(IAP 2015) Kepler MIT Lab -Jakob Dahl and Qin Qin Yu

Jakob and QinQin travelled to Rwanda to begin designing a low-cost physics and chemistry lab course. They are developing this lab course for a new university program , Kepler, and plan to teach it Fall 2015 – Spring 2016. During IAP, they learned about scientific issues relevant to Rwanda, visited the school, taught a short course on experimentation, explored possibilities for collaboration with other community partners and researched available materials for experiments. This lab course will help Kepler to kick-start their science program and may also serve as a model for low-cost lab courses at other universities.

The Beginning

December 23, 2014

We have a blog! That’s exciting.

QinQin and Jakob looking excited

As you can see, we’re pretty excited! Hopefully, our blog can give you an insight into our project. We want to create a lab for physics and chemistry next year and this January, we’re doing some fieldwork to familiarize ourselves with Rwanda and its resources.

Then again, most of what enabled QinQin and me to get to this stage has been pretty exciting. We started with an idea little more than a year ago. The idea came from MIT’s report on the future of education, which I’d been following, as I’d taken an EdX class from my own university for the fun of it. We talked to all kinds of people about creating a low-cost lab class for chemistry and physics, to be used as the hands-on aspect of an online education. Fortunately, we managed to follow a string of contacts all the way to Kepler, a university in Rwanda which was a perfect shoe-in. And we’ve had great help since, too – support from our family, from friends and faculty at MIT, the public service center, the IDEAS Global Challenge and the wonderful team at Kepler.

A restful Christmas, frequent Skype calls over the Atlantic, discussions about how many MIT-stamped pencils we should give as presents, buying shoes that are fancy enough for Kigali – and in two weeks, we’ll arrive at Kepler!

Plans and goals. Part 1: scavenging for materials?

December 30, 2014

It’s pretty exciting that we’ll be traveling to Rwanda in only 8 more days! But there’s been a lot to get ready, and a lot to think about what exactly we want to accomplish.

We’re thankful to actually have an opportunity to travel to the school before we start teaching the course next year. It is probably the number 1 thing I’ve heard from people who do teaching projects abroad that they wish they had the chance to do. What they thought was a great lesson plan turned out to use materials in a way that was considered inappropriate by that region’s culture.  Or the method of teaching that they were used to was very different from the method the students learned by. I’ve heard so many problems described to me that I can imagine could have been easily solved by a short face-to-face conversation with a teacher or a few days of observing classes. So we’re already very lucky.

But since we won’t just be teaching any class next year, but an interactive hands-on class with lots of electronics, heavy objects, strange chemicals, and bright lights, there are many more things that we will need to consider, and try to clarify during our January trip. One of our main goals is to survey the available materials in Kigali and the surrounding area, so that we have an idea of what sorts of experiments are possible to do–something that the team at Kepler has already started doing and that we will continue. Since we want to make our lab course sustainable, we won’t be bringing over fancy oscilloscopes and function generators–what we’ll rely on are spare electronics parts to build equipment that have similar functions. But what can we buy from local electronics shops and what will we need to scavenge from broken computers and radios? That’s the kind of question we want to answer during the 3 weeks that we are there this January.

The kind of equipment I’m expecting is available is most likely much worse than what will actually be available to us. Kigali is a big city after all and there are young professionals that live there and have tech-y jobs. That means we probably can find batteries, basic electronics equipment, and even a few functioning microwaves, vacuum tubes, and decent glassware for the chemistry experiments. Hopefully, the materials will not be as big of a problem as we’re thinking it may be. That will leave us more time for actually tinkering around with the experiments and trying to figure out how to make the setups that we would like to make.

That is probably what we’re most caught up in right now–using our (almost) chemistry and physics degrees to be mechanical and electrical engineers!

That sounds scary.

And fun.

What they don’t teach you in a university-level chemistry and physics lab course is how to actually design and build the experiments in the first place. Let alone how to do it without essential components like oscilloscopes and photomultiplier tubes. With the help of a few mentors, like Sean Robinson (Junior Lab guru), Michael Hirsch (Ph.D. student at Boston University), and Jude Safo (Ph.D. student in MIT nuclear engineering), we now have some initial ideas and places on the web to look. But there will certainly be much more work to come next semester. We’re looking for a third student to help us with designing the experiments and will hopefully also get some help from the wonderful people at D-Lab, through their independent project class. One thing is for sure: by the end of this process, we will have no problem trying to build up our own laboratory if we ever become a professor!

