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!
When organizing a community project, I believe the most important part in its implementation is the actual community participation and its organization. Putting the infrastructure in is important as well but if there is no social cohesion behind it to hold it up and maintain it, sooner or later it is bound to fail. In a lot of rural communities you have to answer the question of what will the individual gain from the project, not just what they will gain on a community level. These are challenges that a development worker faces when trying to work and organize these communities, especially as an outsider. This is what we have been facing as we have been trying to organize the compost project and waste management project in Palenque. They are problems that require us to change our strategy in order to connect to the community members. We must connect with them on a personal level as well as connect them to the project and the benefits they will reap from it. This adaptations are critical to the success of any development project.
The benefits gained from a community project must be transparent from the beginning of a project. Community members need to see what they can gain from spending their valuable time on project participation, both short and long term benefits. Sometimes it is necessary to focus on the short term because most people in these communities only see in the short term. Why is this? Their lifestyle and day to day has shaped this way of thinking and it is often hard to get them to focus on the long term benefits of a project. Most of these people don’t have biweekly paychecks and salary jobs so for them they are earning money day to day doing menial labor, whether it be in a field or small construction projects around town. So their mindset isn’t in saving their earnings for their children’s college tuition or putting their money in a savings account; it is simply to pay the day’s food and other immediate expenses in order to maintain a basic level of comfort in their home. Heck, the majority of people don’t have a bank account and the idea of a monthly family budget is foreign to them. It is simply not ingrained in their day to day. So this is why we must focus on short term benefits when pitching these projects to community members even though as a nonprofit we are focused on long-term impact. This all ties into understanding community members and being empathic towards their daily lives in order to understand what will motivate them to participate.
As somebody who doesn’t live in Colón, part of my job is simply connecting with community members in Costa Arriba. It involves sitting down and talking to them, participating in community meetings, town halls, and community events. It means having a genuine interest in their problems and listening to them when they speak to you. This is an important step in community organization because people are more likely to respond positively to your requests of participation when they feel that you have invested yourself in their daily lives and problems. By no means am I saying that a development worker should merely feign interest in the lives of the people he or she wants to help in order to complete a project; you must be interested in peoples’ lives to be a development worker. It is requisite #1.
It is an essential part of the job that your passion for people must come first if you wish to make a positive impact in their lives. "
This has been precisely our desire for our waste management project; we want to empower and educate community members to take charge of their community’s waste problem. However we have faced setbacks in getting community members to participate and this may very well be due to our strategies in recruiting households to join the project.
This October we have focused our efforts on jump starting the second phase of the composting project which involves heavy community organization. We need to find and “recruit” at least 15 households in Palenque to participate in the project in two ways:
Strategies we’ve used to get people to attend the initial meeting have been going from house to house and personally inviting people to join the project and handing out flyers to that they would attend a general meeting in the Community Commons in order to discuss the project and ask for volunteers. The house to house call was vastly more effective as we were able to recruit 8 households to the project. In contrast, when I went around and handed out flyers, nobody showed up to my meeting. It seems that sitting down and creating that personal connection initially and then asking for participation is the key to getting people involved. It’s slow but it works!
We are working on making a coordinated effort to go door to door together as a project team. It will be Francisco Pizarro and Cynthia Vergara from Let’s Do It!-Panamá and me for Future Scientist. We will spend the day knocking on doors and getting people to go to an initial educational seminar in order to train them on basic composting practices and community cohesion. As the Panamanian Independence Holidays as well as the Christmas season are fast approaching, we have to put a little more pressure on community members in order to assure their consistent participation in the success of the project.
Going into November and the “mes de la patria” or Patriotic Month, we have to double down on our efforts and work harder at organizing the community. Both Let’s Do It!-Panamá and Future Scientist are passionate about the project and believe in the good it can do. It is up to us to sell that belief to the good people of Palenque so that they are able to see the vision themselves for a healthier future in Costa Arriba.
Uniting with Let’s Do It!-Panamá and Open Blue (https://www.openblue.com/), we have set out to clean up Costa Arriba. To combat the trash buildup in the region we began a waste management project by kicking it off with the Let’s Do It!-World event World Cleanup Day (https://www.worldcleanupday.org/). We organized five different communities in the district of Santa Isabel so that they would join the World Cleanup Day. Playa Chiquita, Cuango, Miramar, Palenque, and Nombre de Dios joined the movement to clean their communities and set the example for proper waste management. We wanted to use this event to introduce the topic of waste separation and management and use it as a segway to our next step in the project of selecting participant houses this October.
