Kids & Science

With most kids having reported to school earlier this month, it is time to reflect on what was an exciting though short holiday. Exciting because I and a few children (the offspring of a few close friends) finally got to do something I’d dreamt of doing for a long time – we held a Holiday Science Camp! Yaaay! I strongly believe that the reason we remain one of the poorest countries on earth is simply because we don’t “do” science & technology well. And the reason for this is we don’t encourage children to get grounded in science from an early age at home. Neither do we do much to stimulate their creativity, natural inquisitiveness and hunger for knowledge – something that would serve them well later in life  irrespective of their chosen career paths. Instead we rely on schools to do all the education and that is a sure recipe for disaster. I have very strong opinions on the state of the education system but I don’t think it is to blame wholly for this state of affairs. More on this in a series of posts later.

For now, let me share what we did during the said camp. The participants were about 11 6-12 year old children from my church cell group and the camp lasted 3 days. The idea was simple – get the kids to do a few simple experiments. Initially, I’d planned to have each day dedicated to each of the major science branches i.e. Physics, Chemistry and Biology. On further reflection however, I realized it would probably not be a great idea to show kids the result of mixing vinegar and baking soda… So we scrapped the Chemistry track 🙂

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All you need to run a science camp: Notebooks, Pens or Pencils, Batteries, Bulbs, Balloons, Tin Foil and Rubber Bands. Plus Copper Wire, Nails and Matches (not shown)

Day 1

On the first day, we started off with an introduction to two of the most important things that any budding scientist should know:

  1. The need to accurately record everything they observe ON PAPER (everyone – especially we Africans – need to make this an entrenched habit)
  2. The importance of measurements

Of course science is all about doing and not just listening and so off they all went to do their very first assignment: measure as many random things as they could find within 10 minutes and record their findings in their notebooks.

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Measurements

It was quite interesting to note how easy it is get children to understand what units of measurement are and why accurate measurements are so important in so many ways. What a shame that so many only get to learn such in S. 1!

After this,  we had a interactive session with the kids listing what everyday things fascinate them most and would thus love to get an in-depth understanding of (i.e how they work). As expected, airplanes and cars featured a lot on the list. And so did electric guitars! The plan was to consolidate the things into one list and use it as some sort of ‘syllabus’ guide over the next few days.

Once we were done, we embarked on the main day’s activities – simple experiments involving electricity. First up was the light-bulb moment for the kids: Connecting a bulb to a couple of dry cells. Seeing the kids faces light up as soon as they managed to get their LED bulbs to light up, I realized how absurd it was that modern day kids living in urban areas (irrespective of level of affluence) don’t get the opportunity to do these simple experiments. Yet they were a staple of life for some of us that grew up in pretty rural settings.

Finally, we got introduced to the principle of electro-magnetism: Using the same dry cells, the kids created their first ever electromagnets by wrapping insulated copper wire around some 6″ nails and proceeded to see how many paper clips they could pick up.

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Voila! I can pick paper clips! This is magic!

All in all, a fabulous day. I must say it got me feeling very appreciative towards the teachers that handle pre-primary and primary children. How abundantly patient and impervious to irritation they have to be… 🙂

Day 2

Based on how Day 1 had played out, we decided it was a little bit too ambitious to have sessions the whole day and so we resorted to a half-day programme for the subsequent days. Day 2 was devoted to learning the principles of jet engines and rockets. Incidentally, it turns out that videos are a very effective way of grabbing children’s attention and so we had the session sprinkled with short videos. The most captivating ones were Space Shuttle launches and landings – all freely available on YouTube. Parents reading this – please get onto YouTube and get this kind of material for your kids. There are thousands of videos that are highly educational and yet fun. It was fun seeing the kids joining in the countdown to blast-off of their own accord and subsequently watching the launches and first stage rockets detaching and dropping off with wide eyes.

To illustrate the principles involved, we used balloons. And to show that escaping air from a balloon can actually be put to good use (as opposed to simply propelling the balloon along a chaotic trajectory), we built a balloon powered car. Toy car I hasten to add – with bottle cap wheels and cardboard box body…

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Powering up our mighty balloon propelled chariot…

Finally, we built our very own rockets by wrapping matches (the active heads) in tin foil and using a cigarette lighter to set them off. Of course, the kids competed to see whose would travel farthest and there was a very clear winner.