Plans and goals. Part 2: being teachers

January 5, 2015

Happy new year! 2014 was witness to many exciting beginnings: an idea for a collaborative physics and chemistry lab, our first connection with Kepler, meetings with many people to introduce ourselves to this public service community that was foreign to our academia-based minds, and through it all, the support of teachers, friends, and family. I can’t wait for what 2015 has to offer. You know, with us graduating and becoming real people and all. But also for us to learn even more about Kepler, Rwanda, education, teaching science, and how to successfully manage an independent project!

While we’ve been celebrating the new year and relaxing at home, we’ve also been planning for the class that we’ll teach during January. The goal is to get a sense for how students at Kepler learn. For that, we’ve decided to teach a two-week long class about experimentation. We want to get them to start questioning concepts that they’ve been taught in school, and begin to test those concepts themselves, through systematic experimentation.

The concept we’ll be testing is one that we’ve all been taught at some point in school: the acceleration of gravity on earth is constant. The way we’ll be testing it is by predicting: ‘How long time does it take a ball to roll down a ramp?’ Along with it we want to predict the answer to many smaller questions: ‘How does the material of the ramp affect the travel time? Does it change the constant-ness of gravity?’ ‘How precise do we want our results to be and how many independent trials would we need for that level of precision?’ By the end of the course, we’ll have results to support the constant (or non-constant) acceleration of gravity and have answered the question of the ball on the ramp thoroughly. (Well, up until ‘how does friction work on a microscopic level?’, because that’s actually a pretty hard question.)

We purposefully chose such a simple question to avoid being caught up in other limitations, such as the equipment not working or students not understanding a concept, and really focus on experimental thinking. There will be plenty of time in year-long course for struggling with equipment and concepts, the other side of experimental physics and chemistry.

Our hope is that the students will learn how to take data, think about errors, analyze data, present it in a meaningful way, and finally communicate the results to an audience. These skills will come in handy for the actual lab course in the fall. We’ve even built in ~4 days at the end of the course for them to explore their own independent, but simple, problem. Some possibilities are in our course description that we’ve distributed to the students:

Back to the basics: One of the experiments that paved the way to classical physics and led the transition from natural philosophy to science was rolling balls down an inclined plane (performed first by Galileo Galilei, who lived 500 years ago in Italy and was a contemporary of Johannes Kepler). We all know about forces and acceleration now, but how do we prove that these forces exist and that the acceleration and force of gravity are constant? The answer lies in careful observation and repetition of experiments (i.e. empiricism – the principle that if we observe the same result every time we try one particular experiment, we must exclude theories which are unable to explain these results). Students in small groups will record data on the time it takes different round objects to roll down a plane at different angles and from different heights. How many experiments do we need until we can trust that the outcome will be the same? Using either excel/open office or, if we are ambitious, Ipython, a free online computing package, students will analyze the errors in their data and gain an idea of what trends are present in the experiment. Students will then predict an outcome that they did not measure based on their analysis and define the experimental conditions that would lead to this outcome.

Possibility for short independent projects: If our class runs for two weeks, students can use the second week to examine the accuracy of some scientific facts they have been taught in previous courses. Any scientific facts or principles that can be tested by experiments performed in the classroom over a period of no more than 3 hours are fair game. Examples could include the examination of falling objects in viscous liquids (scientific fact: all objects fall at constant non-zero acceleration), titration of acids and bases (scientific fact: acid dissociation constants for a particular molecule), simple chemical reactions such as Na2CO3 and Ca ions (scientific principle: the ratio of reactants to products is constant) or anything else students come up with (we will have a larger list of examples and students don’t have to come up with an example on their own – but they are more than welcome to).

One of the main points we want to get across is that it’s ok to fail! In fact, that’s kind of what science is all about: making a hypothesis, testing it, realizing it’s wrong, and then making another. It’s a process that is familiar to researchers, but can be very frustrating to students, who have gone through 12+ years of textbook answers and tests with right or wrong answers. Jakob and I know this frustration all too well. But this process of sifting through a lot of wrong ideas has led to some amazing accidental discoveries: radio waves, rapidly spinning stars in the sky, that the sun is not orbiting around us, electric current creating a magnetic field, and the list goes on. To think like a scientist is to use all available facts to create a theory, and often, that theory may be wrong!

Arrival: 1st day in Kigali

January 8, 2015

We’ve arrived! the plane trip was long (and for some reason, the flight arrives at 3 in the morning), but all is well.

We live in the Kimironko district of Kigali, at a wonderful house that Kepler houses it’s international staff in. The view from the front porch is gorgeous and we’ll post a picture tomorrow. Kigali is really beautiful and in our part of town, there’s fields and banana plantations in between the houses.

