In the USA our culture permeates with competition. Most of us grew up with sports being a very integral part of our youth. Many school activities are turned into competitions with 1st, 2nd and 3rd places for best science fair project, highest attendance, summa and cum laude, etc. For US students this often adds a little extra drive and motivation for the student or athlete when participating in their fair or sporting event. We at Future Scientist thought to bring this philosophy to Portobelo to see if the students in Colón would respond in kind. This August we finished the Design For Impact Charla Series and Competition and we were finally able to see the fruits of ours and the students’ labors from the last two and a half months.
It was a busy and exciting month for us in Portobelo. With the last few weeks of the charla series as well as the competition on August 23rd, the students’ ideas were beginning to take form. We came into the month having talked about, generated, and picked ideas for the projects that the students wanted to use as the solution to their problem that had established from the first few weeks. The first charla of the month dealt with the Canvas Business Model. This charla was important in putting the students’ ideas to paper and mapping out what was necessary to make their idea a reality. I pointed out to them that this Business Model could be used beyond the classroom doors and that it is a useful tool for any type of endeavor; be it communal, entrepreneurial, or academic. This tool is also important to seeing how feasible the idea is and to understand what you lack and what you have for the project or start-up. The students worked hard that day drawing up their maps for their projects and I think they gained useful knowledge for inside, and outside, the classroom.
As we got closer to the competition day it was time to begin thinking about more physical models and more serious advances in the development of their projects. The following week was prototyping week. The students whose solutions were more physical built models of their projects. Those who had more service or organizational solutions chose to write storyboards and show how their project would work step by step. I was impressed by the students ability to make these working models with little more than some cardboard, tape, paper, and markers. One group drew a blueprint of an experimental agriculture vehicle to be used by campesinos to plant and harvest more crops more efficiently. The idea was inspired from their agriculture classes and the difficulties they had seen with campesinos and their lack of mobility when planting their crops. Another drew a storyboard about how they will organize the community for weekly trash clean-ups. They illustrated how the community is affected by the constant presence of trash that is thrown in the streets and how it can be easily collected and disposed of properly. The third group made a trash clean-up rewards card to be used in stores and restaurants. The card is much like a punch-out card where for every item purchased and its packaging properly disposed of rewards the user with a sticker or a punch and once a certain amount is accumulated, the user receives a prize or a free item from the store or restaurant. With their prototypes in hand it was time to learn how to sell their ideas and appeal to their audience.
The final week before the competition the students needed to learn how to sell their ideas and to form a solid elevator pitch. They learned the six most important pieces of a good pitch:
They also learned about one of the most useful sales tools in the market: The Golden Circle. This idea comes from Simon Sinek, a now motivational speaker. He argues that people who are inspirational inspire by not selling the “what” but the “why”. They sell their beliefs and personal philosophies, and their products or services are simply an extension of these beliefs and philosophies. The Golden Circle are three inlaying circles. The innermost circle is “why”. Working outward the second circle is “how” and the outermost circle is “what”. He challenges us to begin with “why” and not with “what”. So I challenged the students to do the same. I told them to write down the why, how, and what of their projects and to use that when coming up with their pitches.
Finally the day of competition had arrived. The day before I had brought the school cooks all the food necessary to feed all the participants and judges, and a large portion of the other students in the school. I was hoping the day would go along without a hitch but then the water went out from the Portobelo system. We turned on the emergency dam system we had made but it wasn’t working either. I quickly put on my work clothes and went up to investigate. It turned out that a section of tubing had disconnected and without that water the cooks wouldn’t be able to keep the food going. Luckily I was able to fix it all just in time and the cooks were able to finish lunch. I then rushed to begin the competition. I gathered my judges, one teacher from each degree: agriculture, information technologies, and tourism. The criteria for the judges was the following: level of comprehension of the problem and appropriation, grade of innovation, applicability potential, and effort and motivation. The students arrived with their prototypes and their pitches and so we began. Each of the three groups went and presented their projects. As they presented the judges graded them according to the criteria given with numerical values from 1-10, with comments in each criteria section. After careful deliberation the judges chose the group with the weekly community trash clean-ups. As the winners, the four students won a trip to Panama City to participate in a weekend science fair put on by SENACYT (Secretaría Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología) called Feria del Ingenio Juvenil (Fair of the Young Genius). They will spend a weekend in the five star hotel where the fair will be held and will present a science project of their choosing, whether it be a new project or the one they worked on for the 11 weeks of the Charla Series. At the end of the competition and the winner announcement I handed out completion certificates to the students who had attended the majority of the charlas. And with that the 11 weeks of our first Design for Impact Charla Series and Competition was over. We have begun looking for more opportunities to continue doing the series in other locations and with other audiences.
