Peace Corps Liberia Science Fair (part 1)

(I’m not the only one who wrote a post about this… check out Nimu’s perspective!)

Last month I helped host the first big science fair in Liberia since the war! The event was organized by my fellow volunteer Tony Yang and hosted at the Peace Corps training center in Kakata. Eight Peace Corps volunteers (including me) worked with sixteen students across Liberia to do a science project and prepare a poster and Power Point presentation. Here’s all the volunteers and the students that participated:

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Then we all met in Kakata for a four day science camp where the students presented their work to their peers and judges. We also planned a bunch of fun science activities and challenges for the kids during the camp too!

For me, it all started by finding a pair of students to work with. I decided to choose based on the students’ reliability above all else. Reliability is a very rare trait in Liberia/Africa. In the west, we sort of take it for granted that people will do what they say they will do, but in the culture here it’s not valued in the same way. This makes it very hard to work on extended projects with groups of people – if you can’t count on people to be in the same place at the same time, you can’t collaborate. If you can’t follow through and do what you say you will do, any plans you make are just words.

Luckily for me, I had already been screening my students for reliability. Before I had even heard about the science fair, I had started an extra class before school every morning for ninth graders wanting to go above and beyond what we were doing in class. When I first made the announcement about opening this class to my ninth graders, everyone was interested but groaned about the early start time. I explained to them that the early time was essential because I only wanted to work with highly motivated students. “You need to love math more than sleep to be in this class”, I told them.

So, out of six eligible students (I required they have an 80% or above that grading period), only two were interested enough to actually try it. They were brothers, and lived in the same house, which made them especially easy to work with because they were already together most of the time.

The first week I ran the class, these brothers didn’t make it on time in the morning a single day. At the beginning of the week I told them that I would be easy on them as they adjusted to this new idea of being early and prompt, but explained that after this first week they would start getting consequences for being even a minute late (doing yard work around the campus).

It looked like they were improving throughout the week, (15 minutes late, then 10 minutes late…) but when friday rolled around, they were a good 20 minutes late. I really chewed them out for that — and I made it clear to them that what was really wrong about that picture was that neither made any effort to rush or run to campus even though they knew full well they were not on time. I told them they needed to stop bluffing because they were in the special class and start rushing instead. (Remember “bluffing” is Liberian English for “showing off”).

I then sat them down and showed them how to make a schedule for the morning. We wrote down all their morning chores and estimated the amount of time each would take, and used that information to find the time they needed to wake up in the morning. The idea of planning your time backwards from your desired arrival time was completely new to them. The idea of building margin into your time estimates was completely new to them too. Even the idea of aiming to arrive like five minutes before you were supposed to was revolutionary. When we finished, we had a morning schedule laid out for them, and I held my breath for the following Monday.

It worked like a charm. At exactly five minutes before our agreed starting time, the two brothers came running up on the path to school. But I knew better than to celebrate — the real test would be to see if the behavior would last.

But it did last. They were on time every day for almost a month before their first mistake. I was very impressed and proud of them. But mostly, I was excited that their reliability allowed us to really dig deep in the math work we were doing together. I could really run with these kids.

Then I started having problems with one of the brothers. He wasn’t following through on his assigned work, and then started disappearing from school to do work on a construction job that opened up the road. It was nothing that should have kept him from the class — I explained to him that he just needed to communicate with me and we could work things out.

But too many times he would disappear from school and I would find him playing Lulu or something with his friends instead (Lulu is the Liberian version of the board game “Sorry!“). He’d say he had just come back from his work up the road, which may or may not have been true. But even giving him the bennefit of the doubt, he was not putting out the effort to make the early class work for him. I made him do yard work on campus and at my house whenever he disappeared without communicating first. He started to realize that as long as he remained in the class I was going to demand a certain level of commitment and effort from him, and I would not let him slip through any of it.

When this really sunk in, he elected to drop out of the special class. I was so proud of him for making that decision himself and then writing a letter to inform me, and I made sure to tell him so. That kind of communication was exactly the professional attitude I was wanting from him from the beginning. It meant that he was saying what he was doing rather than being flimsy about it.

And so that left Samuel, the other brother, to do the science fair with. This student had proved himself reliable over the span of about two months and had learned that being flakey just meant extra work for himself. I introduced the idea of the science fair, explained what it would look like, and we got straight to work.

I suggested we make our project about his father’s charge station. His father had tried a number of times to make a business running a generator and charging people’s cell phones but each time found he was losing money. I explained to Samuel that we could use scientific procedures mathematics to study why that was happening and to try to find ways his father could run a station without losing money. (And I’ve been interested in studying charge stations from the moment I first saw one here in Liberia!). He thought it sounded like a great idea.

So we started using our early morning meeting time to learn some basic electronics and the mathematics involved. We even started to do some electronics some “lab” work:

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In the above picture, you’re seeing Samuel (right) desoldering components off an old radio board. Christian (left) happened to be around that day and helped by keeping the board steady for him. That soldering iron he’s using is powered by the 12V battery that my solar system charges, and the old circuit board came from the big pile of electronic parts that children are always bringing me.

I had him keep a lab book to record all of the work that he did and his observations.

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Here’s a page where he describes the resistors he was taking off the old board:

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I didn’t tell him the proper name for the component at that point, because I wanted to encouraged him to just write what he saw, rather than get stuck because he wasn’t sure of the “right answer”. I also told him to just focus on communicating his ideas, rather than using perfect standard English. I thought his Liberian English description of the resistor was perfect: “the small small thing got shape like a small small pawpaw” (Pawpaw == papaya). I mean, look at the similarity:

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(Resistor image source, pawpaw image source)

The idea of doing exploratory work without being told the “right answer” was a new concept for him, since he’s used to an educational culture where properly formatting and copying answers word for word is put higher than conceptual mastery. But I explained to him that in the real world, it’s the job of scientists and engineers to discover and explore new things that might not even have names yet… You need to learn how to name things yourself and come to your own conclusions!

After about a month of working on our electronics and mathematics background, we put together our experiment. Our goal was to see if there was a big efficiency difference in running the generator with a small load, versus a big load. In other words, if we are able to charge many phones at one time, will we use less gas per phone than if we charge them in smaller groups?

Rather than using actual phones for the experiment, we used 100W light bulbs. Samuel wired up a bunch of sockets for our experiments:

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Since charging a phone uses about 5W, each bulb could simulate about 20 phones. We ran the generator for an hour with 5 bulbs first and then with 1 bulb, simulating 100 phones and 20 phones respectively.

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Before and after each run, we would empty the gas from the generator’s tank…

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… and measure the level of gas in centimeters inside a glass mayonaise container, taking care to look straight on the scale and measure to the bottom of the meniscus. (Here’s Samuel practicing his measuring technique with some water)

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Finding the difference in the height of gas before and after each run gave us a measure for the amount of gas we were using. Even though it was a very nonstandard volume measure (“centimeters of gas in a large mayonaise container”, instead of, say, “milliliters”), it served well for comparing usage rates.

We found that the generator is most efficient when you are charging many phones at one time, as I expected. To Samuel, this was a surprise. He figured charging phones in larger groups would use more gas. This is because he was probably thinking in terms of the total gas being used instead of the gas used per phone. This distinction turned out to be a very difficult concept to understand and later communicate to our Liberian audiences. (But seeing this was very valuable for me as an educator… this kind of abstract thinking is essential not just in science/engineering, but for being able to do any kind of larger scale planning or business. This is something I need to emphasize in my classes!)

Unfortunately really understanding this concept in the context of our experiment was further clouded by the fact that running the generator at a higher load not only used less gas per phone, it also used less gas total, making those ideas seem interchangable. Oh well. It might have had to do with the fact that the generator was slowly breaking down… after our second trial we couldn’t start it again. Anyway, it’s clear we’ve got future work to do if we really want to answer our question.

But most importantly, we finally had some results we could put into a presentation and do calculations with. We were ready to go to Kakata.

Next: Peace Corps Liberia Science Fair (part 2)

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One Response to Peace Corps Liberia Science Fair (part 1)

  1. Evie Jaskoski says:

    Outstanding!!!! Kudos to Samuel! Can’t wait to read how he did at the fair.

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