Doors & windows

26 07 2019

Patience. Operating on “Ugandan time” can really try your patience as an outsider, but for once everything went quickly and on schedule. It’s probably the first day all month and it couldn’t have happened at a better time because we are counting down!

The STEAM Centre/Tech Lab at Our Dad Elementary has three really big, bright windows on two sides of the room and it’s also on the second story of the office block, so it’s flooded with light. This was an unforeseen problem for the facility and we realized right away when testing the setup we needed to have blackout curtains on the windows if the teachers are going to use the projector at any time of the day and if the students are to see the monitors well late in the afternoon. Blackout curtains will also enhance security, keep the dust down (a big issue here!) and help keep the equipment cooler.

Since nothing is premade here, we had to find a fabric shop that carried a thick enough material to make opaque curtains. It took us two different shops to find this and even then it wasn’t very thick on it’s own so we went with two layers of tan colour fabric for the outside layers with a solid heavier black fabric sandwiched between. The brown colour was selected at the request of Headmaster Michael, as he pointed out that our inital bright “fun” colour preference would fade very fast in the intense Ugandan sun and also get dirty very quickly. We saw the light with this logic and since the “peanut” colour is also the school uniform colour it made sense on 3 fronts!

After purchasing 12.5m of fabric we went back to our sidewalk shop seamstress on Lubas Road out front of the HFC Computer Training Centre that’s next door to the Hackerspace we work from. She was happy to see us again so soon since she had just made the monitor covers for us 2 days prior. We explained what we wanted, negotiated a price and she started working on them right away. The curtains will be ready for pickup in the morning and we will be taking them to the school to put up in the mid afternoon. Right afterwards we will test their effectiveness as we’re running a teacher training session on how to use the projector and attached computer in the late afternoon when school lets out. Michael messaged us within the hour after we left yesterday to tell us how much the staff is looking forward to learning how to operate the computers!

In the afternoon we drove back out to Nazigo to St. Kalemba S.S. to meet with the ICT teacher, Moses who is also the Robotics & Computer Club “patron”. He has been running this team “the Fusebots” for the students for 3 years now but is having a hard time with recent changes in administration and his job assignment and wanted to meet with us in person as he wasn’t available when we were out there last week.

St. Kalemba SS is a Catholic School but it’s still a government school and is supposed to abide by certain regulations set out by the Ministry of Education and Sport. However, Moses informed us that it operates more like a private school and has extended the class hours as of last winter, which definitely breaks the government rules on class hours for students. The goal of this is to significantly improve student performance and improvement is measured by results on government exams.

We saw this same issue of greatly extended class ours at Jinja SS which was part of the reason for meeting there this week, and was easily resolved. JSS students who are part of our program at the Hackerspace and on the school’s robotics team are granted passes 3 days/week to take part. St. Kalemba however is more of a challenge in that regard because it has no day students, only boarding so there are “passes” and the program is teacher run and the teacher, Moses, has to be in class for the extended class hours. In addition, the new headmaster and new director of studies have fully haulted extracurriculars and students now have to attend classes until 7pm every day, and on selected days each week they are in “extra classes” until 11pm! They also go to school all day Saturday now, instead of just until noon and after they go to mass on Sunday they have added extra classes and “revision”, which is like a homework study hall. As teachers in a very different system of education, we struggled with this model and can’t imagine that it’s the best way to improve academic performance or develop well rounded students. The tone at this school just walking around had really changed this year.

On top of this, as of December, Moses had been split to work at a second school that is in Biukwe District, over an hour away called Stella Maris Girls’ College. This was not his choice as the Bishop does the appointing of staff for Catholic Diocese schools. His timetable and schedule is unbelievable to us!

We knew that he wasn’t allowed ot accompany the students to their robotics competition in Kampala that we send them to every May and had sent Fusebot alumni, Sam, Byron and Collins as team chaperones. Most of the kids who prepared for this competition weren’t allowed to go either, despite the fact it was on a weekend, because it was close to exam time and the school wanted them to focus on results, so the alumni ended up also being the fill-ins for them so at least their projects could be submitted and robots compete. So when all extracurriculars were cancelled it really came as no surprise, the students sadly knew it was coming.

Moses was struggling as he really did want to continue running this program, that much was clear. Unfortunately, it would no be possible for the Fusebots to continue to compete as they were not provided or permitted to use ANY time for clubs and teams anymore at St. K… sadly for the students because they really loved this team and it was so popular the last few years, this means the team is no longer viable. This was a tough one for everyone: us, their teacher/patron and most of all the students.

Moses had layed out all the equipment we had brought for the school – Robotics kits, laptops, chargers, guide books, electronics kits, instruction manuals and batteries so we could inventory it and see that everything was accounted for and taken care of for the last few years. Every single thing was accounted for. We were legitimately surprised. The obvious value this equipment had to the students and teachers based on how well taken care of it was made taking the stuff even more difficult. But everyone understood that having all of this sit idle was pointless especially when we have a list of schools asking us if we can help them get a STEM program started for their students….the students were very understanding and actually encouraged us to give the chance to others!

We appreciated both the honesty about the situation and the care of the equipment and told them to please let us know if something changes. We would absolutely bring the robotics program back to this school! We will miss them.

We aren’t much for clichees, but the old “when one door closes another door opens” applied here….The schedule at Stella Maris SS was very different and Moses was really, really interested in continuing his own learning and teaching with robotics and computers….He expressed how much he has learned and the confidence it has brought to his teaching practice. He hesitantly suggested if we would be willing to relocate the program to Stella Maris Girls’ College? He pointed out that this time he would be starting a program with experience and knowledge and can lead the program which he couldn’t do with St. K because it was as new to him then as it was to the students. He would also have support in this location from the Fusebots alumni, just like we have from the J-Robotics alumni who live in Jinja which helps so much with sustainability. Moses explained that the administration at this school is much more open with students’ time and promoting extracurriculars and opportunity to the students there. So, we told him to go ahead and present the proposal to the Director of Studies at Stella Maris, the Headmaster as well as the girls in the computer club that he is running and see if they’re interested.

We took the equipment with us for the time being, so it’s safe until final decision is made. But, it looks like together with Teacher Moses (a very happy inductee ot the STEAM Team) we will be relocating the equipment and able to give a whole new school (another all girls’ school!) an awesome hands-on learning experience with STEM!

(Side note: this school is in a town called “Nkokonjeru” which literally translates to white chicken….team mascot? Hmmm)

Return to the tried & blue!

25 07 2019

We have been reviewing the proposal for the teacher housing at Nanso Primary from the engineer and have made some revisions. So far it looks really promising and we had the opportunity to check in with the Headmaster and his staff at Nanso for their input as well. They are most pleased that the plans include a window for each room that faces the lake, both for the breeze and for the view. We also increased the size of the rooms from the current housing they’re renting and included a much better location up on higher ground with a solid sufficiently elevated foundation to accommodate the rainy season.We are working on raising the final $1000 of this $2600 project and will be breakinh ground in the next week!

The last item of note this week at Nanao is that the Headmaster has changed and uodated the student uniform style. Blue dresses for the girls with white trim & collars and khaki brown shorts for the boys with blue short sleeved white collared shirts. The school emblem badges we had designed with the school years ago remained the same. They also changed the colour back to, well closer to the original teal blue colour that we selected for the school paint based on the original uniforms. For some reason the former Headmaster, Joffery, changed the colours to a dark purple-blue and yellow combo a few years ago (We weren’t fans), but now they are back to as close to the original “Nanso Blue” as Headmaster John could find. It’s really a very insignificant and inconsequential detail to want the colour of the school uniforms and the school facility to match, but we are really happy to see this change nonetheless!

School improvement with technology!

24 07 2019

We are so happy to report that we somehow managed to get the Our Dad Elementary School “STEAM Centre” setup and ready for action in one afternoon! Of course it took 5 of us, two trips back to Jinja from Bugembe for forgotten and missing items, BUT we pulled out off!

The morning started with pick up of our new official Outreach “uniforms” for our STEAM Team. The students who deliver our STEAM education workshops on a rotating monthly basis twice/month love the customized design we drew up on graphics software especially since they helped come up with it. (a STEAM activity in itself last week!) Having the text at the bottom on the back like a “footballer” was a hit as was the custom logo design & fonts. Everyone was certainly earning their shirts today!

We still had about 2.5 hours of installation of primary level and curriculum related software onto the RaspberryPis and Windows stick PC because the internet speed has been fairly terrible this week. The installs included phonics, math and human body games as well as many kid-friendly videos and animations about human health & development, body systems, ecosystems, interactive atlases and so much more. Our students who have been through Ugandan primary (and secondary) education at typical government schools marveled at what a difference these types of resources will make rather than just having posters and chalk drawing diagrams to learn from. The example that they used was howuch better it was seeing a real heart pump in the video instead of just drawing arrows on a diagram and trying to imagine what everything means from the words in your book. All of the 50+ videos we compiled on the Intel Stick PC will be able to be protected on the big screen we painted on the wall in the room with the Kodak pico projector we brought. both this stick computer and the projector fit in the palm of your hand it is amazing and definitely something we will be trying to get more of in the future for the schools we work with here. They’re so easy to transport and use and have a really reasonable price tag!

So we packed up the car. The computer stations, Lego robotics kits, projector and PC as well as a few other low-tech “maker” materials (crafty things). You would think counting to 4 would be easy for such smart kids….4 monitors, 4 keyboards, 4 mice, 4 VGA/HDMI adapters, 4 SD memory cards, 4 Pi power cords, 4 monitor power cords, 4 VGA cables and 4 RaspberryPis …… Well of course we drive the 30 minutes to the school in Bugembe, unload the equipment only to realize that there are only three keyboards….and three mice….it wasn’t the little parts that were missed, like an SD card, it was the big stuff. So Alex had to drive back to Jinja for us…and then back to Bugembe.

In the meantime we got all of the cables and cords run around the room and tacked in place on the walls/floors. We figured out how to get everything plugged in with adapters because many of the plugs are North American (Ugandan plugs are the same as Britian). We painted the final coat on the projection screen and organized the storage for the robot kits. We had some time to make some posters for the walls as well.