Kepler has given us a lot of support and we’ve been able to visit them already. They’ve shown us the building that they’re dedicating to our lab – it looks pretty good! It’s the old storehouse of the beer brewing company  that the university is built in, so it’s plain brick and cement, high ceilings and even has a small side room for storage or light sensitive experiments. Here’s a picture of the main room!


We met up with Chris, Kepler’s CEO yesterday as well and talked about how our course could fit in with Kepler’s general vision and curriculum. More about all that in our next post!


January 10, 2015

Hello from Rwanda! The theme of our last 2 days has been talking, talking, talking. We’re talking with all sorts of groups: universities, companies, and administration. The reason we’re doing this is because we want to better understand 1. what are the biggest problems in Rwanda that future employees will be working with and 2. how can we address these problems with related science concepts in our course. The student group at Kepler is being so wonderful, and helping us contact many people. (shout out to Celestin, Antoin, Eric, and Rosine–you all did amazing with organizing the meetings and sharing your thoughts during them!)

Yesterday (1/8/15) turned out to be a much more exciting day than we were expecting. We got in contact with Alex, who is the director of the Information and Computer Technology (ICT) Chamber, and talked with him on his opinion of low-cost science and how he thought we could fit into the existing industries in Rwanda. What we thought would be a half hour meeting turned into a two-hour meeting, with coffee! (An unfortunate counterpart of the deal was learning that a cup of espresso at the Telecom building is actually 3-4 times the size of a regular tiny espresso cup, and that drinking all of it to be polite is perhaps not the best way to guarantee a good night’s sleep…)

What we gathered was that there are not many jobs in Rwanda for people who want to do pure science. Most of them will become science teachers. However, there is now a growing investment in information technology, and along with that, producing and recycling computer hardware. They call it electronic waste, or e-waste for short. As more and more people begin to own computers, there will also be more and more broken computer parts, but there isn’t currently in Rwanda a large-scale way to identify and scavenge broken parts, leading to giant dumps where most of these parts go to disintegrate. Thus, there will be in the future, jobs in sorting, extracting, and recycling electronics.

That’s why we want to have one of the modules of the lab teach students how to recycle broken electronics into useful parts, such as for components of mobile phone towers or scientific equipment. Perhaps we can talk with the existing companies that refurbish electronics parts to use the parts that they too want to discard or export. Electronics refurbishing is also something that some people in Rwanda do independently, or just for fun. On a few street corners, there are men who have cell-phone repair stands, and we’ve spotted a few shops that fix broken computers and televisions. This is all good news, because that means there are soldering irons and multimeters sold in the electronics shops in town! We will go to check them out in a few days, to see how much they cost and their quality–fingers crossed that both of those are reasonable!

Another thing that got us thinking was when Alex mentioned the importance of modeling systems in business and the importance modeling systems in physics. Since many of the students at Kepler will eventually go to work at a business or create their own startup, being able to write code that models expected profit in the next years or the geographical distribution of clients in the future could be one a very useful skill to them. This reminded us that we will definitely want to have some modeling involved in the experiments–perhaps we do a physical experiment with some random variable and try to make a model for it, tweaking parameters until they match our results. This always leads to a very good lesson, one that will also be useful for the business students at Kepler to learn: a model that gives the same numbers as the physical data doesn’t necessarily mean that the model is correct!

Mostly, we were excited that Alex was excited about physics and chemistry. Jakob  drew the molecule that he made in his lab for Alex, and he was fascinated 🙂 He also gave us many more useful contacts, whom we talked to today and we’ll write about that tomorrow!

Afterwards, we went across the hall to kLab, an innovation hub for startups in Kigali. The room is complete with a many tables, chairs, internet access, a coffee bar (the source of the gigantic espresso), and a balcony with a beautiful view of Kigali. We were there to listen to a presentation by a kLab-supported startup called Safemoto, where 3 of the Kepler students are interns at! (we’ll talk more about the really innovative approach to education at Kepler in another post) The startup is developing an app for smartphones that lets riders of motorcycles rate the drivers of motocycles (motos, as they call them, are a common form of public transportation in Kigali). Even though most motos are very safe, there are occasionally accidents, and Safemotos wants to reward drivers who are ranked more safe, by making their prices higher. Riders who are looking for a moto can then use the app to find a nearby moto driver who has a high safety ranking. It’s a great idea that has now taken off, with the support of kLab and an accelerator’s funds.

It was a long but exciting day, and ended with a meal with veggies + fruits from the market that we went to this morning 🙂 We’ll definitely be going back. Papayas, passion fruit, avocados, bananas, giant zucchini, colorful beans, giant bags of basil, and leeks (!!!)–how could we keep away? And next time, we will remember to take a picture!

