Nairobi Hope – A School in the Slums

Rubbish Science is a new initiative aimed at creating scientific thinkers the world over. There are three broad aims
  1. Remove rubbish from the environment – mainly plastic and learn why we need to remove it
  2. Create something useful with it – A fly trap from a plastic bottle or a hydroponics micro garden
  3. Learn scientific thinking and creative problem solving – what is the best bait to use in the fly trap? What is the best design? Where should you put it? How will you know you have succeeded?
In in trying to develop these I used a working trip to Kenya to try some ideas. This is not science for developing nations though, It’s proper science – multiple variables and unknown outcomes that every classroom can benefit from. It’s just the materials are free! Ngong Golf Club, by Nairobi racecourse is where we were dropped off. expensive looking , clean  4x4s cruised past us towards the groomed course. The person we were meeting, Titus, arrived on foot and after ten minutes walk we are deep in another world. A world without sanitation or easy access to clean water. A world where grinding poverty enslaves and prevents opportunities. Titus is the Head teacher of a school supported by the brilliant Porridge and Rice that feeds and educates the children who live in these slums. Feeds them first as no one learns when hungry. It aims to try and  provide the opportunity to escape their incredibly hard lives.
Approach to the school

Approach to the school

We pick our way past open drains and piles of rubbish. Turning the corner we are hit by a tidal wave of thigh high smiling kids. Every one of my fingers is held by a different child and we walk with great difficulty to the Heads Office.
The guard!

The guard!

We are here to look at the science teaching and to introduce the idea of rubbish science and to evaluate how appropriate it may be. We are invited into the classrooms. At first we thought Mary ,the headteacher of the planned secondary school ( more of this later)  was reluctant to let us in, then we realised there was just no space in the cramped conditions.The classrooms are clean but quite dark – Litre of Light is a possibility. The students sang a welcome song which was beautiful, heartwarming, but also heartbreaking. image They told us their ambitions – a surgeon, doctor , engineer – they were aiming high. Realistic though? Should we let them dream? Of course we should and we should be angry about the barriers in their way and try and do something about it. The kids are unfailingly polite, smiling  and friendly. The lessons seem to be largely based on what one Kenyan described to me as ‘Copy and Paste’ the students all recite back what the teacher has told them.  There is a place for rote learning , but this  alone is unlikely to give these students the skills they need. This is not a level playing field, they are at a huge disadvantage.  So why do they appear so happy? Is it gratitude ? Encouragingly the teachers we met were very keen to learn new ideas. They were a wonderful bunch of people! A science class shout out the labels and functions of a digestive system drawn on the board as the teacher points. There is no doubt they have knowledge, but can they use it? I have no way of knowing. How can we enrich this curriculum to help create scientists, not just people who know stuff about scientists. If you have any ideas please join us. What is certain is that there is no room in the classrooms to do any practical activities. There is also no equipment and I mean none, don’t even expect to find a pair of scissors.  What do they need? Rubbish Science is based on looking at what is already around in the environment – plastic bottles / bags etc . It will provide opportunities to explore, but is essentially limited. I wanted to see how the students reacted to things before launching fully.  I’m trying to fill a shoebox with science equipment that allows things to be taken to the next level. What would you put in it?
  • Scissors
  • thermometers – infra red ones as well
  • batteries and a solar charger
  • leds
  • universal indicator
  • what else ????
Is is this enough  to provide basic equipment though? These types of things have the potential to raise the quality of science education, from dire to better than dire, but how much better?   Do we need some things to awe and excite? image I took in a mirascope  And put a piece of chalk in the bottom of it. It creates an image that appears to be floating above. Immediate awe, wonder and excitement (that to me is the starting point of science) and the students immediately start generating questions (that’s what scientists do!)
  • Why can’t you pick the image up?
  • Can you see it from all angles?
  • What happens if we put a big bit of chalk ?
We can now have an endless debate as to whether all I did was confuse them. If the teacher can’t answer their questions will this lead to frustration ? Probably for many, but what if it inspires some? Sadly in most of these schools the students will need to go way past their teachers. Is the only way to do this by providing some engaging and confusing activities?   Whatever the pedagogical debate throws up . I put these pictures in in support of my belief that it adds value


image   Thermochromic film changes colour with temperature and has a host of uses in the classroom. What happens when you put your hand on it? What questions does this throw up?
Viewing a handprint on Thermochromic paper

Viewing a handprint on Thermochromic paper

Thermochromic handprint

Thermochromic handprint

UV beads change colour under UV light . We can use it to look at how effective sun cream is. But that’s a near irrelevant experiment to do in the slums of Nairobi!  Could we use them as part of the SODIS method for using sunlight to sterilise water ?  UV sterilisation is highly effective and only needs a plastic bottle, but the problem is the locals don’t trust i. I have to say I would be wary too! By showing the UV is penetrating the bottle with beads would this improve?
UV beads change colour in sunlight

UV beads change colour in sunlight

I ddnt have have time to try out the plastic bottle experiments. I am hoping to return in January. I want to set up composting and plastic bottle micro- gardening. Both fabulous ways of learning biological processes. Also fly traps and mosquito traps. I want to further develop and bring jigs to create cordage from plastic bottles.
Showing Titus electrical circuits

Showing Mary electrical circuits

Another project that I need help with is the creation of a science curriculum for a new secondary school for these children to move on to that is being supported by Porridge and Rice. Some samples of their physics text book gives an idea of what they will do if driven by the book.
The book

The book

HELP PLEASE! How can we make this amazing ?                        
  1. Mariana Salgueiro

    Hi Neil,

    Firstly, what an inspiring story! There are so many interesting discussion points in it I’m finding it hard to know where to start!
    One thought that keeps on coming back to me however is that I never truly considered how you ‘need things’ in order to ‘make things’. What I mean is – for example – we can all make a spectrometer out of rubbish, and by that I mean, truly out of rubbish without buying a single item; or that’s what I thought 2 minutes ago. But the scissors and tape you need to put it together are stuff you buy, they don’t casually reside in bins as they are very useful materials. So my thought is: how can we use rubbish to make these ‘elementary tools’ that will then allow us to make equipment? This is why I think the ‘rubbish’ cordage you make seems to (ahem, excuse me) hit a chord: because it makes one of these elementary tools that can then be used for other stuff, including experiments! (ie. 2 plastic bag footballs of adequate ratio and use the cordage to demonstrate how far the moon is from our planet).
    This comment is probably not very useful, as I solved nothing nor answered any of your questions (in my defence you do ask difficult questions!), but there’s some deep revelations within this post, and some great challenges to solve, so I was prompted to share my thoughts.

    1. Thanks Mariana

      These are very useful comments and I don’t know the answer, more questions are helpful 🙂 . I don’t want this to be my project I want it to be open source – everyone add their knowledge And together we can make a difference.
      The lack of basic equipment like scissors shocked me . I am thinking about putting together a shoebox of useful things like scissors, tape measure, etc then more specific science items thermometers etc. What would we put in it. Further developments will be like you suggested developing scales of planets etc. The priority in developing nations and I don’t know if this is right is to give them something that immediately improves the quality of their lives, that uses what you can find, creates scientific thinking and that takes rubbish out of the environment.
      It also has to engage their interest. I figured trying to get the Masaai Warriors interested in the concept of growing plants in bottles wasn’t going to grab them ! Cordage is brilliant for giving instant rewards and when I go back – hopefully in January I can then meet the community and show them the other things. I want to see composting micro gardening and fly traps.
      The future projects will be using rubbish as props for which help will be needed.

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