COLUMBIA — Kelsey Saragnese, a junior at Rock Bridge High School, used bugs and a Ken doll to illustrate the world AIDS epidemic.
Saragnese created a green board with the doll standing over a group of small ants, holding a magnifying glass. She explained Ken represented AIDS and the ants the impoverished countries of the world.
"It's so much easier for him (the doll representing AIDS) to get to these people," she said.
Surrounding the Ken doll and ants were larger bugs, meant to represent the wealthier nations of the world. Though still within the doll's reach, those countries have better means to escape him, she explained.
For the ants, "there's kind of no hope," she said. "They couldn't get wings to fly away."
Saragnese's art display was part of a project for her Contemporary Issues class at Rock Bridge, taught by Matt Cone. Students created projects aimed to explain the AIDS epidemic and the problems surrounding it. On Tuesday morning, the class invited several members of the community to view the projects and discuss what they have learned throughout their recent unit on AIDS.
"We wanted to give students an opportunity to get others involved in a discussion about AIDS," Cone said. "And we wanted to use art as a jumping-off point."
"A conversation, like a book or a movie, can change your life," he said. "Sometimes a person can say something, and it can inspire you to change the world. And it can happen at any time."
The class set up the room with chairs creating a circle, where students sat on the inside and guests took the outer chairs, with one or two guests sitting with each student. After letting everyone introduce themselves, the guests were invited to start off with the art piece but were asked not to shy away from deeper inquiry.
"They're well-equipped to answer your questions," Cone said.
Students launched into discussions with their guests, explaining the symbolism of their projects and the things they've learned throughout their unit on AIDS. After about 20 minutes, the guests switched students and discussed another project.
Another student, Brenna Blazis, created a picture of a tidal wave engulfing a small village, representing poor countries most afflicted by AIDS. In front of the village, small sandbags represented what Blazis called weak foreign aid. Just like the sandbags would not be able to stop the wave, she said these poorer nations need more than what they're receiving.
"It's nowhere near enough to stop the AIDS epidemic," she said.
The guests, including parents of students in the class and City Council members, commented on how much the students knew about AIDS. Anita Cowan, a mother of a student in the class, said she was impressed both with how much the students knew about the problem and how easily the conversation came.
"It wasn't rehearsed," she said. "They actually felt what they were saying."
Erin Greer, a Rock Bridge junior and the teaching assistant for the class, was pleased with the varied approaches students took for the project. "I thought it was really interesting that everybody really did have different parts of this problem," she said.
Greer said she was also impressed that students' projects centered on solving issues of poverty and health coverage rather than throwing money at the AIDS problem.
Saragnese echoed Greer's thoughts.
"With the economy (in the United States), the first thing on your mind is going to be keeping your house, keeping your job, feeding your family, not, 'How much money can I send to Africa this week?'" she said. "It starts with education."
For a profile of Matt Cone and his work with the Contemporary Issues class, see the Weekend Missourian.