Once the missing components arrived the computer stations could be fully set up. The students worked for a little over an hour and had all 4 setup. There seems to be an issue with one of them so they took it back with us to Jinja (a port needs be soldered) and are going to bring it back tomorrow afternoon.

As soon as we had the last computer plugged in and were testing software the bell rang to end the school day. Immediately teachers started coming upstairs to the Tech Centre to check out out and wanted to begin some training right away! Their initial reaction was the same as Headmaster Michael’s reaction earlier in the day: “where are the computers??!” They had never seen such tiny machines as the RaspberryPis and stick PCs! With these tiny machines introduced, they got down to business learning how to boot the Pis and shut them down and how to find the programs we had installed. The big favourite was an outer space themed math blast game that requires you to do quick mental math. It helps kids practice addition, subtraction, multiplication and division in a really fun and different way then ever before in the usual rote only environment. It was a lot of fun and the teachers were thrilled at the potential for using this with their students.

We will be heading back out tomorrow to provide some further training. The STEAM Team are really looking forward to sharing their computer knowledge and demonstrating the potential of the Lego construction kits to provide hands on experiences for the math and physical science curriculum.

Electricians, carpenters & painters (oh my!)

23 07 2019

We have finally finished preparing the Tech Centre room at Our Dad Elementary School! It took a lot of different people and professional skill sets. First most important, we needed to get power to the Tech Center room. This required splicing into a power line with permission from a neighbouring church. It had to also be inspected for safety by the town. It also required finding an electrician and having conduit installed and run down/through the walls and to find and install switches outlets and fixtures.Next up, locks. The door needed quality security locks on the outside doors as well as the windows. The facility is on the second floor of the building so it enhances security significantly. This part wasn’t a challenge as we had planned this when the room was initally constructed. We are using metal lock boxes as storage for the time being until we can construct a locking cabinet with shelves in the back of the room. Again, thia was planned ahead during the construction phase so there is an indent in the wall for this purpose.

We drew up plans last week for furnishings and had a local carpenter come and see the types of material finishes and size that we were looking for which we had at the Hackerspace. The size of the furnishings needed to be specific for elementary school students and accommodate the computer workstations as well as the STEM kits which have many small pieces. With a small room we also had to find ways to maximize the available space and consider what was in the budget for this year vs. next. We think we’ve come up with some good options and the furnishings look great! It was exciting to set them up.

We brought a mini data projector from Canada and an Intel stick computer, that are going to be used in this room so we needed to mask off a wall painted white to create a screen. This did not take much time and we will do the second coat tomorrow.

We went to a local fabric shop to pick up some fabric to have dust covers made for the computer monitors. we don’t take the fabric to a tailor who we know and greets us daily that works just out front on the sidewalk next to the Hackers for Charity computer training center. she said she would have them ready for us by the end of the day.

Two of our senior students went on a mission with us to find two last computer monitors that we need to set this place up tomorrow. We were really worried that it was last minute (we have been calling around all week) that we would never find anything for a reasonable price or possibly find anything at all in town. Well the boys saved the day because the first place they suggested had great prices and exactly what we needed. They got to pick out the monitors and tested them in the store. With that last step settled it was back to Hackers, monitors in hand to layout all the equipment we would be taking tomorrow.

Before all of this, we actually had an early morning appointment with the director of studies at Jinja Senior Secondary School. we needed to review the program that his students are involved with at the hackerspace and their school schedule changed this past year requiring many of the students to be in class until 7 p.m. during the week and until midday on Saturdays. this was a massive problem as it gave them almost no time to be doing any extracurriculars including robotics. as it turned out many of those days they are actually finished classes at 4 p.m. but since some students have extra lessons or revisions AKA homework classes all students have to stay till 7. the exception to this has historically been the football team as they get passes to practice miss classes leave campus etc so we wanted the same treatment for the robotics team (who have actually won more medals than their football team). this was absolutely no problem because the school was heavily promoting and proud of the achievements of their students from the robotics team in part due to and the push on STEM education from the Ugandan government that began this past year. since this program gives such a tremendous opportunity to students and fits with the government’s vision it has become more and more welcome this past year. the director of studies was extremely reasonable it took no convincing at all and we now have a clear schedule for the students going forward this year.

Now fast forward to 5pm when we returned to Iganga to the all girls’ secondary school. Alex picked us all up at 4, and we loaded the demo bot into the car and headed out on the hour drive.

This workshop was jam-packed! The girls were PUMPED! We divided the 75 girls who could make the session into teams of 25 because we had brought enough parts and batteries for three robots. These girls are incredibly eager and fast learners and they work together and cooperated even in these giant teams far better than we ever anticipated! In fact, it was really shocking to see that none of them drifted away or disengaged like we would see back home in this situation.

Modelling for our outreach students how to keep things moving and how to engage kids who weren’t working directly on assembling the robot with tasks like collecting and inventorying team parts, documenting/diagramming, running back and forth to the spare parts table, trying out the software needed to code, analyzing the example bot, test driving it etc — so everyone got to have their hands on equipment. These ladies were absorbed and determined for a full 2.5hrs. The girls wanted to skip their dinner hour to stay longer!

