Solar Power isn't Feasible!

Solar Power isn't Feasible!
This cartoon was on the cover of the book "SolarGas" by David Hoye. It echoes the Sharp Solar slogan "Last time I checked nobody owned the sun!"

Monday, April 4, 2016

Culhane's Solar CITIES Presentation to the National Science Teacher's Association conference in Nashville, April 1 and 2, 2016

Hi I’m T.H. Culhane, a National Geographic Explorer, a Google Science Fair judge for the past 6 years and… a science teacher.

And this is a picture of me working in “Garbage City”, a shanty town in Cairo Egypt where a proud and brave people who were displaced farmers now live by collecting the trash from the city’s 20 million inhabitants and carefully separate the inorganic from the organic, cleaning and shredding and selling the former to Chinese recycling companies, and feeding the latter to the pigs, cows, sheep, goats, donkeys, cows, chickens, ducks , rabbits and pigeons who they brought with them when they were driven off the land and who now live as refugees in the city with them in their self-built urban apartment buildings.

While living and working with these so called “Zabaleen” or “garbage people” in an environment that is a public health nightmare, filled with rats and flies and the stench of rotting meat and vegetables and the acrid smoke of burning plastic, my task has been to help improve conditions by working on the low-tech science of local household waste transformation using a form of livestock that everybody has: bacteria. My task has been to use simple applications of science, technology, engineering and math to design with the “other 90%” and make life better.

The innovations and technologies we’ve come up with over the years since I started applying home-brew microbiology to solving urban problems have taken me all over the world and are now being applied to help other displaced people caught up in the current refugee crisis.

I would like to share with you some of the details of these experiments and show you how you can get involved in these life saving efforts, but first I want to give you a little background on my story.

I basically wear two hats:

Hat number one:
For the past four years I have been a professor of Environmental Sustainability and Justice at Mercy College in New York, leading annual student service learning trips to the Middle East and the Caribbean to implement technologies we develop and test at the college, and in September I join the faculty of the Patel Center for Global Sustainability at University of South Florida to continue the mission.

Hat number two:

I am the co-founder and director of Solar CITIES Inc, a not-for profit organization we started 10 years ago in the Islamic historical slums and Christian trash pickers communities of Cairo Egypt, that ever since has been implementing citizen science projects in developing countries and poor communities, training trainers to turn sunshine, polluted water and organic wastes from problems into solutions for fuel, fertilizer and new nutritious food using local and low cost materials.

Prior to getting my Master’s degree in Urban Agroforestry and Ph.D. in the microeconomics of sustainable hot water demand, from 1989 until the turn of the century, I was a high school science teacher, working in our nation’s inner city schools with NASA’s Challenger Center, the Office of Naval Resarch and the Junior ROTC, applying Howard Gardner’s “multiple intelligence theories, creating curricula that would help students perform at the highest levels of “Bloom’s Taxonomy” and integrating interdisciplinary thematic, portfolio assessed vocational and academic education, creating what we now call “STEAMM” Education, Science Technology, Engineering, Art, Math and Music. I’m sure most of you here have also been involved in this for years and can relate! It’s quite a challenge!

Because of this history, It is delightful for me to be back on stage at the NSTA because I was a frequent presenter at these great gatherings in the early 90s, from LA to Hawaii to Kansas to Puerto Rico – for years I made an annual pilgrimage to convene with fellow science teachers and to share techniques and ideas to help raise the bar for science education.

In those early days of my teaching career, just as the “MTV era” was beginning, I was working with students on two programs, one called “Melodic-Mnemonics” where we brought our science textbooks to life through music and video, and another called “DEMMO Productions, which stood for “Digital Engineering for Multi-Media Productions” which we ran at Crenshaw and Jefferson High Schools in South L.A. and at Hollywood High’s academy for at-risk youth. What we were sharing with colleagues at the NSTA each year was our successes – and sometimes failures – to create not just think-tanks, but DO tanks, empirical experimental environments where students attempted to solve the problems of poverty, education alienation, drugs, gangs, crime, graffiti and environmental degradation and injustice through APPLIED science and art.

We did this by either trying to invent hands on solutions to real world problems – from alcohol powered trucks in the automotive department, to hydroponic food production in the biology classroom, or by writing poems, short stories and songs and making mini movies in which students solved science problems in a science fiction context, such as our work on biospherics through NASA’s Marsville program.