Day 3

On the last day, we revisited our list of stuff the kids wanted to understand and went through the items – one by one. We sadly didn’t do everything justice with practical demonstrations however given the limited amount of time we had.

We then switched to Biology and had a brief discussion on the composition of organisms. Then we embarked on the day’s main activity – using a microscope. The microscope we were using had been borrowed from a fine gentleman called James Wire whose blog you really should be following. Thanks James once again – you made these kids day. The challenge was to observe certain slides under the microscope and then try to draw what they had seen.

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Before the exercise however, I had asked them all what they want to look at under the scope and the answer was unanimous – BLOOD! 🙂 Sadly, I disappointed them by gently pointing out that pricking people for blood is best done in a medical facility by qualified people. It was very interesting (and amusing) to see the influence of visits to health facilities by these young ones…

I should point out here that in my 4 years of O-Level, I only got to use a microscope once in the Biology Lab. Not twice or thrice but just once! I guess I’d have had a lot more time with the tool if I’d elected to do Biology at A-Level but I still think even O-Level students should be getting a lot more hands-on time with such instruments.

And that was it! No camp is complete however without a Prize Giving ceremony and so was ours. We had two prizes to give out: Most Disciplined Participant and Best Overall Participant. Luckily enough, one of the parents had arrived to pick her children and played the Chief Guest role to perfection.

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Best Participant – this young man is clearly destined to be a serious scientist. Consistently the most engaged of them all.

The prizes we gave out were a couple of children’s science texts (My First Book of Science) from Aristoc. May I suggest – at this point – that if you have a child capable of reading (6+ years) and that same child does not OWN an encyclopedia yet, then stop reading this and head to Aristoc or Bookpoint and buy him or her ONE immediately! Seriously. And don’t stop there – make it a point to keep buying them books on a regular basis covering a wide range of subjects/topics. More on this in subsequent blog posts.

The Future

Obviously, we’ll be doing this again. After our experience this time round, there’s simply no way we can ‘dodge’. Next holiday, the plan is to do a substantially more ambitious project e.g. build a go-kart or dabble in some robotics. Then, during the Christmas holiday, we plan to introduce some of the children to computer programming. Note that all this will basically be completely child oriented with the sole aim of firing up their creativity and getting them to understand that the wonders of the modern world are not all, er, unfathomable rocket science. What impact will this eventually have? I cannot say for sure. But we can only hope that it will be positive.

I am also seriously considering expanding this to include a lot more children. It would be fantastic to see a movement get born that seeks to get children to stop spending all their time watching cartoons and actually discovering how the world works (both via reading and also practically). So in addition to including more children in our programme, I’d love to start campaigning for other parents to replicate this. And it doesn’t have to just be science stuff – how about getting children to learn how to write fiction? Or make cartoons (instead of just watching them for hours on end)? However, the logistics of such a move would have to be carefully assessed and planned for and so this won’t be immediately possible. That said, I was very encouraged when I told people on the 256io group (Ugandan techies) about this initiative and a couple of them volunteered to join and help next time round.

Till next time

 

 

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Of subversive t-shirts & the making of absurd history

I got to know Samson (known to most of the world as Samwyri) a few years ago after I got onto Twitter and sought like-minded tweeps to engage with. In those days, it was pretty easy to identify the kind of people whose 140 character bursts of content you’d want to consume on a regular basis – they’d somehow bubble up through the TL almost magically. Nowadays, it is a little bit more complicated because of the sheer numbers even though Twitter keeps on tweaking it’s algorithms to counter this. However, I only really took serious note of him when he and his friends launched SchoolPlus – a school management software solution and a direct competitor to my company’s school management solution. Obviously, anyone would be a bit concerned if someone came along to take away their bread and I recall being upset with some of their marketing pitch material. However, despite this, my primary reaction back then was actually not despair and worry. Instead, I was quietly impressed by the fact that he and his team had put together a working solution and I found myself wondering how he’d find the journey. See, I know exactly how hard it is to actually develop a product from scratch to market release and I also know how the development is just a fraction of the effort required to make it a market success. I especially know what the education sector market is like – extremely conservative, low margins (by necessity) with a healthy dose of skepticism towards local solutions. When we started marketing our solution back in the day, one prominent Head Teacher asked us how he could trust “young men of no fixed abode”. That quote still tickles us to this day.