This September and October Future Scientist will be doing some self-analysis of who we want to connect with and how. We are beginning a refocus of the mediums through which we want to connect with our two audiences, our donors and the people we are trying to help. We will be assessing potential future projects outside of Portobelo as well as potential future collaborators. We will be investigating becoming a legitimate legal entity in Panama so that our collaboration can be more united with Panamanian institutions. Stay tuned for updates in the weeks to come!
We are more than halfway through the Design For Impact Seminar Series and Competition and we are that much closer to the awaited day of the project presentations. The students have worked hard and there has been great collaboration between group members in developing their community problems and creating their solutions. I believe that they have felt stimulated by the various activities, productivity tools, and lessons presented in the last 8 weeks. I am hoping they are able to apply all they have learned for the competition, which is just a few weeks away.
On August 23rd the students will present their projects in the form of a pitch, as if they were trying to sell their idea as entrepreneurs. There will be a panel of judges to listen to the presentations and they will determine who is the winning group based on certain criteria. There will be a prize for the winning group that will be revealed in the next blog once the competition is over.
We began July with week 4 of the Seminar Series. This was the week where the students focused on their problem and began to develop it in order to have a clear idea as to what exactly is the problem they wish to solve. The tool they were taught to develop their problem is called The Problem Tree. The tree is a representation of their problem. The roots represent the origins or the causes of the problem. The trunk represents the central problem. It can be looked at as the central problem statement. That is to say, “Due to (root of problem) this happens (trunk).”. Finally the branches and the leaves represent the consequences and effects of the problem. What is the problem causing in their community or society? The students made their trees on poster paper and it helped them greatly in really breaking down the task at hand. Up next was another tool called the 3 H’s. This was another empathy tool that forces the students to figuratively put themselves in the body of the person affected by the problem they wish to solve. The 3 H’s stand for Head, Hand, and Heart. The 3 H’s ask you to think about what does the affected person think? (Head), what does the affected person do? (Hand), and what does the affected person feel? (Heart). Using this tool you get an idea of where need may be and where the need is you can better understand what you need to solve.
Week 5 we continued developing our problem and from there create a “problem statement”. It was time to enter the second step in the Design Thinking process: define. Using all the information they had gathered using their empathy tools, the students had to create their “point of view” and “problem statement”. The point of view identifies the user/affected person, what they need, and why they need what they need. These three bits of information are then made into a problem statement, which serves as the definition of your problem. This definition is useful in guiding you to the proper solution that truly solves the problem; you’ve recognized your user/person affected, what they specifically need, and why they need it or why it satisfies their necessity. This is what transitions us to the third step of the Design Thinking process: brainstorming ideas.
The students were now entering the solution stage of the charla series. Here they were to start coming up with ideas for solutions to their newly defined problem from the week prior. However before they started the actual brainstorm the students had a few more lessons to learn, as well as an activity. The activity for the day was the Marshmallow Tower. The rules were simple. The students had to build the tallest tower of spaghetti noodles with the marshmallow at its top point. The materials to build the tower were 20 noodles, 1 meter of thick string, 1 meter of tape, and 1 marshmallow. The students impressed me. They did a lot better than we did during our weekend in the workshop in Santiago, Veraguas. One group built the ideal tower and won the little competition. I gave them the rest of the bag of marshmallows as their prize. The lessons I wanted them to take from the activity were to: 1. Not to fear failure. Even if a task seems impossible the worst failure was never having tried in the first place. 2. To fall in love with the problem. Confronting a problem is an opportunity to grow intellectually and maybe make a real change to the situation, whatever it may be. 3. To let their creative mind, as well as their analytical one, flow. Taking on problems we realize our power to think about and solve problems. I wanted them to realize the importance of working with the problem and that it holds an equal or even greater weight than the solution. The final tool of the day was the last problem solving tool, the Experiential Script. This script is the hour to hour of the day of the user/affected person of the problem that you wish to solve. The script serves to find what are called “spaces of action” and to have a better picture of the need of the person. Week 6 being over the students were prepared for the following week when they would finally start churning out their ideas.