Let’s Do It!-World is a non-profit that began in Estonia in 2008 when 50,000 people organized to clean-up the entire country in just five hours. This model has been expanded worldwide and now 169 countries actively participate or have participated in the World Cleanup Day, an event that Let’s Do It!-World began last year on September 15, 2018. This worldwide event has served effectively to raise awareness and mobilize people to get out and do something about their respective trash problems. This was our objective by bringing in the communities in Colón to participate in the World Cleanup Day. We wanted to mobilize people and get rid of their “trash blindness” in order for them to see the effect that their actions have in maintaining the cleanliness of their community. From here we want to move to forming a voluntary group of households to bring their organic waste to the community compost center. We hope that after mobilizing and seeing the difference they can make in their community they will be motivated to join our project and make it their own. If you want to learn more about Let’s Do It!-World go to their website https://www.letsdoitworld.org/.
In order to mobilize the Santa Isabel district, a lot of community organization was needed. We started the day by organizing the main work force in Miramar. Here Open Blue employees volunteered their time to contribute to the effort. We also collaborated with the Suplente Tomás Salazar from Miramar who helped pinpoint the areas with the highest amount of trash contamination. Another environmental group called Planetario Verde (https://www.facebook.com/Planetario-Verde-114825813223009/) joined us in Miramar with a busload of volunteers to aid in the cause. Future Scientist took point in organizing the other communities (Playa Chiquita, Cuango, Palenque, and Nombre de Dios). In Nombre de Dios the Community Council took the lead in the cleanup under the management of Representative Daniel Barrera, in Playa Chiquita the primary school and teachers participated in cleaning up their community, in Cuango a mother and her son were the only ones who joined us for their clean up on the Cuango beachline, and in Palenque the mayor and several community members took charge of their town. Open Blue contributed rubber gloves and trash bags for all the cleanup efforts and Future Scientist ran up and down the coast delivering this material to the cleanup teams. Thankfully I was able to connect with all of them.
I spent some time in each community supporting the cleanup effort as best I could and connecting with community members. In Playa Chiquita I helped pick up trash with the elementary school students, who were incredibly enthused to take on the task and use the gloves and bags to get the job done. I was able to meet with a few community members and talk about issues within the community. In Playa Chiquita a mother and her young son met me and asked if we were going to do a cleanup in Cuango. I said yes and offered to bring them back to the town to begin picking up the trash on the beach. That mother and son that traveled to Playa Chiquita looking for me were the only ones in Cuango that participated in the World Cleanup Day and it was inspiring to see their initiative in lending a hand for the betterment of their community. From Cuango we moved on to Miramar. Due to the sheer quantity of people that participated in the cleanup in Miramar they had finished by the time I had made it there. And by the time I made it to Palenque the cleanup team had disbanded and they had carted off the picked up trash to Colón City. All in all it ended up being a successful day and we had collect approximately 286 lbs. (130 kg) of trash between all five communities. Around 120 people participated in the event and Colón had done its part in making Panama a cleaner place to live.
Now that people are aware of how trash can affect their livelihood and they can see how much damage can be done (and undone) in such little time, it is time for the compost project to move forward into its second phase. In the coming weeks we will begin to recruit households to join our project and bring their organic waste to the community compost center. We are hoping that at least 15 households join the project and help create a waste conscious community. We are hoping that this leads to Colón becoming a national example of responsible waste management for the country.
At the end of August, the agriculture students at the Centro Educativo Jacoba Urriola Solís in Portobelo won 3rd place in the Regional Science Fair with a composting project we proposed and are now going on to the National Science Fair! The idea behind the project was to teach students an alternative method of composting using air pumps to facilitate the aerobic process that composting needs in order to convert organic waste into rich compost. We created an experiment with three groups of two buckets in order to see what frequency of air pumping was most effective in aiding the decomposing process with two different types of compost mixes. We wanted the students to take this to the Regional Science Fair to present to the public and they did just that, along with several other waste management projects that they did with Professor Wilfredo Aguilar and Professor Francisco Ábrego. The project turned out to be a good complement to the other two projects and the Centro Educativo Jacoba Urriola Solís won third place in the Colón Science Fair allowing them to move on to the National Science Fair in Panama City! They will continue collecting data to present a more complete set of results at the national stage.
Every year Panama holds a national science fair that is sponsored by the National Secretary of Sciences and Technology (Secretaría Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología or SENACYT in its spanish acronym). High school students from across the country prepare science projects to be presented on a provincial stage, and if they score in the top three they move on to the national stage where they present their projects in Panama City to be judged by representatives from SENACYT. The students who score in the top three at the national competition can win them the chance to participate in an international competition. The national competition will be in October and Professor Wilfredo Aguilar and two other students will go to Panama City to present updated projects to the other participating students, teachers, and SENACYT judges who will be present at the competition. We are confident that Portobelo will represent Colón and the nation with pride, and I am excited to cheer them on the day of the competition. We are excited to continue working with the school in Portobelo and continue developing projects for the students to take charge of and learn from.
Using this project we are creating a link between the school and the Waste Management project we are developing for the district of Santa Isabel in Colón. The compost project in the school in conjunction with the other science fair projects will serve as a way to get students involved in composting and raise awareness of the importance of separating and composting organic waste.