Between the 4 of us and the 2 teachers, we were able to get the students well on their way and they are aiming to have something finished in time for Wednesday’s National Science Fair. When this goal was stated to us by teacher Paul and Silbert, since it was Monday evening, we kind of blinked in disbelief.

Our outreach students really want to help them reach this goal so they have agreed to head back out there tomorrow night after setting up the Tech Lab. Hopefully they can help the girls finish enough of their creations that will have something functional to show and present for the National Science Fair the next day! (For the record our outreach kids accepted the invitation before we had a chance to veto it so it looks like we’ll have to make it work!)

This blog post has being all over the place….which is basically how today was! It likely needs a proof read but we have 4 minutes of wifi left so that’s not an option!

Celebrating students!

21 07 2019

We had a first ever FRC awards ceremony here in Uganda!!!

Let us explain…

Several of our students have over there the last two years built and programmed a full FRC bot. A group in Canada disassembled a full competition robot, added a bunch of extra parts and it was packed into hockey bags & carried over to Uganda by volunteers. (May of 2017)

With some on site teaching from us and help/mentorship from our contacts overseas combined with their own research, the students reimagined and reassembled the machine into a whole new creation at the Hackers for Charity Hackerspace in Jinja. They learned Java and managed to program the robot to operate both autonomously and under teleoperated control. They even moved on to learning how to setup and include pneumatics as well as some unique parts and mechanisms they devised out of locally available and recycled materials. It has being a highly creative endeavor! The design thinking and engineering skills that the students have been able to develop through this process are incredible, not to mention all of the problem solving, critical thinking and collaboration! (go STEM!)

However, due to the nature of FRC with the massive costs involved as well as the extraordinary distance they would have to travel to get to an official competition the students have never been able to take part. But they continue to watch their friends online a team from St. Thomas Ontario, Canada and cheer them on by watching the live stream each year. (thank you Twitch!) The students on both the teams send messages back and forth and the J-Robotics team here stay up to date and have cheered this team along through their competitions for the last couple years. As a result, these kids have got to know each other and through the common connection of robots to become friends.

BUT this year our students did a lot more than watch!! After seeing the machine that was being designed for this year’s event by Renaissance Robotics, they were able to become a real part of the competition. Since the kids had already developed hands-on experience building FRC robots and coding in Java, the Jinja team was able to help write/debug robot code as long distance members of the Renaissance Robotics! (hooray for GitHub!) They even created and coded an autonomous mode that could be used in the competition.

Together, the team was highly successful and won multiple awards including the top awards at some of their events for such achievements as their overseas collaborations and support with Just Cause STEM projects. They even made it to the FRC Ontario Provincial Championships and the World Championship in Detroit, USA!

Yesterday evening J-Robotics and Renaissance Robotics met once again via a video call to share their STEM projects and check out their latest and greatest. They Canadians also introduced and demonstrated a competition that is now as of 2019 officially happening in Uganda callef FIRST Lego League. We have the equipment for this so the kids are really, really excited at the prospect of finally having the chance to be part of an official global competition! It has been a long time coming. We just need to figure out how to get them registered and to get their practice materials. (A whole other ongoing debacle we don’t want to get into!) (Cross your fingers….a lot)

So, to bring this saga full circle, the highlight of this whole evening, was the FRC Awards Ceremony! The Canadian students had the chance to express their thanks and congratulations to the Ugandan students who contributed and became their teammates this year! We had brought over the awards on this teams behalf and our students were SO surprised at what was happening, they had no idea this was coming! They received the medals they helped win and their own Championship Event shirts! We even took a “team photo” of sorts (see above!)

It was a pretty special moment to get to see the ongoing collaboration and partnership between these two groups culminate with such a triumph! This whole experience reinforced our belief in the potential of technology to unite people and break down barriers for common goals. These programs matter! Thank you to all of the MANY people & groups who believe that too for making this possible!

#ProgressByLearning #shareSTEM #LearningForAll #EqualAccess

Moving right along.

20 07 2019

The walls are going up on the structure at Our Dad Elementary School! The most challenging and expensive part, due to the quantity of cement needed, the foundation, is complete and the work looks to be quality. The building is hopefully going to be ready for the kids to move in the classroom portion by next week and the hall portion not long after that. The weather has been great so progress is quick.