The charla for Week 7 was a little heavier in regard to the amount of material that I taught to the students. Right off the bat the students did their idea brainstorming. In 15 minutes they were to come up with as many ideas of possible solutions to their problem. After coming up with their solutions they were to categorize and sub-categorize the solutions in order to organize and eliminate solutions that had too much in common and narrow their selection. After all this they were to choose the solution they wished to carry onto the next stage of the process: prototyping. After their selection I wanted to teach them about externalities. This lesson was to open their eyes to the possible consequences, be they positive or negative, to their solutions. After contemplating possible externalities to their solutions they were to play the devil’s advocate and describe their ideas to another group and the other group was to give constructive criticism for any problem they saw in the solution. This activity closed Week 7 and we look now to the end of the charla series here in August.
An update on the school emergency source and the dam. In July we worked a lot on finding a solid tube configuration from the dam intake to about 15 feet downriver. This configuration focuses on using the rock bed where the dam is placed to protect the tubes from strong flooding and use the west side of the stream to keep the tubes safe from a strong water flow. Students accompanied me every day I went up to the source and slowly but surely Wilfredo and the students are becoming the real caretakers of the dam and the source.
So June has come and gone and we are three weeks into our Project Development and Design Thinking Charla Series! Students from all of the three degrees have been participating in the charlas and the activities during our 1 hour long sessions. I have been impressed by their ways of tackling certain problems and the observations that they have made during the charlas. As we move into the group phase I am excited to see how they develop their problems they selected to solve and what their solutions will be.
Week 1 served as an introduction to the charla series/design competition as a whole as well as the main points we would be exploring throughout the 10 weeks of charlas and activities. We began the hour with the Tower activity where they were not able to talk nor gesticulate as they built a jenga tower to the specifications of individual mission cards that each member of their 6 person group had. No one was able to successfully build the tower to the specifications of the individual mission cards but the students did take key insights from the activity. They recognized that although when working in a group with individual goals, those individual goals may work toward the common goal of the team. They expressed their frustration with the lack of communication and acknowledged the importance of communication when working in a group as well as trying to find other more creative means of communication when necessary. We talked about innovation and what it means to them and they had a good idea of what it was expressing that it is something new that changes the way things are. When we reached the Design Thinking ideology it was something completely new to them and I knew then that this charla series would be beneficial to their critical thinking and project development skills. The Design Thinking ideology is an intuitive and intelligent way to tackle any sort of problem be it professional, personal, or social.
Week 2 was our first real dive into the material. We talked about the process of Design Thinking: Empathize, Define, Generate Ideas, Prototype, and Evaluate. I touched on the importance of thinking analytically as well as creatively when designing a solution to a problem. Our activity was the Party Planner. With a partner the students were to come up with the best party they could imagine. For the first minute they were to use the phrase “Yes, but…” when responding to their partner’s ideas. For the second minute they were to use “Yes, and…” when responding to their partner’s ideas. The students commented that when using “Yes, and…” it felt like a more inclusive conversation and more ideas were generated and built upon. When using “Yes, but…” the students felt pushback and slight rejection to their ideas and there was a certain refinement to the ideas being proposed. From these observations I pointed out to them that that is precisely the difference between analytical and creative thinking. Analytical thinking evaluates and tries to improve the ideas proposed where creative thinking is simply going crazy and thinking of all possible ideas without prejudice, regardless of how outrageous they may be. The students enjoyed the activity and were able to see the how much effect a simple change in phrasing, in this case a single word, can have on one’s mindset.
