Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known - Carl Sagan
These are the words on the back of more than 200 T-shirts the SETI Institute donated to Cosmos Education - a grass-roots non-profit dedicated to science and technology education and the role of science and technology in health, the environment, and sustainable development. Our model is simple - we seek to engage, empower, and inspire youth in developing countries through hands-on learning activities and experiments. Students learn about the molecular structure of water by pretending to be oxygen and hydrogen atoms; they learn about how soap works by doing experiments with soap, water, and oil; they learn about the HIV virus by constructing a human chain model of DNA. These and our many other activities capture the curiosity of students and get them asking questions about the world in which they live.
Indeed, the name Cosmos Education is in part a tribute to Carl Sagan and his capability and vision for synthesizing ideas and information across so many disciplines. When our team enters a classroom, one of our key goals is to get the students thinking about the many challenges facing humanity today and how so many of those challenges are intimately linked. Health and the environment, the environment and pollution, pollution and technology, technology and development... the list goes on. The challenges we face can only be overcome by thinking about the system as a whole - by recognizing that our planet, our pale blue dot, is indeed our collective home.
Learning in Lusaka
Most of our work to date has been in sub-Saharan Africa, so let me transport you to Lusaka, Zambia where we have a team of more than 20 very talented Zambians working in the schools. This past June I had the great pleasure of collaborating with this team and training new team members with our curriculum. These members are the core of what makes our work effective - Africans teaching Africans. My role as a trained scientist is to empower the team; their role is to empower the students. They are the role models that are so often lacking in the minds of African youth.
To give you a sense of how this works, let's go to Lusaka Girls High School, where our team members have just finished introducing themselves in a small auditorium filled with nearly 100 young girls. Cosmos team member O'brien Daka, a university student studying public health, holds up an inflatable globe and asks the students "What is this?" Without fail the students respond: "A globe! The Earth! A planet! A sphere!" O'brien, having quite an aptitude for science and being a gifted orator, smiles and waits. "Yes, but what else is it?" he asks. Silence and confused looks migrate through the crowd. "This," he says, "is home to you, to everyone around you, to everyone you just met, to everyone you ever have met, and probably everyone you ever will meet!" (Note: Yes, the 'probably' in that last statement is my SETI optimism coming through during training.)
After spending a few minutes emphasizing the need to work together so we can take care of our home, O'brien then moves into a discussion of how industry and technology are changing it. Much of this discussion comes directly from the book Cradle to Cradle, written by another influential figure in the Cosmos Education philosophy, architect William McDonough. O'brien outlines the modern industrial process, from production in a factory to use by the consumer. He then asks, "What do you do after you are finished using the product?" A few students respond, "You throw it away!" Again, O'brien smiles and waits. He holds up the globe and says, "Away? Can you show me 'away' on this globe? Where is away? You say you want to throw something away but what does that mean?" The students, with a flash of insight, laugh at their own misperception. O'brien continues, "There is no away! There is no away!"
He then goes on to finish the introductory remarks by comparing the way in which nature works - i.e. in cycles - to the currently flawed way in which our linear industrial system works. "In nature," he says, "waste equals food. The challenge for us as we continue to develop and industrialize is to make sure we learn from nature and develop a technology infrastructure that can work in cycles and that does not require this imaginary place we like to call 'away'".
A Future of Hope
After applause, O'brien and the team break the students into small groups that then go outside and engage in a series of fun, hands-on experiments related to water, health, and the environment. O'brien is just one of a team of inspirational role models working with the students. We've got Linda, an accountant by training; Humphrey, a teacher; Kawama, a future doctor; Chanshi, a young journalist; Ernest, an aspiring inventor... the breadth and depth of talent runs deep and wide and the young students feed off these role models. During our session on careers, each student is required to write a career statement defining what they want to be and how they envision achieving that goal. Working in the small groups, our team members and the fellow students discuss each student's statement and provide ideas and feedback about the path for achieving each goal. Hearing the students read their statements is simultaneously humbling and inspirational: "I want to be a doctor and fight AIDS! I want to be a lawyer and fight corruption in our society! I want to be president so I can lead our country responsibly!"
The ideas are astounding. The passion is infectious. With minds like these, the future of our pale blue dot is in good hands. Because ultimately we believe, as did Sagan, that somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known. For our team, that 'somewhere' is in the minds of youth around the world, and that 'something' is how our young, technologically advancing civilization can work together in order to ensure that our collective home, planet Earth, is a safe, clean, and beautiful home for our generation and all the generations to come... for all life on Earth.
Kevin Hand is a Stanford University graduate student, and a SETI Institute research associate.