Day 3 in Rwanda – EHS, physics and a chef de l’usine

January 10, 2015

This day was filled again with meetings where we pitched our ideas – and we had to juggle between vastly different audiences. Our first meeting was with the resource management group of the private sector federation – they are a group that tries to nudge Rwandan industry towards more resource efficiency, less environmental impact and better worker protection. We talked both to the director and to the process manager, Chantal. Apparently, they are part of a UN-sponsored advocacy group that shares efficiency enhancing processes and introduces them to companies on the ground as well as giving advice for future changes in policy and law. Their projects really encompass all options: reprocessing sawdust to fuel pellets, old paper to laminated necklaces, enhancing the efficiency of a boiler by making sure the firewood is dry. What was most interesting for us were their efforts to include plastic recyclers (specifically a company called soymex) and the new companies that are trying to process e-waste.

Also, we survived our first ever moto ride today! Celestin and Antoine noticed that the bus wouldn’t get us there in time, talked to one driver and three others were there in a minute. I liked it, it’s kind of fun to weave through the traffic and see the surroundings flash by. QinQin was a little more reserved (which was understandable, on account of her wearing a skirt). We definitely understand the idea behind the safe moto start-up from yesterday a good deal better: some of these drivers are literally racing against time, which can be disconcerting when all you have to hold on to is a little handle behind your seat.

Jackson, a teacher from Kepler who is really good at finding internship places for his students picked us up from the PSF and drove us to the college of technology of NUR (National University of Rwanda). There, we chatted with the director of the physics department about the way labs are used in physics education here. It seems that even in a big university, a standalone lab class is very uncommon – and lab classes are used mostly to help introduce certain concepts – apart from possible senior research projects that may or may not have laboratory components. That is, if the materials are available. Hopefully we can help with that to some extent – though we do want to get a better idea of what experiments and machines they use in the labs here. Most of the material doesn’t come from Rwanda, though – and usually whole sets and instruments are imported, not just the parts.


From left to right: Antoine, Jakob, the director, QinQin and Celestin. At the end of the meeting we noticed that the professor spoke Chinese – he had even done his PhD in China!

Celestin and Jackson had also organized a meeting with Sonatubes, a company which produces PVC-pipes and has recently added a line to produce solar water heaters. The company owner, Richard Heuben, is Belgian, so we tried to communicate in French. Richard also showed us around the factory and introduced us to his chef de l’usine, who happened to be a friend of Celestin. They use an extrusion process, which means that they melt the plastic pellets with some additives and form the pipe continuously by cooling the melt in a round form. However, even with the factory on the ground, all the machines and raw materials were imported. They were pretty interested in our ideas about making bioplastics in our lab – although they don’t have any free equipment to test things. Maybe by the time our lab is up and running we can try again.

And, as promised, here’s a picture of our view.


Day 6 : Getting around the country and starting the semester at Kepler

January 13, 2015

This Monday, we finally ventured out of Kigali! It was a pretty great adventure – we wanted to visit Sister Juvenal, the Headmistress of the girls school in Maranyundo. After a moto ride from Kimironko to Nyabugogo, which gave us an even better idea of why motos are dangerous, we got on a bus to Nyamata that went all the way to Maranyundo. Luckily, we were helped by a bunch of people at the bus stop – I still don’t really understand how the bus system works here, except that there are a bunch of independent bus companies and there is no centralized schedule / route information system.

At the school, Sister Juvenal showed us the buildings (they’re doubling in size by January 26th, so there is a lot of construction going on). Most of their buildings were designed by Stratton, a Rwandan architect that we are planning to meet, including the science labs. The labs are surprisingly well equipped – although Sister Juvenal did say that the chemicals can get very expensive. They have a lot of standard inorganic salts, though, as well as a few acids – and supposedly, they’re all bought in Kigali (perhaps at a science supply store that we’ve heard about). Not so many organic chemicals, but maybe we can find them elsewhere.



QinQin in the lab and Jakob in front of the school

After coming back, we went to Kepler to talk to people and sit in on some classes. I especially liked the class on business behavior that Jackson taught – people were taking their group projects very seriously and reasoning through their decision making process. The amount of discipline was pretty impressive: in a room with one teacher, twenty students with twenty laptops were all participating in a project, nobody was goofing off (not even on their emails) – even though it was 5:30 and most of them had been in class all day long.

An encouraging conversation

January 13, 2015

We didn’t do much this weekend, but got a little more acquainted with the city and caught up on sleep. On Sunday, Chris was very kind and took us on a drive around the city. We located the US consulate, found Hotel Mes Collines, and drove past lots and lots of electronics and hardware stores (called Quincailleries in French) that we definitely want to go back to soon!