Those were marvelous heady days when, despite the ethnic and class tensions made explicit by the L.A. Riots of 1992 and the Earthquake of 1994, whose impact on infrastructure and provision of energy, water, sanitation, food delivery services and transportation was felt for months in the poorer parts of our cities, we science teachers and our students felt that we could use our spirit of inquiry, experimentation, exploration and open sharing, to rapidly realize the promises of our participatory democracy and guarantee a brighter future for all.

My mother is an Iraqi Lebanese immigrant who lost everything in a series of civil and international wars, and my father is an Irishman who told us of the unnecessary suffering caused by monocropping and the distorted political ecology of the potato famine, so when I left the US in 2003 for the middle east as war broke out in Iraq to spend 10 years outside America problem solving, I was determined to help improve science education there with the same promise. In Egypt I helped build up and direct the Wadi Environmental Science Center on a poultry and olive farm in between the pyramids and the library of Alexandria where for years we applied the same techniques to train both privileged and underprivileged Arab youth in problem solving.

Much of my time was spent working on low cost ways to capture and harness solar energy for water heating and cooking until my study of 900 urban households in the crowded city revealed that 12% of the population in my sample, representing millions of people, had no direct access to the sun because of shading from other buildings or poorly designed architecture. And meanwhile, the winters were disturbingly cold and people were resorting to burning what little wood was left from the denuded landscape, or using polluting charcoal and kerosene, and often burning trash just to heat their water.

 Did you know that over 4 million women and children die from indoor air pollution because of dirty fuels? And that the collection of wood and charcoal for heating water to bathe and cook is one of the primary drivers of deforestation, habitat loss, biodiversity loss, flooding and consequent topsoil loss, to say nothing of risk of fire and burns caused by these unstable fuels? It is sobering to think that something we take for granted – heating water and cooking – can have such a huge impact on human health, animal welfare and the state of our environment, but this is one of those inconvenient truths. And I was determined to help solve the problem.

Now you may have heard of the “clean cookstove” initiative that Julia Roberts and Hillary Clinton and others are working on, where, by providing improved stove designs we can reduce both the firewood and charcoal consumption and the attendant smoke by about 50%. And you have probably heard about attempts to replace the charcoal and firewood with something called “biochar” made from compressed waste straws or other biomass. All of these things are good because they reduce the impact and mortality. But here’s the problem: without the clean cookstove initiative we have 4 million deaths a year; with it we reduce that rate by half, which is laudable, but we still have 2 million deaths a year, and that is unacceptable. As students and teachers of science, can we really conscience settling for these losses?

And this is to say nothing of the losses of life and the suffering produced from the outputs of the very bathrooms and kitchens where the hot water produced by unclean fuels is being used.
Let’s talk about kitchens and bathrooms for a moment – think about it:

In terms of domestic use, Kitchens and bathrooms are the where all the fresh water is being consumed and contaminated. It comes in to our houses clean and goes out polluted with potentially deadly pathogenic bacteria and with soaps and detergents and chemicals that despoil our rivers and streams and oceans. Our kitchens and bathrooms are surprisingly the primary sources of disease and injustice, creating outbreaks of typhoid and cholera and dysentery with the sewage they create, and attracting rats and fleas and plague with the garbage they create. And this is to say nothing about the plastic bags we used to try and dispose of our organic wastes, which make their way to the landfill in diesel smoke belching garbage trucks or get blown or washed into the ocean, creating that horrible plastic vortex in the pacific.

All of this, because of the way we conceive of our kitchens and bathrooms as spaces of consumption rather than spaces of symbiotic consumption and production. I decided to dedicate my scientific research to figuring out how to design better kitchens and bathrooms and I moved into the slums of Cairo for 3 years to live the challenge. It was like being in a disaster zone almost every day, with water and electricity being cut off all the time and rats everywhere. In fact, rats killed the baby neice of a friend of mine in her crib, looking for food which the family diligently bagged up and put on the landing.

 Frustrated, the rats nibbled the child’s ears and nose and eyelids and gave her a deadly infection. This tragedy is not uncommon and I felt we had to stop it. Poisoning or trapping the rats wasn’t working.

In January of 2009 my friends from the Zabaleen school, where we were teaching kids the math and science necessary to be better trash recyclers, asked me to go to India to learn from their scientists how to better deal with urban wastes. What I found in the slums of Pune, India, two hours from Mumbai, astonished me and changed my life forever.