Our Jinja students have been hard at work still trying to get software and learning resources installed into the Raspberry Pi computers. It’s not something any of us have done before but building a digital library for this school is an important goal we are determined to meet. It’s proving to be a significant challenge to get the old robotics software for older kits (Lego Mindstorms RCX) installed into these systems. We’ve had awesome support from staff at National Instruments and hope that we have found the solution to making full use of these kits at the tech center in Bugembe. Three furnishings for this classrooms that we spec’d out and had a local carpenter in Bugembe build are finished and being varnished as we speak! Looks like we will be able to get this facility up and running by Monday as planned! We will be then hosting a few “teacher tech training” sessions right after setup so that they know what is now available to them to support and improve their classroom teaching as well as adminstrative practices.We have had some great input and help in finding useful and appropriate resources to load the computers thanks to a director at an elementary school in Jinja, New Victory Primary School. And the diagrams, videos, articles, books and apps we have been collecting and compiling are very focused on the Ugandan curriculum content. Which is VERY rigorous in the middle and upper elementary classes.Director Ernest is very forward thinking in terms of the need for Hands-On learning for students. the example that he used was explaining how they teach about magnetism and such an abstract concept without the students ever actually seeing the magnet touching a magnet or witnessing it in action! They write about concepts, draw diagrams and even make conclusions on what happens and why in experiments & demonstrations they never actually do or see.Ernest told about how they draw circuits and learn symbols but never actually have the chance to build or create a circuit of their own and see it work. Both of these are tasks they must be able to do on the practical exam in grade 7 so that they can exit Elementary School and move on to secondary. First of all, we couldn’t believe the advanced level of content that grade 7 students learn here in Uganda especially in their science and math classes. Secondly Director Ernest absolutely agreed with him that you can’t pass a practical if you’ve never practice or touched one piece of equipment before. he gave us the chance to sit with him review curriculum and student notebooks for different grades of science and math. We had great discussions with our outreach team that came along about all the different ways that the workshop sessions that they bring to schools is so relevant and really supports student learning in a hugely valuable and needed way! They were making connections all over the place in terms of the LittleBits workshops and the VEX IQ Robotics workshops we’ve developed and been delivering all year. Littlebits are based on magnets and can so easily teach concepts of power batteries, input/output, stmulti/response and environmental responses. Plus they require you to create an actual circuit as do the VEX IQ kits. Concepts like distance, measurement, making predictions, simple machines, force, load, distance, work and energy all were great fits with the hands on VEX workshops.It was exciting to see our outreach students make all these connections and the director so in tune with the value of getting kids hands on learning experiences. As Ugandan students themselves, the outreach team already knew very well how valuable their workshops were and why they are already welcomed even with short notice and always in demand. The elementary schools here really do have nothing in the way of equipment and we can’t imagine learning or teaching full time in this situation.We left the meeting at New Victory Primary after having setup their upcoming workshops and the theme. Then back to Hackerspace to update and add to the Pi library further with our new knowledge & notes.

Road Trip Soroti!

19 07 2019

We met the students and staff from Soroti Municipal High School (Beacon of Hope) back in 2017 while competing at a STEM event in Kampala. We were impressed at the fact this team was really motivated and so were their teachers! They even had competed in FTC for one season! So they were a school we had kept on our radar and knew would benefit and make terrific use of what we had to offer. This year we had prepared to meet with the students and help them further develop the STEM program that they had started several years ago as they had already proven their commitment & sustainability.

Soroti is Northeast of Jinja and is in the far Eastern region of Uganda. It is about 4 hours journey by car and the road is mostly tarmac that has been redone in recent years, a HUGE bonus in Ugandan travel! The teacher in charge of the robotics/computer club at their school is named Moses. He was a pleasure to work with as he prepared accommodation for us in advance and communicated with us throughout the weeks leading up to our arrival.

The Soroti Municipal/Beacon of Hope SS started back in the 2000s as a school that rehabilitated child soldiers, refugee kids and students orphaned as a result of war (read up on the LRA and Joseph Kony in Uganda). The school continues today under the NGO “Pilgrim Africa” take in many underprivileged kids, many from the North where there is still some unrest and after effects of the conflict era happening. We learned a lot from the staff and students at the school and exchanging and comparing life both past and present in our respective countries were conversations enjoyed by all.

Thanks to some help of donated equipment from robotics teams in the USA and Canada as well as private donors, we were able to deliver a 2-day workshop program and provide 3 VEX EDR kits to this school as well as some batteries for their Lego NXT Robots that they were lacking. The team had divided their club into junior (30) and senior (25) teams and it was great to see that the model of the older students teaching the younger ones, as we have been encouraging with our students in Nazigo and Jinja was already in place. These kids, thanks to their prior experience were familiar with many of the robot parts already and much of the terminology. With a crash course in this new system, some lessons in RobotC, RobotMesh Blocky (a graphical block based language) and intro to Python (all new for them) we had a moving robot by day 2! It was a lot of fun getting to know the students and the vibe there was positive it was by far one of the best learning environments we have experienced in Uganda. The investment and involvement of the teacher was HUGE to the success of this program. He is with them afterschool almost every day of the week and all day on Saturdays, taking his rest day on Sunday. He has been committed to this school since 2009 and LOVES learning and participating in robotics. A dedicated and interested teacher, not intimidated by new learning experiences and with a willingness to learn alongside students (and not be the all knowing expert) is a refreshing and RARE experience here! This team is so promising and their learning has been so fast we wanted to make sure they had some competitive opportunities to strive for so we registered them as an official VEX Robotics Competition Team! They are now officially team 12443M the Cybernights Uganda! This registration allows them to take part in numerous online competitions with the VEX robotics program without having to travel overseas. It is going to be a lot of fun to see what they create and enter in these various events this year! They are even hoping to find a way through their NGO sponsorship to travel to a competition overseas. They have accomplished this before as an FTC team in 2017, and we want to help them as much as we can to succeed in having this experience again. We’d love to help host these kids and see them at a Canadian competition!