On Sunday morning, we met with Brother Straton, who is a past high school principal and is now very involved in education for refugees from Congo. We came in contact with Brother Straton through the board members for the Maranyundo Girls School (see our last post!), with whom he also works with.

This was actually one of the most encouraging conversations we’ve had since we’ve been in Rwanda. We discussed why there was a lack of jobs for scientists in Rwanda and what he thought could be done to fix that. In fact, the reason that science (or at least science theory) is being emphasized so much in Rwandan secondary schools and universities is that the government wants to create an industry for scientists to work in. The problem is just: 1. there’s not enough expertise in the sciences (hence the push for science education) and 2. there are few businesses for scientists to work in once they graduate. Well, the solution to number 2 seems simple: create science startups–which is why we’re actually in the perfect place to set up a lab! We’re teaching future business leaders about cool practical ideas in science, and if they find a cool enough idea, they may be inspired to make a startup to address it!

Thus, we were excited, and retrospectively, our decision to work with Kepler now seems like the right one, for more reasons that just that Kepler is an innovative school and would nicely fit with our innovative idea. If this low-cost lab idea catches on with other Rwandan schools, there is a real chance that this new science industry can be created and sustained.

January 15, 2015

Tuesday morning we observed some more of the classes at Kepler. We really liked the one where the students were giving presentations–it shows how much the students are being trained to communicate and how the teachers at Kepler are actually putting it into practice. For all the classes that we’ve seen so far, the topics are ones interesting to Rwanda–for the macroeconomics class, the presentation topics were on countries in East Africa; for the writing class, the research papers were on issues like ICT (Information and Communications Technology) in Rwanda. So not only are the students learning how to develop business ideas and professional skills, but they are doing it in a way relevant to them!

After a giant and delicious lunch at Kepler of bananas, pasta, beans, and cabbage, we headed over to the Telecom house again (we’ve been there too many times this week) to meet with Prince, who is an electrical engineer interested in low-cost hands-on learning and maker spaces. He is currently working at a science center for a secondary school slightly outside of Kigali, where the science that is taught is all using materials that the students can find at home and bring to school.

Prince and Jakob in front of the great view from kLab

He took us to see the two-year old IPRC incubation center, where newly graduate students have the opportunity to expand their engineering ideas into a business. We visited one group that was working on 5-6 different electrical engineering projects: a scoreboard for a volleyball match, a color-changing light, and more. They were using mobile phone chargers as 5V power supplies, Ethernet cable bundles as wires, and a mismatch of collection of old resistors taken from computer parts. One of the members of group, Emmanuel, told us that despite not being taught how to use these things in university, they had the motivation to learn it on their own, through the internet and online classes. We found that extremely inspiring, because even with the appropriate mentorship and all of the necessary materials in our own labs at MIT, we often will lose motivation when something doesn’t work; and these students are able to keep motivation even though they have very little guidance, little materials, and while facing problems with something not working.

Jakob, QinQin, and Emmanuel talking in the incubator.
Sketches of the incubator group’s ideas

Most of their materials were coming from broken electronics parts, but they did need to import some things, like arduinos. However, most companies will not ship to Rwanda or charge an unbelievably high fee, so “importing” means having a friend who happens to be traveling back from India or China and can stuff some arduinos into their suitcase. This makes it extremely difficult to get projects done, because it can often take months before they can get the appropriate materials. This was a little discouraging for us, because we will face the same problems with materials. Arduinos we can use without, but with things like solderless breadboards, we will have to be more creative.

Emmanuel and Prince then took us on a tour of the rest of IPRC. They have so many different majors and labs for them: electrical engineering, welding, plumbing, woodworking, and more. It was very obvious that the labs had a lot of equipment, which was mostly donated from a Korean group called Koica. However, they seem to lack lab technicians, and as a result the lab hours are not very long. It would be really interesting to see more collaboration between the different departments–I think the students could get a lot more out of their projects when they involve other types of engineers.

In the evening, we talked with Gaspard Twagirayezu, who is a Knowledge Transfer Analyst in the office of the Prime Minister. He used to work at the same science center that Prince is working at now, so it makes it seem like a small world. He’s also very interested in using materials available in Rwanda to do experiments, so he had some really good advice for our project. He told us that sustainability of a project like this typically comes from the lower levels–the students and teachers that are directly involved. While it is important to involve the whole community, their support will be secondary to the support of the people who will actually be continuing the lab. It was a good reminder for us to focus on involving the students and teachers at Kepler during our entire project.

Day 8: MINEDUC, more meetings, and makers at k-lab

January 15, 2015

Breakfast was nice!