I would like to share this music-video, this melodic-mnemonic we made, with you that shows what we found.


At Solar CITIES we put home and community scale biogas at the center of our sustainable development efforts.  It is the missing piece of the sustainability puzzle. It is the solar plexus of sustainability, the literal "guts" of any system that tries to reduce, reuse, recycle and thrive. All the other forms of renewable energy struggle with intermittency problems -- the sun doesn't always shine, the wind doesn't always blow, there isn't always rain or snow and the rivers don't always flow. But toilet wastes and food wastes and organic residuals, these are always with us. And they need to be dealt with, so they pay their own costs, turning from problem to solution.

I am now convinced that the small scale urban biogas solution is the single most important intervention we can make in improving life for all of us, everywhere. They are easy to make and effectively eliminate all organic wastes, turning them from problem to solution.

Over the last 7 years, as you can see from this interactive map on our website,, I have built and trained people to build systems out of every possible material… from plastic water tanks to cement monoliths to pvc bags, and in places from Alaska to Botswana, from rural villages and urban apartments to schools and colleges and hospitals.

 We are part of an international movement; our facebook group, Solar CITIES Biogas Innoventors and Practioners, has over 7000 active members and we are all seeing the same results. On our community website,, people are doing citizen science and putting their projects on the map. We just need more science teachers and students and practioners doing this work, improving the systems. As we like to say, “we are science teachers and students, not waste management or energy professionals – so please DO try this at home!”

One of the major focuses of our research, that my students and I have been working on for the past two years, is the creation of literal “try this at home” “in-house” biodigesters, basement biogas systems like this one in a middle class house in New York and this one in a Menonite basement in Pennsylvania and this one in an ecolodge in the wilds of West Virginia, where all the food wastes are ground up in the insinkerator in the upstairs kitchen and then go down to the basement to be fermented so that within 24 hours of feeding the clean cooking fuel goes up to the kitchen and the rich liquid fertilizer or “compost tea” goes to the garden or to porch and rooftop soil free hydroponic and vertical aeroponic systems.

Recently, in my bathroom in New York in the city, based on work I pioneered in Germany, I’ve been working with a toilet waste biogas system that enables me to keep all of my toilet material in the apartment, providing solutions in case of earthquakes like the one I experienced in Los Angeles where sewage pipes were broken or long term power outages I experienced in the slums of Guatemala and Cairo and Ecuador that made it so the toilets couldn’t be flushed for weeks. This research expands on and makes practical theoretical work I was doing with my students in my high school classroom in south central when we were working with NASA to simulate living on a spacestation or the Moon or Mars, when we turned the classroom into a simulated biosphere. The only difference is that now we are working with a new NASA Next Gen Kitchens project trying to make it real. Biodigesters turn out to be the foundation of this simple approach to sustainability.

And I would like to convince you that while you may not want to deal with toilets at this point because of cultural taboos, when it comes to food wastes from your home or school cafeteria, the idea of teaching “applied microbiology to meet our sustainable development goals” is so easy to do, so safe and so accessible, and meets so many of our STEM and STEAM goals, that having students in schools everywhere experiment with this solution to so many problems should be a formal part of every science curriculum.

Millions of students in China and India and Nepal are already basing much of their curriculum on the benefits of anaerobic digestion of organic material. In one high school I visited in Shenzhen China with 3000 students and 700 faculty and staff, they had two digester systems. 100% of the food wastes from the cafeteria was being transformed into 100% of the cooking fuel for the cafeteria and much of the salad greens, while all the toilet wastes were being transformed into gas for electricity generation and landscaping fertilizer.

I have been blessed to be able to bring this same medium scale system, called the Puxin digester, to a school for abused girls in the Phillipines, a school built by Architecture for humanity in the favelas of Brazil, a muslim shrine in Iraq, an Ecovillage greenhouse geodesic dome in Sweden and several college research sites in Pennsylvania and New York.

 Meanwhile we have been building our simple Solar CITIES IBC tank based system in homes and schools, like this high school in Alaska and this one in inner city DC.

And our latest model is this simple salchicha or “sausage biogas” system made of a single sheet of hand welded PVC which fits in carry on luggage and can simply be rolled out, filled with a slurry of cow manure and water and then fed with ground up food wastes to provide up to two hours of cooking a day.