A new stakeholder in Portobelo: Profesor Francisco Ábrego
Professor Francisco Ábrego is a new teacher this year at the Portobelo high school and he has been a great complement to Professor Wilfredo’s agriculture program. He is enthusiastic about his work and has brought many new ideas to the students, especially in the form of composting. Along with our Future Scientist composting experiment with the air pumps, the professor and his students presented about bokashi composting (a japanese compost recipe/technique) and effective microorganisms.
Technology Focus: Bokashi Composting
Bokashi composting is a specific mixture of organic ingredients that makes a potent compost. The ingredients are dried manure (chicken, cow, pig, goat, duck), soil, rice husks, and molasses (or sugar). Professors Ábrego and Aguilar along with the students are selling the bokashi compost to boost funds for the agriculture program as well as utilizing it directly to improve soil quality in the school garden.
Technology focus: effective microorganisms
Effective microorganisms are a mixed culture of naturally occurring bacteria and yeast that are thought to enhance the quality of soil, improve plant growth, and improve yield. It can also be used to clean out septic systems as well as an antibacterial cleaning solution that Professor Ábrego has tested in his uncle’s chicken coop in Veraguas. The scent of chicken droppings and animal smell was eliminated within minutes and in Portobelo they use it to clean their coops and rabbit cages.
These are all lessons in composting that the students can continue to do after they have graduated and we hope that they will pass on this knowledge to their parents and communities long after. And by connecting these projects with the projects we’re doing in Costa Arriba we can connect the students to the problems that are in the region and have them actively participate in the solution.
These last few months have brought our focus to waste management. We want to see a cleaner Costa Arriba. More than that we want to empower the people of Costa Arriba to take charge of their waste in a sustainable way. We have begun a project with high school students in Portobelo. The goal of this project is to optimize how quickly we can achieve decomposition of several kinds of organic wastes under different conditions with minimal smell and flies. In particular we are trying to use pumped air to speed up composting without the need for manual compost turning. As a parallel goal, we want the students to bring this project to the national science fair and for them to present their results. We hope that this too will call to attention the necessity of properly disposing of organic waste and the ease of creating compost for the plants, flowers, and crops they may have at home.
The project’s design is simple. We have six buckets filled with organic material. Three buckets are filled with green plant material and brown (dry) plant material. The other three buckets are filled with brown material and fish viscera. The six buckets are then separated into groups of two, three groups of two buckets with the two types of material mixtures. Two of the three groups will be subject to two different frequencies of air being pumped into the buckets, one group with 12 hours of air a day in two 6-hour intervals and the other group with 2 hours of air a day in two 1-hour intervals. The third group will act as a control group with no air being pumped into the bucket. We want to see the difference in speed of decomposition among the three groups, with the hypothesis being that the bucket with more air being pumped into it will have a faster composting rate than the other buckets, given the fact that composting is an aerobic process that is facilitated by heat and constant exposure to oxygen. We are excited to see where the students take this and see if they translate it to waste management habits in their own lives, especially in regard to organic waste.
The students’ reaction to the project was general curiosity. They were curious about what the air pumps were for, how we were going to try to compost fish entrails with plant material, and what the results were going to be with varying degrees of air flow in the buckets. I am confident that this curiosity will be met with constructive teaching by Professor Francisco Ábrego, a new agriculture teacher in Jacoba Urriola Solís High School. Professor Ábrego has been spearheading the education of new composting and agriculture ideas such as bokashi (https://www.planetnatural.com/composting-101/indoor-composting/bokashi-composting/) and effective microorganisms (https://permaculturenews.org/2016/01/19/what-are-effective-microorganisms/). These are agricultural ideas that I have never heard of before, let alone seen implemented in Panamanian agricultural life. And from what I have seen, these experiments have been successful, and Professor Ábrego has gallons of effective microorganisms as well as sacks upon sacks of fresh bokashi compost. He wants to use these composted materials in the school garden and agricultural field in order to improve soil health and crop yield as well as sell to farmers in the area to raise profits for the school.
Our project, along with Professor Ábrego’s other projects, will make for a diverse, unique, and most importantly, relevant, science fair presentation. Our experiment, if successful, could be scaled up to be reproduced within the school or even on a community level. The results will show the efficacy of an air pump in increasing composting rates and facilitating ease of composting by eliminating the need to mix the compost everyday. Composting is an important topic for Colón, and Panama in general, due to the widespread waste management problems. Since 33% of waste that is produced in the country is organic matter, composting can be a solution to eradicating a third of the country’s waste. With the Open Blue waste management project gaining steam, this composting project and education can be integrated into the project as a way of including schools. Both projects can be the beginning of a widespread effort to raise awareness of the importance of reducing and reintegrating waste for positive uses and in creating value from the food scraps we tend to throw away.