This Wednesday, we unduly taxed the Kigali transportation system some more. We had heard from several sources that we should really talk to Mike Hughes, the science advisor to the ministry of education. This ministry regulates schools (and universities, to some extent) and has giant signs labeled MINEDUC in several parts of town. Driven by some enthusiastic moto drivers, we went to the one closest to us, which turned out to house the subgroup for secondary education. So we sat down on another bus, only to realize we choose the wrong number and had to get off and walk back. Finally, we arrived, fashionably late by this point and got to meet Mike and Marie Christine, the director of the science and technology division at the ministry.


Mike actually oversees some of the cooperation between MIT and Rwanda, especially concerning the new Masters in Atmospheric Sciences which will be taught here by our friend Jimmy Gasore. We talked a lot about Kepler, online learning and how our project would fit into the bigger picture of science education in Rwanda. Since Kepler is a private program, they won’t be able to support us directly. However, they gave us some contacts to other people who have tried low-cost science solutions in Rwanda and to other people at institutes of higher learning in Rwanda.

Coming back to Kepler, we introduced ourselves to the staff during their weekly meeting and invited anyone interested in our project to participate in  a meeting with the students that evening. We got a lot of questions back about our content and ideas for the structure and sustainability of the lab – I think the staff here at Kepler is also generally very interested in this project. Some have even taught science in secondary schools before – and we’re trying to see if we can recruit them to teach/supervise the lab after we leave.

We also talked to some of the students taking a class to prepare a business pitch… they have some interesting business ideas – teaching groups, tourism advisors, rearing pigs


But now I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we go to the meeting in the evening, we got to see Claudette again at k-lab. We chatted a lot about the building of the maker community in Rwanda and how the IT entrepreneurs really liked a course from someone at MIT a few years back… Well, if anyone’s interested in teaching some more advanced programming to people in Rwanda, you’re sure to get a pretty open invitation here. They’re also planning on building a fablab during this year, so there’s also an opportunity for non-programmers to come. We also watched the “makers”, a group of people who like building electronics at k-lab setting up their demos they would like to market. Unfortunately we had to leave before they turned them on, but some of the demos looked pretty interesting.


Back again, off the bus and then we met a group of students at Kepler about how to organize the work for the lab in the future. We’re trying to see which students would be interested in doing some work for the lab course before it starts – researching materials, helping with the renovations, planning the facilities… which will help a lot, since we won’t be there during the spring. Two teachers actually came, as well: Ernest and Obed, both of whom had taught physics at secondary schools for a number of years before joining Kepler. Both of them seemed interested in becoming supervisors for the lab after we leave, so hopefully our project will live on for longer than just our stay here.

University labs in Kigali

January 19, 2015

Last Thursday and Friday, we had the chance of visiting two university’s physics and chemistry labs: National University of Rwanda College of Science and Technology (formerly known as KIST) and Kigali Institute of Education (KIE). It was a really good chance to get a feel for how university labs in Rwanda look like and compare labs across universities too. We are very indebted to Jimmy Gasore and Ernest Niyigena for organizing the two lab tours and accompanying us to the campuses!

Notes about the chemistry lab (from Jakob):

Eventually, we split up so that we could visit both of the labs at KIST. I visited Ephrem, the tutorial assistant for chemistry, and he showed me around his lab and introduced me to his program. The amount of equipment in the laboratory is rather impressive – an atomic absorption spectrometer, fourier-transform infrared spectrometer, gas chromatograph, mass spectrometer, even a trace gas detector for nitrous oxides. Lots of chemicals (even some quite dangerous things like CS2, LiAlH4 and nitric acid), lots of untouched glassware, but only two fumehoods – they really don’t like dealing with organic chemicals in this country. Luckily, they have access to chemicals here in the country from a store called Bouphar, so they don’t have to be so worried about being able to perform their experiments – although there was a broken elemental analyzer that they hadn’t been able to repair. Apparently, students are supposed to spend around 3 hours in lab for each class – though with around 100 students per class, several classes per year and only two tutorial assistants, it may be difficult to actually give students those opportunities.

Ephrem in the KIST chemistry lab
Ephrem and Jakob in the KIST chemistry lab

However, Ephrem told me about the final projects that students perform and I got to meet the supervising lecturer and a few of the reports. The project supervisor said that students work on these projects for about 3 months during their last year at university – and Ephrem said that most students go to potential employers with a copy of their final project report as well as their grades. It also sounds like there are more places that chemists can go to work after they graduate: brewing companies, color producers, the giant soap company called SULFO.

The chemistry learning laboratories for teachers at KIE, on the other hand, were equipped very similarly to what we had seen at the Maranyundo girls school – which makes sense, since teachers should be familiar with the design and the experiments used in the schools. Except for one gas chromatograph with a vacuum pump, the equipment consisted of locally available gas burners and sinks, with a tile covering over concrete floors and tables. Hopefully, we can design our lab in a similar fashion – though we probably only want a few spaces covered with tiles where we work with chemicals.

Ernest, physics department head, and Jakob in the KIE chemistry lab
Jakob and Ernest walking on the campus of KIE
Jakob and Ernest walking on the campus of KIE

Notes about the physics labs (from QinQin):

Both KIST and KIE have very equipped physics labs. At KIST, we met the (only) lab technician Enock and a tutorial assistant Abdou, who took us to the floor of the lab building dedicated to physics labs. There were 4 labs, each for: mechanics, electricity and magnetism, optics, and thermodynamics. The spaces all looked very modern, especially because most of the equipment for the experiments were from PHYWE, a German company that specializes in lab equipment. It reminded me a bit of a science fiction movie 🙂 But it was very impressive how much equipment they had: double pendulums, measuring centripetal motion, resolution of a prism, electromotive force. They even had a setup for measuring losses in an optical fiber that a student had used for an independent project, and a setup for creating a hologram, which hasn’t been used yet.

Ephrem, QinQin, Enock, and Abdou in the KIST physics lab (thermodynamics)

The downside to having pre-packaged equipment is that it’s sometimes very hard for Enock to fix something when it’s broken–like the leaky vacuum tube in the Rutherford scattering experiment. Even though Enock has been the lab technician for about 4-5 years and has become very familiar with a lot of the equipment, there are still some equipment that is just impossible to deal with without the right facilities that PHYWE has.

Abdou told us that as a tutorial assistant, he typically picks about 4 experiments for each of the courses to supplement the theoretical concepts. Then he writes the instructions for them, and the students submit their reports to him to be graded. There are only ~10 physics students every year, but the physics labs are still being used by the electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, and some other students in science-related disciplines. In total, there are ~1000 students who use the labs! Often, there is not enough equipment to go around for all of the larger classes of engineering students, so sometimes 6,7,8,9, or even 10 students share the same apparatus, making it very difficult to learn.

Abdou and Enock confirmed that most physics graduates end up going back to teach secondary school physics. Some will go to work in government agencies, such as for environment protection. However, they’re establishing an International Center for Theoretical Physics on the KIST campus starting next year, which will offer masters degrees in physics. That will open up university-level professorships as well to students who want to stay in Rwanda.

The KIE labs were much more traditional and familiar (not very many obviously imported equipment, but most of it was actually imported from Uganda or India). They had a really good supply of electronics: oscilloscopes, multimeters, a setup for the Frank Hertz experiment; as well as optics: lenses, telescope, galileoscope. In fact, they had an oversupply of equipment, because not all of it was being used. However, as Ernest is a graduate of the program, we trust that the lab program itself is quite good 🙂

Ernest, physics dept. head, and QinQin in the KIE physics lab
Ernest, physics dept. head, and QinQin in the KIE physics lab

We ended up at the Confucius Institute at KIE after running into Ernest’s old physics professor and being urged to check it out. They have ~13 staff and teach Chinese to students of KIE and a few other universities free of charge. It was actually quite comforting to hear some Chinese in Rwanda–even Jakob noted it as strange and kind of cool. It’s happened to us a few times now, and every time we’re amazed at how many Chinese speakers there are here!

Jakob and Ernest blabbering about Chinese on the bus ride back to Kepler
Confucius institute in KIE

Day 12: Our first class!

January 21, 2015

Today we managed to teach our first class – and it went pretty well! I have one confession to make, though – we did not take any pictures during the class. I promise I won’t be as negligent the next time.

The idea of this class is to introduce students to empirical science using very simple experiments. We’ve posted an explanation of what we want to teach before we left for Rwanda here. During the first week, we want to reproduce something similar to Galileo’s experiments on rolling balls down inclined planes.

A fresco of Galileo and his experiments on inclined planes, by G. Bezzuoli, 1841

Pretty funny, right? We come to a place called Kepler and now we’re going over to Galileo and introducing the scientific method in the process. I guess it’s a good omen or something like that?

For our first class, though, we wanted to talk to the students here about what they thought science was and give some initial thought on how to approach problems. After a little discussion of some questions that we asked:

  • What do you think is experimentation?
  • What makes it different from a project?
  • What are some examples of experiments that you know?
  • How were they successful or not successful?
  • What are some characteristics of scientists?

