live longer and even have healthy children.

It took Sorcar and her team two years to create a baseline version of the curriculum and a system to measure what students were learning and whether they were changing their behavior. When early research results became available, she posted them online and drew worldwide attention from teachers, the medical community and private individuals who wanted similar materials in their countries. Then the challenge became making sure the curriculum was culturally appropriate to each location.

Before long, TeachAIDS materials were in use in China and South Africa, and the research, approved by an independent review board and conducted at Stanford, showed the program was working.

“This was meant to be a theoretical dissertation, but the results were so strong that when I graduated (from Stanford) I started a nonprofit,” Sorcar said.

Two-and-a-half years later, the curriculum is in use around the world. It’s available to everyone at no cost, and Stanford continues to support her research, Sorcar said.

Making sure the curriculum works culturally “has everything to do with working with the people working in-country,” Sorcar said. TeachAIDS partners with education and health ministries, NGOs, health-care providers, Peace Corps volunteers and other organizations. When technology doesn’t allow for the use of software, the curriculum is put on CD-ROMs or even printed and distributed.

“I think the most touching part of this is the lengths people go to get this information to their communities,” Sorcar said.

When a power failure prevented the tutorials from being projected in a classroom in one Rwandan village, the people put a laptop on a chair, the chair on a table, and the table in front of the room for everyone to watch together. Sorcar said people often send her photos taken on their mobile phones to show her how they’ve improvised.

Some of the strictest taboos she’s encountered are in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, home to 80 million people. There, children with HIV were being expelled from school. Last year, the government approved the TeachAIDS curriculum and sent 25,000 copies of the software to schools, counseling centers and major TV stations.

While TeachAIDS produces educational materials, Sorcar said much of what she does stems from her training in journalism. “It’s really learning how to communicate with people, learning how to listen and being able to translate that into doing something” that reaches people.

She came to Boulder this spring for an appearance sponsored by JMC’s Certificate in International Media program, under the director of Professor Bella Mody.

Sorcar still helps produce the storyboards for the tutorials. It’s a skill she picked up from her father, an animator who taught Sorcar the craft when she was growing up outside Denver. “This went full circle,” she said.

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