A student holds an evenly dried mango slice over his head like a trophy. His feet are caked with the dry Haitian earth and his arms kissed by the equatorial sun. He and his classmates designed and tested this solar mango dryer as part of their ninth grade Environmental Analysis class, but that was months ago in New York. To see it working firsthand, to imagine its potential to enhance agroforestry, and to reduce vitamin A deficiency in this rural community – is thrilling.
It’s possible to weave together mastery and purpose in our science classes. We can and should implement projects that simultaneously engage students in rigorous scientific thinking and provide opportunities for students to make tangible contributions to their communities. At Tech Valley High School in New York, science students are engaged in projects such as urban soil remediation, invasive species tracking, sensor engineering for water quality monitoring, mapping food deserts, and quantifying carbon sinks. They master content better because they are applying their learning to initiatives that truly matter. The project that most exemplifies this interplay of mastery and purpose is Ayiti Resurrect – literally “Haiti Rising” – a 5-year, multi-disciplinary environmental service project that is changing lives in the farming community of Komye, Haiti.
Haiti Rising: The Project
The collaboration between Haiti and Tech Valley High School (TVHS) was forged in 2009 when we partnered with a team of engineers to design solar ovens. We were seeking student mastery of specific mathematics and science content – quadratic equations, insulative and conductive properties of materials, engineering design, impacts of deforestation – and desired a meaningful application. The result was a challenge to students to design, build, and test a solar oven using a parabolic trough concept. They also had to research and present on the history of deforestation in impoverished countries and the imperative to move away from wood as a fuel source. Their presentations were judged by professional engineers, and the strongest student designs were sent to Haitian nonprofits that were disseminating solar ovens.
After the devastating 2010 earthquake, we decided to forge a direct connection with the farmers of Komye, Haiti. These farmers were at the epicenter of the quake and experienced environmental and economic devastation. They identified immediate needs to end water contamination from human waste and to restore the health of the soil to make farming more productive. TVHS students set to work designing a composting sanitation system and accompanying training to support the farmers in achieving both goals. They researched low tech strategies for safely managing human waste and took into consideration local geography, climate, and material resources. I traveled to Haiti to implement the training and kick-start a community-wide composting initiative, all designed by students.
Bringing Students to Haiti
Having assessed the safety of such a journey, I arranged to bring students the following year. The farmers wanted to address the devastating deforestation in their country. Less that 2% of the original forest remains in Haiti. The students researched the optimal species to plant on the eroded hillsides, attempting to balance the benefits of food, fodder, shade, soil stabilization, and economic opportunities. They graphed economic projections of income from the fruit crop and used GIS to map an intercropped planting plan. A delegation of students traveled to Haiti to plant these trees side by side with the farmers. Each tree received 5 gallons of compost produced by farmers who participated in the previous year’s composting project and 999 trees were planted.
In January 2014, a second delegation of students returned to Haiti. They continued planting and caring for trees and began a new sustainable micro-engineering project. The farmers had identified a three-fold challenge: their mango crop overwhelmed the market during the harvest season, but in the off-season the community suffered from vitamin A deficiencies and reduction in earnings. TVHS students worked to design a solar mango dryer from locally sourced materials that could provide farmers income and nutrition during the off-season. The students learned a CAD (computer-aided design) program to sketch up their designs and conducted testing trials with apples. The most successful design was a tunnel dryer built of a bamboo and palm frame, using greenhouse plastic to capture the sun’s energy. The farmers and the students were equally thrilled to see the mango slices dry and preserve in a just a few hours under the simple interplay of sun and air flow created by the dryer.
TVHS will continue to collaborate with farmers in Komye to act at the intersection of community need and the scientific curriculum. The future may hold water quality monitoring, improved engineering for irrigation systems, testing of the efficacy of traditional medicines, or ecological monitoring. The future will certainly hold meaningful applications of science in global service.
The Next Generation Science Standards provide us with a clear emphasis on the engineering design process and scientific method, which can be applied to a diversity of authentic global challenges. As educators, we have a choice about how to approach each curricular topic. When confronted with a mandate to ensure our students’ understanding of the human immune system, we can reject a rote approach and instead hold a health fair for younger students in the district. If the topic is ecosystems, we can work with the Department of Environmental Conservation to monitor the ecology of a local park. When studying climate change, we can write to members of Congress to encourage science-based policies. By engaging in conversations with other educators and community leaders, we soon see that meaningful applications are abundant.
For more project ideas weaving together mastery and purpose visit:
Leah Penniman has taught environmental science and biology at the secondary level since 2002. She graduated with an MA in Science Education from Clark University. During her seven years at Tech Valley High School, she has demonstrated her passion for integrating rigorous scientific content with community and global service.