And so I found myself recalling those days and thinking about all the changes that have since happened in the sector (mostly positive – more schools than ever have decent computers and they’re not running Windows 95 :-), teachers are now largely computer literate etc). Of course, it was a good wake up call for us to ‘pull up our socks” but as a great believer in competition (of the fair variety) and knowing well that the local/regional market is big enough for a few solution providers to compete and all thrive, I knew we’d survive. Plus, this country needs a lot more people like him – people that create home-grown solutions for our local problems and it will be interesting to see what new stuff his company will come up with. It’s even more impressive to see him working on ICT solutions yet his background is actually Law.


Despite our status as competitors, we continued engaging on social media with our interaction fuelled by our shared passions (IT & governance issues). We eventually got to meet physically a couple of years later and worked together on some interesting data analysis. This was the time I also got to meet some other very interesting people for the first time: @amgodiva, @Snduhukire, @rukwengye, @qataharraymond, @HaggaiMatsiko@spartakussug and @JackyKemigisa. All really, really great lads and lassies… For those that think social media is a waste of time, you may want to reconsider – is there any other medium/forum/club that can bring people with common interests together on such a scale? Except Alcoholics Anonymous (maybe).

Fast forward to the end of May 2016. On Saturday 28th May, I was in Amuria attending a giveaway/introduction ceremony and enjoying a colourful display of our rich Ugandan culture in a somewhat bittersweet context (the bride that was being given away had tragically lost her father about two months prior). Given the twin challenges of poor connectivity (sadly, LTE coverage isn’t as widespread as adverts would have us believe) and limited battery life, I was offline most of the day. Later that night – while catching the Champions League final in a local kafunda – I took a glance at my timeline (TL) and, to my eternal bewilderment, learnt that Sam had been locked up ostensibly for wearing a t-shirt with a portrait of Dr. Kizza Besigye. At first glance, it seemed too absurd to be true and bearing in mind that sometimes falsehoods do propagate rapidly in cyberspace, I refrained from commenting and waited for further information. In the morning, I checked the TL again and it dawned on me that the impossibly absurd could actually be true. That’s when I tweeted the following:

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Afterwards, I reached out to someone I knew would have the full story and he confirmed that indeed Sam had been arrested for possessing t-shirts deemed “subversive” and was still in police custody. And here is what the criminally offensive t-shirt looks like.

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It’s hard to explain what went through my mind at that point. Shortly thereafter, we embarked on the journey back to Kampala and the need to concentrate on the road meant I could put the matter to the back of my head. Still, at every stop, I did a quick TL refresh to (disbelievingly) check on #FreeSamwyri…


I’m not going to recount the full story of what transpired from Sunday to Wednesday when Sam finally regained his freedom thanks to the incredible folks at Chapter 4 (thank you so much Nicholas, Anthony ) and Pamela who helped a great deal too. As a matter of fact, two other persons got arrested as well as part of t-shirtgate (Asia Nanyanzi and Muyinda Ismail). I actually took a break from my phone on Sunday evening simply because I was getting a little hot under the collar. In case you’re not familiar with all this, I’d recommend you take a look at the #FreeSamwyri hashtag on Twitter. And then, do take a look at Raymond’s brilliant piece that happens to be a rebuttal to one of the most brainless articles ever posted on the world wide web.

Instead, I’d like to reflect on a couple of things arising from this sorry episode.

First of all, how can it be that – in 2016 – being a supporter (just a supporter mind) of a particular political camp in an ostensibly democratic country can land you behind bars? Make no mistake – Sam was locked up simply because he dared to openly & loudly display his support for FDC’s Presidential Candidate. Answering the simple question “Why did you buy this t-shirt?” [allegedly] earned him a hot slap (By the way Sam – was it a backhand or forehand? Or both?). How dare we claim to have opened up the space for political parties when such incidents happen on a regular basis and it is business as usual? Why do we even bother with all these lofty ideas (democracy, freedom of expression/association, political plurality etc) when all we’re actually going to do is pretend to understand them?

