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!"

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: