As December comes to a close, Future Scientist is reflecting on the year that we leave behind, as we all do around this time. It has been a year of expansion, new opportunities, learning experiences, and successes.
We began collaborating on a new project carried out by SENACYT (Secretaría Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología; National Secretary of Science and Technology; https://www.senacyt.gob.pa/). Agua Colón is a new project funded by SENACYT to investigate the water quality in the Santa Isabel district of the Costa Arriba region of the province of Colón. Future Scientist has been added to the project as a collaborator. We will also develop the education component of the project.
We began working with the Palenque water committee, collaborating with local political authorities, and connecting with other NGOs in Panama City and Colón. Our work with the Palenque water committee started with us trying to understand the problem by examining the water system, meeting with the water committee members, and speaking to community members. This investigative work lead us to work on creating an app to improve the administration of the water systems. This app will be available for both community members and water committee members in order to facilitate transparency.
We have been working on jumpstarting a new composting initiative in the region, with successes and obstacles along the way. We began a collaboration with Open Blue Sea Farms (https://www.openblue.com/) and Let’s Do It!-World (https://www.letsdoitworld.org/) to do a pilot composting project in Palenque. We want to replicate a government composting program in the city that has created an almost 100% self sustainable composting site. We want this project to be managed by the community members and we hope that a plant nursery can be born from the compost project, in order to generate a source of communal income for community projects and necessities.
What’s most important is the people we’ve met along the way, the relationships we’ve built, and the seeds we’ve planted in the region to create real change for the many communities of Costa Arriba. We’ve built relationships with community members and political authorities alike. We’ve created working relationships with political representatives from every community as well as the district mayor. Water committee members in Palenque and Nombre de Dios are now our counterparts and we are working with them to improve the administration and physical infrastructure of their water systems.
Future Scientist is a 501c3 non profit that believes in the power of science education to provide people with the tools they need to solve the problems in their lives and in their communities. Started in 2009 by UC-Berkeley and UCSF students with the approach of teaching design methods and carrying out hands-on science lessons, with the goal of teaching resource-poor communities how to identify and sustainably solve their own problems. Here in Panama we have two primary programs: the Clean Water Access Initiative and the Self-Solving Initiative. We have been developing and expanding these programs thoroughly over the last two years and we are reaching more and more people as time goes on. Read more about our work at futurescientist.org and subscribe to our mailing list at the bottom of the webpage.
Agua Colón: Assuring Water Quality in Costa Arriba, Colón
To begin the year we were included in a SENACYT funded project called AGUA COLÓN. The project director is Dr. Zohre Kurt, who has a background in environmental and chemical engineering. The goal of the project is to carry out an analysis of the different water sources around the community of Miramar, Colón and the district of Santa Isabel as a whole. Future Scientist’s task is to seek out the different water sources in the region and collect water samples from these sources. We are also in charge of the educational component of the project. This includes sharing our analysis results with the public of Colón and of the communities we work in so that they are informed of the quality of the water they are using and consuming. This also includes educational seminars to educate the community so that they know how to distinguish contaminated water from non-contaminated water and how to decontaminate that water if necessary. Not only that but they will be instructed on the watershed ecosystem and how to keep it healthy, handwashing, conducting chlorine and e.coli/coliform testing for water, and proper potable water storage. We have so far analyzed four wells, three houses, two rivers, and one spring source for the project. This analysis expands across four communities (Miramar, Palenque, Viento Frío, and Nombre de Dios) and a total area of roughly 31 square miles (80 km2), which includes Chagres National Park. From our analysis so far we have determined that the water is relatively safe for consumption. The pesticide levels in the water (due to high amounts of agriculture in the region) are surprisingly good, given the lack of pesticide control and education. However we are beginning to explore other natural sources for metal contamination, as metals have appeared in our analyses. We are entering phase two of the project for 2020 and we will be starting education seminars around February-March. Until then we will continue gathering samples and looking for other water sources to analyze as 2019 closes and 2020 begins.
The Future Scientist Water Committee App: Improving Water System Administration
Our work with the Palenque water committee has had its developments throughout the year. From our community meetings in Nombre de Dios, the town halls we’ve attended, and the comments from various community members from the region, the biggest problem is lack of proper administration and service charges. What often happens in these communities is that a water committee is formed and it quickly dissolves due to a mix of a lack of interest to serve on the committee and a scarcity of funds to do anything of merit with the water system. The simple solution is to motivate the community to pay their monthly bills and hold them responsible when they don’t pay. This requires the committee to keep people in line and accountable and this requires a level of transparency between the committee and the community. It must be a two-way street. The water committee must see who is and who isn’t paying their water bill and the community must be able to see what the water committee does with their funds. The solution that we have proposed for Palenque is a cell phone app that allows for this transparency. The app will provide the committee with payment oversight and a net monthly budget by documenting use of funds information for the community and a list of the payment histories of community members for the water committee. Furthermore it will be used for planning and reminding people of water committee meetings in order to stimulate participation among the community. Our app developers are in the country and we want to take advantage and have them meet with the water committee members so that they can get a more precise idea of what the community needs and the type of solution best suits them. We are fortunate to have acquired the services of Ricardo and Carlos Ng. Ricardo and Carlos are father and son respectively and they have volunteered their time and their work in order to give back to the country which they love so dear. Ricardo is a retired database administrator in ULINE and Carlos is a Bioengineer in the Wyss Institute-Harvard working on microdevice design. When the prospect of creating an app for water committee administration came up, Ricardo and Carlos jumped at the opportunity to help make it a reality. On December 19th we visited Palenque to meet with the water committee president and district mayor with Ricardo and Carlos so that they could get a better idea of whom they were making the app for and what the issues really were with the poor administration. We will be meeting with the committee a few times in the coming months and presenting them with prototypes to interact with and provide feedback. Along with our connections within the communities we’ve been trying to create a network of connections with local authorities, who are enthusiastic about the effort. We have spoken to Ministry of Health technicians and local politicians about the app as we develop a strategy to share the app with water committees in other communities after piloting it in Palenque. They are fully in favor of the app and have agreed to its value in creating sustainability for water committee administration in the region.
Building Relationships: Creating a Network of Community Counter-parts
From our time being in communities we’ve been introduced and had opportunities to meet with local authorities. These people range from the local politicians to civil servants to ministry technicians to other NGOs. We’ve attended town halls to participate in the discussions of issues in the communities of the region. One in particular was about the water situation in Santa Isabel and a couple of Ministry of Health technicians were invited to participate. The mayor also invited Future Scientist to attend in order to meet the technicians and provide our own input into the situation. Here people took turns telling their stories and their experiences with the water systems in the area. We were asked to speak and we mentioned our collaboration with the Palenque water committee and the need for greater transparency in administration between committees and community and the need for there to be clear consequences when community members don’t contribute to the maintenance of their aqueduct. We were met with resounding agreement and here we knew we had come to fully understand the problem. We later met with the technicians and we will include them on any advances in our work with the water committees as involving them will be key to the sustainability of our work.
Two other partnerships we’ve been working on cultivating is with the environmental NGO Let’s Do It!-World (https://www.letsdoitworld.org/) and Open Blue Sea Farms (https://www.openblue.com/). When Javier Visuetti, the Community Relations Liaison in Open Blue Sea Farms mentioned his interest in a project for the trash problem in Santa Isabel, we knew that we had just met the perfect person to connect him with. Not many weeks before, we had met Francisco Pizarro when we went to hike to the Palenque aqueduct source. Francisco works for Let’s Do It!-World and he had told us all about his work and his passion for cleaning up the planet. Once Javier had mentioned his need for a trash oriented project, we knew that we had met the right person. By simply talking to and meeting people, Future Scientist has been able to connect counterparts with collaborators and form partnerships to carry projects forward.
Composting Toward an Environmentally and Financially Sustainable Future
The need for sustainable waste management in the Costa Arriba region of Colón is great. Upon entering the region, one is instantly impacted by the trash that is piled along the side of the road, oftentimes spilling into the street itself. The region generates roughly 15 tons of trash a day, with four of those 15 tons coming from Santa Isabel. According to a study carried out by the Urban and Residential Waste Authority in Panama, roughly 33% of these trash is organic. That means five of those fifteen tons is organic. Those five tons of perfectly valuable waste is being squandered in those roadside dumps and the regional dump in La Línea. Future Scientist wants to combat this waste and incentivise community members to value their organic waste and use it for their benefit instead of throwing it out.
As a part of this initiative, we have been able to complete a compost project with the students in the school in Portobelo. This project was carried out with Open Blue’s support. We wanted to do an experiment using three different aeration frequencies for two different compost mixes: dried and fresh plant mix and a dried plant with fish organs. The fish organs were provided by Open Blue. We wanted to measure the composting rate of vegetable material and vegetable mixed with meat material. The students presented their findings in the regional and national science fair. Due to the success of the project the student team won 3rd place in the regional science fair which carried them to the national stage.They were successfully able to make compost out of both mixes and we are looking to scale up the experiment for the next school year, to once again be presented and better elaborated for the next regional science fair. We want to make it more inclusive within the school; bringing in the cafeteria and the food waste in the school, grass cuttings and clippings from the school farm, and any other organic waste that the school produces. We have already handed in a proposal to Professor Wilfredo Aguilar, our long-term stakeholder within the school, and we are looking forward to the 2020 school year to initiate the project. This project would be done in conjunction with a pilot compost project we are working on in collaboration with Let’s Do It!-World and Open Blue Sea Farms.
The pilot composting program in question will be in the community of Palenque. This project began before we started the composting project with the students in Portobelo. It has had its ups and downs. Some obstacles have been breakdowns in communication, lack of financial support, and lack of participation from community members. We have a solid plan and know what the phases of the project have to be in order for the project to be a success. However with so many parties involved, everyone needs to be satisfied and be on board with the way the project is going. Our biggest obstacle has been securing financial support from Open Blue, whom we have been meeting with in order to convince them to support the project financially as part of their community responsibility program. Let’s Do It! And Future Scientist have to work harder on providing a better plan in order to secure Open Blue’s confidence and support in the pilot project. However we have reconvened and have finalized details to begin building a small structure to house the organic waste that will become the first compost pile of the project. With something physical and tangible to see, community members will be motivated and energized to participate and the project will move forward.
Future Scientist 2020
So as 2019 comes to a close, we look at our successes and how to replicate them. Likewise, we look at certain learning experiences and how we’ve grown from them. We hope 2020 holds more opportunities for more concrete projects. We hope to expand off our successes, continue growing, and continue developing new ways to increase our impact in the region. We will make 2020 a new leap forward for Future Scientist and science education in Colón. ¡Que sea un próspero año 2020!