We will be deploying this system in refugee camps starting with Pakistan and Lebanon and Turkey this summer and fall. We are excited because this system that we’ve devised uses a self regulating heat coil that can be run on solar energy to keep it warm and productive on cold nights.

And the fertilizer that it creates is exactly what we need to close the cycle, growing rooftop and urban jungle gardens of nutritious food on a liquid fertilizer that is replaces all commercial fertilizers and is perfect for hydroponics, aquaponics and vertical aeroponics.

The basic point of all this is that these life saving interventions didn’t come out of some corporate laboratory or government think tank. These are innovations that come from citizen science, when students and teachers work together to explore the possible and refuse to let environmental degradation continue while waiting for politicians or experts do the solving for us.

We are science teachers. We teach a new generation to explore, to experiment, to create, to solve problems. We are science teachers. The world is in good hands when we work with our students to make a better world. We are science teachers. We got this.

Thank you!

Monday, March 23, 2015

Let's Put On A Show: Sustainability and Learning Science Like National Geographic

In my classroom, where we attempt to teach serious environmental science, the emphasis is on fun, on action, on exploring. The emphasis is on doing, creating, mapping, world building. This is the National Geographic Way.
When it comes to science education and tackling the big environmental challenges of our time, old industrial age educational paradigms must give way to a more nuanced understanding of the way our brains work.

In my classroom we imagine ourselves, students and instructors alike, to be explorers and to be producers.  We follow the "prosumer" mentality of futurist Alvin Toffler, who urged that we all be simultaneously producers and consumers, for this is the way that nature operates.

The problem's with education are summarized by the four lower levels of Bloom's taxonomy, which start with rote memorization and move up through Understanding, Applying and Analysing.  It was assumed that students needed to get those foundational skills first before they could move on to Evaluating and Creating.  It turns out that this isn't so. 

  In fact the pyramid is upside down.

So in my classes we start with the creative act.

Our idea is that the creative process itself inspires evaluation, analyses, application, understanding, and, yes, memorization.   But we also take inspiration from leading play theorists throughout history, like German philosopher and naturalist Karl Groos who studied and wrote about the survival function of play in both non-human animals and humans in the early 1900s, and anthropologist Brian Sutton-Smith.  All have emphasized that in the training phase of learning, the learner needs to be doing it for the intrinsic fun of it, not for some extrinsic reward, even if that reward is survival. Groos oberserved "If the player were playing for a serious purpose, much of play's educative power would be lost."

As a National Geographic Explorer and Science Educator I am aware that the problems we are trying to solve are quite serious.  But to get meaningful results I turn what I am doing into creative play.

Survival Horror as a way to learn to Survive

The public is quite enamored with survival horror fiction these days, from video games to television programs like 'the Walking Dead', doomsday scenarios are hugely popular.  Even in the latest special edition of Newsweek Magazine, in which my own work turning toilet and kitchen wastes into clean renewable energy and fertilizer is featured, the magazine ends with the section "10 things I learned from the Walking Dead".

As a science educator I can certainly make good use of this phenomenon.  There is no hook better for discussing the scientific and technical  realities of providing reliable energy, food, water and shelter with students than an imaginative journey into the apocalyptic landscape of The Walking Dead.  Every semester we have two thematic projects -- how you would survive a Zombie Apocalypse and what kind of Eutopia you would create if you had the means to build your own community.  Both flights of fancy are remarkably effective in getting students to consider the real engineering and philosophical challenges involved with making a better world, and it actually works better than trying to confront "real world" issues like climate change, species extinction, pollution and health issues.

But we take it much further than merely creating a "Talking Dead" dialog or discussion, for that is too theoretical and violates Confucious' principle "I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand."

To truly work our way to deep understanding, we have to DO.  But this is much easier than one would think.
In my class, once students have gotten their creative juices flowing, doing is all they want to do.  Creating begets creating, and we end up Blending Realities -- Creating Eutopia by Blending the Virtual and the Real.  Sometimes we create in the virtual world, using pen and paper, using computer screens and software, like Blender 3D, a free game engine and animation and modelling and video production software.  And sometimes we create in the real world, using cardboard and wood and solar panels and tanks and plumbing supplies.  Often, like any good theatre or Hollywood stage crew or special effects department, we blend both.