Week 3 was the week we finally formed our community groups, the groups that the kids are going to be working with from now until the end of the charla series. We began the charla talking about empathy and what it is. I explained to them how important empathy is in any project you do when trying to solve a problem. It was the number one lesson I learned while in Peace Corps; it is essentially what makes Peace Corps so unique and impactful, taking empathy to the extreme of dropping a volunteer into the community to live among those whose problems they wish to solve. Empathy allows you to see the problem not from without, but from within. This is crucial to understanding the problem in a more meaningful way. From there the students separated into their groups and were to have a brainstorming session, not generating ideas but problems that they face or see in their communities, districts, province, school, etc.; whatever geographical area they wished to focus on. After their brainstorm they had to choose one problem that they wished to solve, that problem they would develop in the weeks to come and eventually come up with some kind of solution to present to a panel of judges for the 11th week of the charla series. There were many problems that were repeated among the groups but each settled on a problem that resonated with them. Problems chosen were trash contamination, lack of a secure potable water system, and the lack of a community common area (park, sport court, or a communal house). It will be exciting to see the students take these problems and run with them. I can only hope that this might be the beginning of real change in these communities through the ideas of their youth. We will see how things develop in July with weeks 4,5, and 6.
On another note, the dam line experienced extensive damage to the tubes due to a really bad flood that caused the stream to grow to the point that it flooded the houses and the school below. Since the emergency line was down as well as the main Portobelo system, the director was going to close the school for an indefinite amount of time due to lack of water in the school until Wilfredo and a group of students took it upon themselves to fix the broken tubes and replace those that were too badly damaged. Thanks to their efforts the school remained open and the dam source has become the main source of potable water for the students and staff. To this day the dam source has become the main water source for the school. There are some tweaks and improvements that we wish to make to the infrastructure as well as creating some sort of initiative within the school for maintaining the source. These are problems we will tackle as we move ahead.
This May has been spent looking to the future here in Costa Arriba, Colón. From the promotion of the charla series and design competition, unveiling of the low-profile dam, my water source hike in Nombre de Dios with Dr. Amador Goodridge, my preparation for the beginning of the 11 week long charla series in the school, and our work connecting the dam water source to the school; things are moving ever forward as we look to new projects and working on closing old ones.
The first week of May I started by going around the school talking to the students to promote and inform them about the charla series and design competition that is to begin June 14th. A Information Technology teacher was my escort as we went classroom to classroom talking to groups of Tourism and Information Technology students about the charla series and design competition. The students responded positively and their participation will allow them to accumulate 20 hours of the 80 social labor/community service hours that are required to graduate; as well as the knowledge and tools they will gain within the charlas. With the agricultural students I left the task to Wilfredo as he insisted, as he knows how to handle his students and knows which students he wanted to participate. Later that afternoon after promoting the charla series, I went up to the dam to strip off the plywood casing and finally see our handy work as it was meant to be. An assistant to Napoleón (the contractor who helped me build the dam) and I went up to the dam site with tools in hand. The plywood was pretty well stuck to the dam but after an hour or so of work the shell was stripped off and the dam stood sleek and strong, ready to withstand the winter rains. I am very proud of the work we were able to accomplish with the construction of the dam.
For a while I have been trying to organize a hike to go see the state of the water source for Nombre de Dios. The third week of May we finally were able to go see where Nombre de Dios gets its water. I was accompanied by Dr. Amador Goodridge, a board member of Future Scientist and my main support here in country. We awoke early in the morning to begin our two hour hike to the source (four hour round trip) with our guide. The guide is a main contributor to the maintenance of the source and he or another community member goes up once every two weeks to clean out the intake and check for general damage and needed repairs. We learned that the project was taken on by a community member with the support of the Ministry of Health. We saw that the system as well as the source capture structure are immense, the main line is roughly 4-5 km long with various junction boxes along the line. Once arriving to the town of Nombre de Dios it is stored in a roughly 1000+ gallon tank before being distributed to residents’ houses. We took various water samples from various points from the source itself to along the main line and the junction points. The sample taking was to test the quality of the water entering the system. Upon returning to Nombre de Dios we talked to several key contributors to the functioning and maintenance of the system in order to establish strong relationships within the community in order to expand our geographical limitations and see where more work can be done.
Near the end of May I went back up to the dam site in order to measure the distance from the dam to the old emergency source site in order to connect the two lines and create a more secure source. After measuring I went back up with a handful of students in order to lay down and connect the tubes to send the water to the school. We ran the tubes along the eastern edge of the stream with the tubes crossing the stream further down river to connect to the tubes that Wilfredo and his students had already installed. Once connected we took the cap off the intake and let the water flow. We were happy to see that everything worked well and the water flowed from the dam to the school. A final touch we made to the system was to make a rudimentary sediment filter by cutting slits into the intake cap so that water would enter the system but no leaves, rocks/pebbles, or other debris would be able to. As we start to enter the heart of the rainy season here it remains to be seen whether the the winter rains and subsequent stream floodings will cause any damage to the dam and/or the tubing.