Secondly – how can it be that it is normal that the authorities find it fit to routinely violate that key tenet of justice as enshrined in the law: No detention without charge beyond 48hrs. And while they are at it, why do they shamelessly issue statements that not only make no sense but also reveal that they hold our laws in absolute contempt. For instance, when the Police Spokesman says they arrested some people for planning to organise a demonstration and distribute t-shirts, does he have any idea that planning a demonstration is completely legal even with the obnoxious POMA? Does he know that making and distributing t-shirts is also completely legal (unless they bear content promoting illicit activities. A portrait of a major political figure WITH NO WORDS is hardly illicit, is it?). And when an official statement mentions the date “Friday 28th May 2016”, are we supposed to laugh or cry? Don’t these officers have calendars hanging on their walls or residing on their mobile phones? And then you claim that the arrested persons distributed 120 t-shirts and yet all the evidence you’ve collected up to that point indicates that nothing like that number of shirts had even been produced. Why do they do this? And repeatedly…

Third – does anyone feel happy with the blatant misuse of resources on display in this case and in many similar cases? Here are three young people with absolutely no case to answer but somehow, state resources were utilized in apprehending them and detaining them for days. I don’t know about you but I’d really prefer that the portion of our taxes that goes to the security agencies be used for fighting actual crime and locking up actual threats to our individual and collective security. How depressing is it to see that some of that money is being spent on investigating and prosecuting cases such as this and the famous case of the mysterious CMD (Chapati of Mass Destruction)? I don’t think the selfless lawyers that step in to offer legal representation to these innocent victims particularly enjoy spending their valuable time on these baffling cases either but they simply have to lest we witness nasty examples of miscarriage of justice.

Fourth – and most puzzling – the answer to the question posed at the start of the previous point is actually yes. Yes, some people are actually happy that Sam went through this ordeal and are not shy about revealing their feelings. Here is what a Presidential Assistant had to say:

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And a few other people weighed in:

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How on earth can this be? How can there be people (some of them young) that actually jubilate at this blatant abuse of power and violation of one’s liberties? What exactly goes on through such a person’s mind when they’re posting such? I know the internet is one large playground for trolls but I thought such trolls live in strange faraway lands like North Korea. It transpires that some of them – an unhealthy number of them – live among us, breathing the very same air and eating the same rolexes and gonja… Fortunately, most of my ruling party subscribing friends didn’t react like this (at least publicly). Indeed, they too were perplexed by the development.


Finally, the bit about writing absurd history: History is a fascinating field simply because learning what our forefathers (and mothers) were up to in their day reveals so many incomprehensible, mind-boggling absurdities that make me marvel while shaking my head in disbelief. For instance, did you know that there was once an execution method in England called “hanging, drawing and quartering”? History is littered with stories of routinely normal happenings then that we cannot comprehend right now (except that every now and then, we astonishingly repeat them). Some of them are horrific beyond belief while others are so comically absurd that they’d make great comedy fodder. However, at the time – all this was considered absolutely normal by the actors of the time. Thus, those that would gather to watch gladiators take on beasts in the Colosseum were no different from modern day fans in Namboole. The busybodies that came up with the regulation that all horseless carriages had to be preceded by someone waving a red flag were not very different from the committee members that decided that the speed limit on the Northern Bypass should be 70kph. And so on. As we live out our lives, we are – wittingly and unwittingly – writing history. And it so happens that sometimes (and increasingly so), this history is etched down permanently for future generations to read. And learn from. And wonder at. And laugh at. Or shake their heads. Those who arrested Sam, Asia and Ismail have written their bit of history. Unfortunately for them, this bit of history is no Kitty Hawk or iPhone or Kiprotich moment. This is a patently absurd bit of history. One can only hope that those who did it manage to conceal their names unlike a certain Mr. Arinaitwe. Sadly, as a nation, we are writing far too much of the same of late. Keeping citizens off major roads for the benefit of visiting dignitaries, increasing Parliamentary headcount way beyond the capacity of their physical facilities, giving those same MPs UGX. 5M each for pilau and suits, taking years to build bunkers to house critical medical equipment despite “buying” said equipment, looting trillions of road infrastructure funds, a minister assaulting a journalist on camera and getting away with it and so on.  The tapestry of history that we’re writing continues to incorporate all sorts of miserable narratives. Of one thing I’m certain – those that read it decades and centuries from now will surely be shaking their heads.