Sometimes this results in fantasy that feels real, like when we create a survival scene in a home-made zombie movie, and sometimes we create realities that feel like fantasy, like when we create real functioning solar hot water systems and biogas systems and hydroponic and aeroponic soil free food growing systems and emergency electric light systems made from aluminum cans and LEDs and realize that we have solutions to some of humanity's biggest problems right at our finger tips.

At my college we have created a club called "Envisaj Mercy: the Mercy College Environmental Sustainability and Justice League" that is dedicated to this approach to science education.  We are working on instructional materials that help teach others how we feel it is best to approach learning real and important skills... through play.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

“Mumkin!”: National Geographic's sustainability explorer shares successful environmetal education ideas and optimism for a future bright with possibilities!

The video below shows the solar panels we use  to power our traveling environmentally themed rock bands:


When I was an inner city high school science teacher in the early 1990s, working with African-American and Latino immigrants,  I used to attend  ESL or English as a Second Language conferences.  In those meetings, trying to figure out the best ways to reach students from different backgrounds, we would call props like this solar panel I'm holding in my hand  “realia”. We used realia -- real objects that illustrated concepts -- as a bridge between levels of the learning pyramid  using the old Confucian adage: "I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand."

Our goal was to "bring the textbook to life".  We wanted our students to do demonstrations, have discussions and practice doing.  We created a "trainer of trainers" model of student teacher partnerships where the students got involved teaching others.  We were revising Bloom's Taxonomy, showing that teaching students how to CREATE was the most important cognitive skill:

Our teaching method was to embrace the multiple intelligences of each person and provide something for every style of learner:  something visible for the visual learners – images accompanied by text, for example -- sounds for the auditory learners, and something tangible for the kinesthaetic learners, students who learn better by actually touching things. So I would always bring something I could pass around, like this folding photovoltaic panel that we use on our solar powered musical tours.

 In a refugee camp in Palestine back in 2006  we used it to play musical chairs – one student would hold the panel to the sun while I played the guitar and others danced around in a circle. When the student closed the panel the electricity would stop and the music would stop and the kids would scramble for a chair.  In this way, through hands on experience, they could literally get in touch with physics and electronics.

When I left the West Bank after these workshops I would leave behind the solar panel so the kids could continue satisfying their curiousity, hands on. Nobody who touched that panel and made music through the magic of sunlight ever forgot the word "photovoltaics" or even "Copper Gallium Indium Diselenide thin film solar".

So, Hi,  I'm Thomas Taha Rassam Culhane, and I do indeed live curious.

I started my teaching career in the inner city “ghetto” schools of Los Angeles where poverty, gang violence and drugs were making effective learning a particular challenge.

I learned that for us as teachers to compete with MTV, for example, we needed to use its techniques, speak its music video language. So I started a program called “Melodic-Mnemonics” Science Education through Music and Video” and used the magic of green screen technology to put my students inside the pages of national geographic, transporting them to the jungle and on Mars and inside the human body. We put the vocabulary into poem or song form and used subtitles to reinforce the vocabulary. The idea was to stimulate every sense so the lesson made sense to all parts of the mind. 

The first music video I made with my class, in 1989, was  designed as a way to bring the textbook to life and to take the bottom of Bloom's Taxonomy, Rote Memorization, and make it a joyful activity, realizing that the act of repetition worked much much better when it was set to music. And movement.  We also learned that in the process of rehearsing for a music video nobody minded going over the material again and again. We moved easily up the levels, remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating and creating.

I was content teaching science this way, traveling around the country and the teaching the melodic-mnemonic method with the National Science Teacher's Association, until 1994 when the earthquake hit Los Angeles and took out our electricity and water and gas, collapsing freeways and making food deliveries impossible.  In the poor areas where I taught the disruptions lasted for weeks.

That is when I realized we had to teach science in a different way -- making it not just fun and effective, but RELEVANT to survival issues.

This was the beginning of my mission with my students, making videos not just about the science others did, but doing the science of sustainability and then making videos to share what we learned.

 I love solving problems and, as a college professor and former high school teacher, I love  sharing the skills of problem solving with my students.  Let me start by having National Geographic introduce me on location so you can get an idea of who I am and some of what I do!


When I think about it, I realize that my entire education has really been about learning some kind of language that was once foreign to me, and what I do now as an educator, as a college professor and National Geographic Explorer is essentially teach people to speak and understand different types of  languages, for example the language of science and math and philosophy, but in a way that has grown in sophistication through my work around the world with Nat Geo, experiencing so many cultures different from my own

My geographical reach has expanded, from an Arab American kid growing up in a big city in the Midwest of the US -- reading National Geographic magazines and dreaming of visiting other cultures and seeing wildlife -- to becoming an explorer who spends time working in at least 10 different countries every year, from the jungles of Borneo to the Ministries of Baghdad...

And in the same way my definition of languages has expanded, so that I now am beginning to understand how Society and the Earth and the Oceans speak to us through the logic of economies and ecologies. I have learned how to read the world through science and technology, engineering, art and math and music. We once called these subjects STEM education, and there is a movement to integrate them all, but now increasingly we call them STEAMM education.  STEAMM education explicitly asks us to bring art and music back into all subject areas so we employ all of our intelligences and capacities.

I teach my students to be able to read the world, to make it legible.  I pursue world literacy  through animation and video and comic art, through computer games and simulations and through creative projects where they can bring their own deep knowings and interests and personalities to interact with knowledge, focusing on solving real world development problems.

One thing we do in my classes is use computer game engines and 3D animation software like Google Sketchup and Blender 3D and google earth and maps to make simulations of the places we are working in the world. This video we made shows the school we were working in in old Cairo and our apartment in the slums.


I try to teach my students to improve their English and to explore Spanish and Arabic and French, and the Latin and Greek that form the foundation of what we call science speak and that make science classes so hard for so many. But  I also teach them how to speak 3D, that is, how to use today's technology to illustrate concepts and ideas not just in words or mere two dimensional diagrams or pictures, but in objects.

 So, for example, when I wanted to teach my Egyptian friends how to make a solar hot water system, I sent them this:


And when I want to teach them how to build a simple biodigester that can turn kitchen scraps into fuel and fertilizer, I sent them this:


And then my students helped us come up with this, an even more sophisticated engineering design which we then built at schools around the world because the animation made it so easy to understand:


A 9th grader taught me much of what I know about how to speak 3D -- he was an inner city kid who learned Blender on his own because he loved computer games. He had been considered a failure in many subjects  and a slow learner until the computer science teacher discovered Benjamin's passion for 3D animation. Kid turned out to be a genius who just didn't like the way school was taught.

 So, If a picture is worth a thousand words, an object that can be rotated and manipulated may be worth 10,000. I teach my students to create 3D objects on the computer and to build them in real life.  And I try to teach them how to speak and understand 4D – using animation and process technology – robotics and environmental sensors, to gather data over time and  to communicate what they are learning in time.
These are all things that National Geographic has used to communicate effectively for decades in their own educational materials.  What I try to do is get students to learn how to create their own materials this way too so that they are creating their own living textbooks and own the material.  Why not? The technologies exist and are now affordable and easy to learn.

I guess you could call what I do “teaching the National Geographic way!”.  In effect I see my role as a teacher being to transform all my students into members of our National Geographic E-team – our team of National Geographic Explorers and Educators.

 There is a picture of me on the right scratching my chin by my solar panel trying to figure out how we can synergize to save the planet.


This work led me to becoming one of the creative directors of the Wadi Environmental Science Center in Cairo Egypt. There we taught students from rich and poor areas alike not just how to make the textbook come to life in a fun way, but literally how to make their own solar hot water heaters and how to do recycling and grow food and we built a solar and wind powered concert and presentation stage. We used video production for the students to present what they were learning, and through the narration and titles they learned English in a thematic interdisciplinary way.
Here is a clip from the documentary film "Solar Circus" that shows what we built at the Center.


One of the critical components was that our program centered on realia. For example, we made two music videos called “welcome to the coral reef” and “Nahmy El Nil”. To make them we had the students compose poetry about the Nile and the Sea and then created a song out of the best poem.  But we realized they weren't really going to understand the topics or the language associated with it unless we gave them first hand experience.  So we gave the students video cameras and a notebook full of vocabulary in English and Arabic -- mustalihat -- what we called technical terms for development -- the language and ideas they would need to discuss water issues --  and took them all over the country to videotape and document water problems and participate in workshops with international agencies. 

Allow me to show you one of the videos the students created.