With all this going on I also began my preparations for the charla series/design competition. I have completed half the actual charla presentations which takes me past the fifth charla which is scheduled for July 19th, with the sixth being July 26th. We have begun talks with other organizations for support in the charla series and we are hoping to collaborate with La SENACYT, which is la Secretaría Nacional de Ciencia, Tecnología e Innovación (National Secretary of Science, Technology and Innovation), in monetary support and involvement in the charla series. The first charla is Thursday, June 14th and the school and I are very excited to begin this project with the students and we hope to see positive outcomes and most importantly, great ideas by the end of the 11 week event.
With all these projects in the works for Future Scientist, it is a bright and busy horizon for us here in Panama, despite the accumulation of rain clouds. I hope to keep building and nurturing positive relationships with the people in Costa Arriba, Colón and I hope that from the seeds of these relationships, positive change will bloom.
Sometimes the best laid plans work out exactly how you want them to work out. This has been the case for our recent water catchment project. From its conception to taking off the cement mold, every piece fell into place when and how it needed to. After pouring the final bit of cement into the mold I almost couldn’t believe that it had been that easy. Only about two months had passed since Heidi and I had found the site for the dam to us building it. For awhile I almost thought we might not get it done…
Saying that everything worked out perfectly doesn’t mean there weren’t obstacles on the way. One problem I constantly faced was the lack of initial support from my main counter parts in the school. I felt that they weren’t on board with the idea of a dam and that they didn’t think the dam would work. They were content with what was already in place, that is to say they didn’t think it was necessary to spend money on another project when the tubes that are already in the stream work fine enough. I tried to explain to them that something a little more permanent and stronger might be better for the future of water safety for the school, but they thought the money I proposed to spend would be wasteful. And from what I had learned in Peace Corps, if the community or the beneficiaries of the project do not believe in the project, it isn’t prudent to continue because there will be no future investment from the community. If there is no future investment, there is no sustainability. While all these negotiations were going on, there was another issue I was concerned about: the weather.
In Panama there are really only two seasons: summer and winter. Winter is the rainy season which are the months from April to November. Summer is the dry season which are the months of December to March. April and May are when it begins to rain, however it isn’t always a heavy rain and it isn’t everyday like the rainfall that is seen in the heart of the rainy season. By contrast, the dry season is just that, dry. 95% of the days in summer are cloudless and rarely, if ever, does it rain. Panamanians know that if you’re going to build, summer is the time to do so. So the problem I faced was that the ideal construction season was coming to a close, and I had little to no moral support from counterparts. Luckily, near the end of the deadline my counterparts and I had struck an accord and I had a semblance of support from them. What I proposed to them was something that Richard had told me. 1. I proposed that the dam would be experimental and that I wouldn’t remove the current emergency system in case the dam failed; 2. If the dam worked we could connect the two sources, both the dam and the tubes, for a more secure system; and 3. They had nothing to lose, if it failed we were back at square one with the old emergency system and if it worked then the school would be that much better off. They assented and gave me the go ahead and their full support. It was all I needed to finally hit the ground running, and I hit it sprinting.
From there all the pieces just seemed to magically fall into place. When I went to the construction materials store to make my construction budget, the owner of the store introduced me to a contractor who lives in Portobelo. I met Napoleón and showed him the dam design and he showed an interest and innate ability to help me with the task ahead. We planned for construction the 16th and 17th of April, with the raining season looming too close for comfort. And even though there was a high chance of rain for the two days of work, we lucked out. The morning of the 16th a little rain fell in the morning, but other than that there was no more rain for the rest of our time working and everything went smoothly.
From my river hike with Heidi to finding the right contractor in town to help with it’s construction, every step of the dam construction planning seemed to just work out (more or less) perfectly. With the support from Wilfredo in the school, Napoleón our resourceful contractor, President Richard Novak and his unique dam design, and all the students that came out for the dam building day, our dam water catchment system was a success. There is still a little more work to do connecting the dam to the water system, but it is safe to say the hardest part is behind us. I am extremely proud of all that was done and all that we will continue to do for the benefit of the students and communities of Costa Arriba.