We are thrilled to have made this positive connection and look forward to an ongoing partnership and mentorship of this school this year both via our outreach crew in Uganda and by connecting Canadian kids back home. The enthusiasm and absolute joy these kids had in working in their technology lab and how truly interested they were in learning from us made it hard to leave after just 2 days and they were really pushing us to stay for more time. We genuinely would have loved to, but with so much work back in Bugembe and Jinja to finish up we just couldn’t!

Meet The Girls of Iganga Secondary!

17 07 2019

We have 2 new programs we are introducing to STEM through robotics in 2 new locations. We are equipping these 2 schools and delivering teacher and student training to help get them started and will be including them in our events this year as we begin to grow the robotics community and interest in Uganda. The first school, Iganda Girls Secondary School we visited we had met before indirectly in a few regards. Many of the girls from this school had been involved in the Django Girls Coding Conference that was held in Jinja last year and Just Cause sponsored. So they were eager learners with a little bit of experience in computer programming. The computer science teacher at this school is none other than Teacher Silbert, the teacher that was teaching at Jinja SS when we first met the team of kids that would form J-Robotics 4 years ago! 4 of these same students became part of the STEAM outreach program that we started and are now the leaders! So we knew we had someone on board there at Iganga Girls SS who was familiar with what we do & knew enough about it that when he contacted our outreach crew in the spring to come out to Iganga to share what they have accomplished and show the girls robotics and our program that this was a great match for us. Plus, our main organizer and logistics manager who has been a massive part of JCEO from the start is from Iganga himself! So that was a nice bonus too!

We packed a lunch for the 3 university students coming with us to deliver the program so they could eat in the car during the hour drive from Jinja to Iganga and be fueled up and ready with their A game to get the teachers and more importantly the students interested and motivated to try this new program! We had pre-organized all of the equipment that would make up the startup kit and loaded it into the car as well as prepared the software licenses/downloads needed. This was largely made possible thanks to significant equipment donations (facilitated by long time JCEO supporter Karthik!) from an American robotics team, Mann Robotics from South Carolina and a Canada team (Renaissance Robotics from St. Thomas, Ontario) as well as the VEX Robotics company themselves. HUGE shout out to all who helped with this effort! It is an amazing example of a team effort to get these girls going!

When we arrived we were greeted by another of the CS teachers, Teacher Paul, who walked with us to the school’s computer lab. It was actually fairly well equipped in terms of the number machines, they were just not new by any means but they would (probably) run the software okay. This is always the first thing we assess because if a school needs computers or a laptop it is something we have to plan for back home and not leave equipment there. The boys had told us when we talked about this last month that this place was better equipped than Jinja SS so we knew ahead we were going to be ok in this regard.

So we unloaded the car and laid out what we had brought and inquired with Paul which machine they would want the software installed on. Some of the packages are a download so we used our mobile hotspot to download it for them onto the class projector’s laptop and thatway it could be moved to other machines as needed. Then the students started arriving for the presentation.

The girls that were coming in were all part of the computers club at the school. This school has 1600+ students and 90 (!!!!) of them are in this club! We were SO impressed with this number and couldn’t believe it and we had no idea our audience was going to be this huge! The girls had been released from regular classes which is unheard of here for any reason at any school because this presentation was very important to them. The reason for this is that the UCC, Uganda Communication Commission had been to their school and was pushing them to get the girls involved in STEM initiatives. It was a part of a government program but of course it did not come with much direction or any equipment, funding or real guidance. The head teacher and the headmaster were both thrilled that we were there and were all about “educating the girl child” and how the “girls are not often encouraged for sciences and technology”.  They were very happy with our timing and that we had agreed to come there.We certainly had a captive audience because a UCC initiative is serious biz!

After a brief intro about JCEO, what we do and why girls in STEM matter, Baker, Picavet and Ronnie took it from there. They were incredible and taught the intro like pros! Watching and listening to them in action really, really drove home how much they have learned and gained over the 4 years involved with us — through the Hackerspace, STEM events & robotics competitions, their own tech startup and JCEO Outreach programs. The way they chose to explain things using a human body analogy and repeating and returning to previous terminology was perfect for a newbie to robotics to start with! It was just such a cool thing to watch! We couldn’t have been more impressed. The questions from the girls throughout the presentation were terrific! They asked things like “when the body gets old, people get sick and have problems or die, do you think that is also the same as a robot”? Which brought in a great discussion about parts, wear and tear, obsolescence and code! Another good one that made myself and the boys laugh “What happens at a competition if your robot breaks down?”. That one brought about some personal stories from each of them and a discussion about teamwork and the value of persistence, trouble shooting and not becoming discouraged. The coding was something they were a bit nervous about but we showed them how to use the graphical interface that basically lets you write a program in plain words and as long as you can describe in a sentence what you want to happen you can code it! With a  live human demo and the command blocks projected on the screen as we went through it, we could explain this well:  “move forward for 10 seconds–>pause for 2s–>if you see the colour blue infront of you turn right—>otherwise keep going straight”. Then with the click of a button you can “translate” it all into the Python programming language, providing a great way to learn to write actual lines of code!