At the end of the project we took a group of the youngsters,  who came from a poor village on the Nile and had never seen the sea, to Sharm Al Sheikh to a UNESCO conference. After they did their presentation on protecting coral, we took them in the water to actually see it and photograph it for themselves. One young girl who had never learned to swim, had the courage to put on a life vest, got in the water, put a mask on her face and let us tow her out over the coral. She suddenly started sobbing. We said “are you afraid? Do you want to go back to the beach?” And she gasped, “La, la … Al Morjan .. innahu Jameel Jiddan – The Coral,  It is so beautiful... I had no idea from the photographs or videos... I cannot believe how wonderful Allah's creation is, how blessed we are to have this. This is why I am crying! I had no idea there was such beauty in the world”.

From these experiences I have begun to understand that there is an interdisciplinary, international geographic ecology of education that we can invite our students to participate in, what the Greeks called “The Great Conversation”. It is an endless story of the quest for Eutopia, a participatory adventure where everybody can be a hero helping to make the world a better place.

When I realized that we weren't getting enough participation by bringing people to our education center, I decided to move with my wife into the slums of Cairo, into the old Islamic community of Darb Al Ahmar, across the city of the dead, Al Maqabr, from Manshiyet Nasser, home to the Zabaleen garbage collectors to finish my Ph.D.

It was there, working with their school,  that I learned a new language, the language of the informal community, and learned to listen to voices that had been marginalized or silenced,  and learned to see the world through new eyes. Because, you see, prior to that, I still believed there was such a thing as garbage. I heard the vocabulary word “Zabala”, “Waste” or Qimama, Trash, and I thought it refered to something real – to something that was worthless and undignified.

But when I lived with the Zabaleen and worked with them at the Roh El Shabab recycling school, living in Garbage, I learned there was no such thing. These people eke out a living by taking all the so called trash from the rest of Cairo and turning trash into cash. Sure, they need infrastructure and support to make the process cleaner and healthier, but with their animals in the city they actually do a better job of recycling than any other city on earth -- and they eat meat every day since they keep goats and chickens and cows and rabbits and sheep on their rooftops and inside their apartments. 

 The students there worked with me on a music video called Talking Trash that explored the economics of recycling from the perspective of those who live in so-called garbage, proving to me that "one mans trash can be another's gold".  Somehow the vocabulary words I had been taught growing up no longer made sense.

Let me take you briefly into their world in this clip:


And so this is where, for me, as an National Geographic Explorer, having lived in slums and remote villages all over the world, language and education really need to come into coherence with realia, with lived experience and with geography.  We need to look beyond the garbage in the streets and see the garbage in our minds.  We need to be able to read the world as it really is and as it could be and teach them to see beyond first appearances to find the solutions hidden but accessible to those who live curious.

The most profound transformation that has happend in my life as an educator occurred when the so called "Swine Flu" scare caused the Egyptian authorities to eliminate 350,000 pigs which the Zabaleen were using to manage all of the organic wastes of Cairo, turning it into leather goods.  With no more pigs to eat the garbage the garbage pickers began to leave it piling up on street corners, causing disease.  So my Egyptian colleagues and students who could not travel,  sent me off to India to find a solution. And there, in a slum in Pune, I learned that in fact it was very simple to turn all organic residuals -- that's what we call it now, not trash but "residuals" -- into free clean methane gas and liquid fertilizer to grow healthy vegetables, to make more food, in a perpetual cycle. Best of all, I learned from the urban "poor" that ANYBODY can make these biogas systems at home or at school, systems that are simple, inexpensive and REALLY WORK, turning a bucket of yesterdays food waste into two hours of cooking, every day, forever!

Here is a section from a melodic mnemonic I would like to show that explores the science behind this revolutionary technology: It totally transformed my life, trying to find ways over the past 5 years to communicate the good news that, "aywa, Mumkin" -- we can solve all of our problems in a simple way.


Today I teach Environmental Sustainability and Justice to students from around the world at Mercy College in New York and I go all around the world teaching communities how to build their own food waste to fuel and fertilizer and fresh food renewable energy systems with National Geographic. We are teaching that we can turn all that waste not just into clean fuel but that we can use it to grow food in the desert, that we don't need soil at all.  At my college and in Cairo we use it to produce food from hydroponics and aeroponics in rooftop gardens.

So to  the question "Can we make the world a better place? 
Can my education make me and everyone else better off?"
 My message is simple: Aywa, Mumkin. 
Yes, we can.  Together  we can improve education and literacy and solve all the worlds problems, and we can do so in a simple way. We have the technology, and if we live curious we can make things work for everyone.  
And, of course, in true melodic mnemonic fashion, I would like to  end with a song about exactly that: