In the lecture hall, the three judges sat at a table in front of the room and the teams began presenting, one by one. Samuel’s was the second presentation.
He did great! You never would have guessed it was his first time doing anything like this. He was comfortable and confident, and excited to share his work with the rest of the group.
At the end of the presentation, during the time for questions, one of the judges had a difficult question that he thought Samuel would be unable to answer, so he addressed it to me. I started to answer, but then realized, “Samuel and I talked about this… there’s no reason he can’t answer!” — so I threw the question back at Samuel, who gave a perfect answer. The judges were very impressed.
After everyone had run through their presentations we had a little break to allow the judges to tally the scores. I took this opportunity to get the students started working on the “straw tower challenge”. (But that quickly became the “pipe house challenge” when I realized all the students called the straws “pipes”). In our pretend senario I told them I was the mayor of their city and wanted to commission them to build a monument in the middle of their city. But I needed them to compete for the contract by building structures with straws first. Whoever could build the tallest tower (that could support the weight of a volleyball) out of nothing but straws and tape would win!
At first, everyone was confused about what we were trying to do. Some group members started taping straws together, others were just staring blankly at their materials. I went from table to table encouraging people to just try anything. By the time we were called back into the lecture hall for the awards ceremony, most groups had some kind of base to their tower. I assured them they could work on it more in the evening.
Our awards ceremony was run in true Liberian form. We had a guest speaker (a principal from a local school), remarks from everybody (judges, organizers, students, etc.), and certificates:
Mustapha, Nimu’s student, was crowned winner of the science fair with his project on “How age effects memory and hand-eye coordination”.
It seems Nimu must be doing something right with the students at her site, because the following week she brought a student to the Peace Corps Liberia chess tournament that won there too. The rest of us volunteers really need to step our teaching, apparently…
After the ceremony we had some more free time. People played volleyball, rested inside, unwinding from all the work we had accomplished in the last couple days. Tony wanted to do some science demos that night, so he put me in charge of making sure all the materials were there.
I was playing with some match rockets and thinking about how to explain Newton’s third law when Samuel stopped by to see what I was doing. “Who are you going to shoot with that?”, he jokingly asked me. His only experience with rockets was related to their use as weapons. “Nobody is shooting nobody!”, I laughed, “we’re going to the moon!”.
Then a thought struck me — “Samuel, did you know that we humans were able to visit the moon?” He had no idea. With some quick google image searching, I was able to show him everything. “We made big big rockets and put people inside”, I told him, showing him a picture, “and shot them way way up in the sky. They went up, up, higher and higher… So high that it was very cold and there was no air to breathe. When they turned around, they could see the whole earth. Here’s what they saw:”
“Wow!”, Samuel exclaimed, laughing, “it looking round!”. I asked him what shape he had thought the earth was — it turned out he thought it was a rectangle, like the maps on the wall at school. “But if it got that shape”, I asked him, “what did you think would happen if you went over the edge?”. “You’d fall in the hole!”, he replied, and we had a good laugh about that together.
That evening, after eating dinner, we volunteers met to debrief the science fair while the students automatically gravitated towards working on their straw structures. At one point I had to grab something inside where the students were working, and was surprised to find a crowd of students cheering and laughing as they tried to balance a volleyball on one of the structures. Other groups were working furiously on their structures, some resembling giant works of modern art.
The excitement in the air was a stark contrast to the initial confusion when they were presented with the challenge. For me, it was very encouraging to see — solving problems with limited resources is not only fun from an engineering standpoint, but an essential skill to practice in the developing world!
Later that night we did some of the science demos. We didn’t have time for match rockets, but I still got to show the students what happened when you mixed vinegar and baking soda (carbon dioxide/foam!) and cornstarch and water (non-newtonian goop!).
I had a blast talking about all the science concepts behind what we were doing and making the students laugh by doing things like trying to taste the carbon dioxide in the balloon and accidentally inhaling vinegar. It was great. I felt like Bill Nye the Science Guy! (It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Bill Nye is the source of a majority of my basic science understanding).
Even later that night we found this tower sitting on one of the tables:
The sign reads, “My brain is on fire I need to rest”. I instantly recognized it to be Samuel’s work… it’s become a running joke with my students that when they’ve been working too long on one of my quizzes and are just frustrating themselves, they need to go home and rest because their “brain is on fire”.
The next day we got some final pictures, and then left Doe Palace as a group to go find taxis back to our respective sites.
Some kids chose to wear their straw towers:
While walking with the group it was fun to listen to the chatter between the students. It had been three short days but they all already had nicknames. I heard one kid call Samuel “generator boy”. Another, who earned his nickname “hummer jeep” from an icebreaker activity (and the same kid pictured above, wearing his tower) was told to “go four wheel!” when we encountered an especially steep section of road. We made a great group!
The day after we got back from the fair, Samuel’s father (and one of the teachers at my school) brought the poster we had made in Kakata to school and posted it on the bulletin board. Apparently the whole family had stayed up late that night hearing Samuel’s stories about the science fair. His father went straight to the office to tell our principal all the wonderful things that Samuel did and learned. Everyone thanked Samuel and me for “doing so well for the school”.
Samuel’s father also talked to me a bit about further generator research for his charge station. He had gone over the poster many times and was excited to see how powerful doing scientific research could be in helping his business. He even had some great experiment ideas of his own! I assured him that we’d get back to work again on the project once school was out.
I was just thrilled with the magnitude of what we had just accomplished. Not only by the work that Samuel and I did, but all the students and volunteers that participated. With a minimal amount of resources, we did real science research with our students and hosted the first cross-county science fair in Liberia since the civil war. Not only did we inspire the group of students that directly participated, their families and communities were reached by their stories as well. What a wonderful experience!