The president of the club, Sharifa, expressed her thanks on behalf of the girls and said that they are determined to learn enough to join us for a robotics competition this year and will not let us down! Our final message was to tell them we believe in them, never to let anyone tell you you cannot do something because you are a girl and that we know they can beat the boys!!! We made some plans to head out there at the teacher’s request to support the team through their first couple of builds for 4-6 sessions over the next 2 weeks. By the time we were ready to head back to Jinja, we were all pretty pumped up and excited! The number of interested kids, the enthusiasm, support from teachers and the questions they asked left us very pleased with the decision to partner with this school. For JCEO, as a female led organization, we have been really trying to get more girls involved in our STEM programs and made it one of our goals for 2020. It looks like we are certainly going to meet this goal and it is fantastic to have so many Ugandan mentors, teachers and students well aware of the gender gap in science & tech and on board to try and challenge this stereotype and get girls involved!

Nattering & Nazigo

16 07 2019

The amount of idle time involved in being busy here is probably the most frustrating part. Without infrastructure, 4 lane roads, metered parking, one-stop-shopping options of big-box retail (not that we’re Walmart shoppers by any means!) preset prices, or the option of using debit and credit everywhere you go means getting supplies and materials for any project you undertake here in your day to day life (not just as an NGO) is far more challenging. Life is pretty easy in Canada.  For instance you have to have cash for everything here. ATMs give you almost exclusively 50,000 shilling bills when you make a large withdraw. A boda ride into town is 500-2000 (depending on how well you negotiate and where in town you are headed). 12 rolls of TP is 12,000-16,000 (depending on plys and where you shop and how well you negotiate). There is zero chance that boda driver will have change for you. It’s unlikely they could break a 10 or 20k bill. So you better pre-plan your boda rides and have small bills and coins on you or you are either going nowhere or going to get ripped off/waste your money. There is a 50-50 chance that the shop will be able to give you change for your TP purchase. So you have to wait for the shop keeper to send someone with your 50k bill to other shops to find someone who has change (or balance as it’s referred to here). Today it was a 23 minute wait for that to happen. Sounds like not that big of a deal, but, if this happened to you picking up a bag of milk, then buying some some Tylenol followed by getting gas in your car, at every single stop (and you needed the right cash and you have to negotiate the price of each individual item) and this happened daily you would dread needing something….but it would also make you a lot more mindful of spending money and plan your time a whole lot better! Then factor in that you need to travel by boda to every stop if you don’t have a car or on foot….Basically getting anything you need here is never easy, convenient or enjoyable! Anyway, we just are so used to accomplishing so many things in a short amount of time, readjusting your way of thinking and how you plan a day here is necessary. Patience is certainly a valuable asset and makes for a much better day if you can hold onto it!

So, medical supplies. We went to pickup supplies for the women’s clinic that we have supported for many years in a rural area called Nazigo. Some of these things were available at the pharmacy and we knew of one where you could get great prices on bulk supplies. The majority of the things that Rose, the nurse (there is no doctor) needs for her clinic are for women’s

health, pregnancy and births and we had consulted her for a list of her biggest needs at this time. Cotton for bleeding, suture kits, injectables for clotting, syringes, IVs, malaria test kits, folic acid and pain killers were all high on her list. Surgical gloves were her number one. She also needed something we had never heard of – “Mackintosh”….which turned out to be something you buy at the hardware store and is a roll of thick, black plastic that is used to cover beds during births. So it was a bizarre place for clinic supplies, but that’s where we got it. Rose was overjoyed to see that we had brought her these things and as we unpacked the supplies we always get to ask questions and hear all about her year, the health of the community and what kinds of trends she is seeing. She let us see all of her (impeccable!) records that showed how many births, vaccinations etc. from last year compared to this year and the projections going forward.

This clinic has very minimal government support and when you need anything, including having your baby, you have to bring all of your own supplies with you as the mother or patient. What she does and the number of people she cares for never ceases to amaze us. She is always training younger girls to assist her in non technical areas and we love that education component on top of everything else she does. To put this tiny 5-bed clinic’s impact into perspective: Rose administered 457 measles vaccines to kids under 1 alone, and delivered 417 babies last year!

We then walked over to St. Mathius Kalemba Secondary School, also in Nazigo, where we have been developing a Makerspace over the last 3 years. This is also home of the Fusbots, the 2nd robotics team we established, trained and equipped and have been sending to competitions with the team J-Robotics from Jinja SS. The current team captain, Donato, had a good meeting with us and we were able to find out where they are at, some of the triumphs and challenges that the tech students are experiencing at the school and of course how the competitions went this year! He was a great spokesperson and talking to him one on one without teachers around, meant it was a pretty honest perspective and also nothing surprising as the highs and lows were completely aligned with the highs and lows of these same programs back home. He arranged for us to return next Sunday when we will get to meet all of the interested team members as well as the Co-captain of the team who is a girl named Natasha and the teachers who are the club patrons. We need to get these kids motivated and are excited to help them get on track to overcome some of their issues with the team – some were easy fixes we were prepared for! It’s going to be a fun day next week!

Last but not least….as I am laying in bed being lulled to sleep by the usual street dog fight, a full on rat crawled in the bedroom window, climbed down the curtain and proceeded to JUMP off and run around the room knocking stuff over and making a whole lot of racket. From the safety of the bed net which I had to believe was an impenetrable force field, I bravely (frantically) messaged Alex, and he and Dennis (I am staying at their house) chased it out with sticks out my door and into the living room. It was a jumper they said and they chased it out the front door. Or so they tell me. I bought it, and slept just fine. I am sure they thought I was ridiculously dramatic.

Nanso Primary School: growth and improvement

13 07 2019

The first trip out to Nanso each year always brings some apprehension. We never know for certain how things are fairing in terms of the school building because the area is both remote and prone to unpredictable weather and harsh winds, especially during the rainy season. As we rounded the last big of shoreline in our boat and Nanso Primary was in view, we breathed a sign of relief because the roof, which is always the biggest concern was a-ok!

We were greeted at the shore by Headmaster John who had taken over from Joffery after many years of struggle at the request of the community. He immediately pointed out the glasses we had made for him lastsummer when we took him to the eye doctor. He mentioned  them 3 times during our visit actually – being able to see after so many years of nearsightedness was clearly pretty big! The results and changes over the year with John in charge have spoken for themselves and he has proven to be a strong leader for this community. There are 168 paying students currently attending the school and a number of others who still are not paying, making total enrollment around 200. This is up in terms of the number of students who’s families are paying their student fees by more than double! The teachers are getting paid as a result and their own initiative to create school gardens have been successful and there are some fruits and vegetables growing. We learned that this increase in payment rate/enrollment was largely due to their satisfaction the changes happening at the school and they are seeing payment for their children to attend as worthwhile.

There are a few things in need of repair on the building, The doors when they are left open during the hot weather to allow the breeze in off the water as well as more light often blow shut and slam hard into the door frame. The doors are made of metal as are the frames, but the concrete of the surrounding wall can’t take the impact and there are a number of doors that are coming off the frames because the concrete holding them in has cracked and broken off. This repair is concerning as it is fairly significant and not one we had anticipated at this time. It is a challenge to get someone to come all the way to Nanso to do a small job like this. So we may hold off and group it in with further work that we have been trying to fundraise for, but aren’t quite prepared for, which is teacher housing.

In many countries, Uganda included, it is customary for teaching staff to be provided with accommodation at the schools they work at. These “teacher houses” are very simple dwellings that are usually one room that may or may not be partitioned. At present, the teachers at Nanso are paying rent for such a home adjacent to the school at the shoreline. These rooms are the length of a mattress (so it touches 3 of the 4 walls), have a  wooden door that can be padlocked, no windows, a thing guage of sheet metal roofing and a board laid across two rocks for a table/bench/shelf. It is tiny and very hot. There are 4 of these connected in the building all occupied by teachers. With the school improving so much in terms of the level of success of the students, the fact that we now after 6 years have students sitting for their p7 exams and have our first 2 students joining secondary school this year we know the teachers that the new headmaster has hired are a big improvement. Keeping these teachers at the school is integral to enrollment growth at Nanso (there are hundreds of out of school youth around the school area) and seeing the attitudes towards education shifting. Building the teacher housing would really help sustain the momentum and keep the morale up. The morale of both the teaching staff and the students under the leadership of Headmaster John has visibly improved. The positivity at the school is something we have not seen in a long time at Nanso Primary. It is amazing what an impact a motivated and hard working leader can make!

So, we hope to be able to at least have some money left this summer to begin this construction and then continue to try and raise some money upon returning home to complete it by the end of the term. The total cost will be around 6-6.5 million shillings (2,200ish CAD) for 4 teacher houses that are a reasonable size AND have a window!!! We have done the measuring and are working on drafting up these plans now with the help of some of our Ugandan engineering students and under consultation and guidance from teachers in other communities that we work in. We’ll see what can be possible. We do have some bricks left over from adjusting the roof on the school the year before last and that’s a start!

We brought school maintenance supplies with us which included “slashers” and “pangas” (basically 2 types of machetes) for cutting the grass and keeping the weeds down. They teachers have the students do this task all around the school grounds and soccer pitch as a punishment for misbehaving in school! We also brought hoes for the school gardens at their request. Teacher and classroom supplies like new chalk brushes, staplers, hole punches, poster paper, markers and red and blue pens for the teacher workroom were also delivered to the staff. Several books were on their wish lists like atlases and instructional posters for the classrooms that correspond to their curriculum on topics like anatomy, pregnancy, parts of plants and flowers and maps of Africa and Uganda were all things we were able to source in Jinja town and deliver as well. The teachers were so pleased with all of this, and are looking forward to decorating their classrooms – we are excited to see it our next visit out there next week! As teachers we know the satisfaction and FUN of getting to decorate your space!!!