We moved on to a little exercise with numbers… the idea is that the instructor gives 3 sets of numbers, for instance:

3,5,7 | 6,8,10 | 0,2,4

and then asks  what the rule the instructor imagined behind the numbers is. Well, it can be as easy as “add 2 every time”, but if my rule were “any natural number” the students would be guessing for a long time. What we really want them to do is ask questions about the rule by supplying us with new sets of numbers. It takes a while until people start coming up with new kinds of sequences. In a similar example, most students kept asking whether another sequence that obeys the rule “subtract 1 from the preceding number” obeys my rule – even though my rule was “any whole number” – until suddenly one student asked: does “7,8,11” obey the rule? The whole room was pretty shocked that it worked.

We tried asking which steps they had gone through while asking some of the new questions and gave them a short introduction to the general scientific process of hypothesis-based experimentation. In the end, we gave them all lab notebooks and sent them to their next class.

Electronics shops and Quincailleries

January 26, 2015

It’s been a while since we’ve blogged, because we’ve been really busy this week. Aside from this being our first week of teaching (see Jakob’s post below), we’ve also finally had a chance to scout out some materials for our class.

Last weekend, Simon, the IT guru and resident electrical engineer of Kepler, took us to town to poke in some of the electronics shops. (Everybody here calls the town center as just “town”.) There are many tiny electronics shops in town and also elsewhere in the city, like in Kimironko where Kepler is. Some shops will sell ready-made and imported electronics, like phones, computers, and radios. But others, which we are very interested in, sell lower-level parts. We managed to find soldering irons, clothing irons (which we can possibly recycle to make a heater for chemicals), BNC cables and connectors, recycled loose electronics parts (although those were quite pricey). This should help us get the electronics module of our course started.

The funny thing is that the prices for us “umuzungus” or “foreigners” are largely inflated. Even if we are with Simon, the prices will be inflated for him. So when we do need to get these parts, the best thing to do is to tell Simon what he wants, and he’ll come back alone to by them….

The “Quincailleries” or hardware stores around in town and also out of town have practically all the tools that we need to build housings for experiments: screwdrivers, wrenches, light bulbs, saws, and more. The ones in town are much better stocked than the ones outside of town, some of which tend to be more of stores that sell spare household parts like lamps, tiles, and mirrors.

Afterwards, Simon met with his friend from Nyamata, and we all went out to lunch together at a Rwandan buffet. We’ve been to a few already, and the food is really tasty! There’s typically cooked bananas, cassava, sweet potatoes, fried potatoes, rice, green beans, and a small portion of meat. Simon and his friend loaded up on giant portions, which we were told was standard for a meal–otherwise, it might be considered strange or rude for the host. From their shocked expressions of my meager plate, my portion apparently fell into that category. Over lunch, we learned that yawning is sometimes considered a sign that you’re hungry. And eating tomatillas (tree tomatoes, which are these teardrop-shaped fruits with a slight sour taste) is believed by some people in Rwandan to give you blood, as in after you’ve lost blood from an injury. Sometimes, friends and family will bring tomatillas to loved ones in the hospital, in hopes of speeding their recovery.

After lunch, both Jakob and I promptly yawned on accident, eliciting laughter from the other two.

Day 15: Chemicals! And more Galileo

January 26, 2015

We finally got to check out the chemical suppliers here in town this thursday. In the morning, we tried going on our own to find AfriChem. After walking around in the upper part of downtown (this is confusing in Kigali, since the middle of downtown is on top of a hill), we managed to get some proper directions and found AfriChem halfway down the hill. They were very nice, though they wouldn’t tell us prices or availability right away – but we got to talk to the managing director, Paolo, and we will hopefully have an offer for a list of chemicals soon.

All of this took us a lot more time than anticipated, so we were in quite a hurry getting back to class. We continued taking data on the modified Galileo experiment. For this day, we were trying to have the students modify the very simplistic protocols we gave them. We talked to some extent about the issues students were having the day before – for instance, that it is very difficult to try and measure time with a stopwatch accurately if the time being measured is less than one second. The students did come up with several ideas to make more accurate measurements – using a video camera and analyze the frames, use a lower angle of the board with the floor so that the ball rolls slower or using a longer board. The only idea they decided to put into action was using a smaller angle, even though several students had figured out how to take and analyze videos on their computers. Unfortunately, this meant there was very little data that the students could use to show the results. Good lesson for next time – make sure that students aren’t wasting their time and get right to the data first.




After class, Ernest took us in to town to look at two other suppliers, Kipharma and Duphar. Kipharma mostly specializes on medicine and medical equipment, though they have a very decent supply of acids, bases and simple solvents, as well as some school supplies. They actually have multiple shops around town, but those are mostly for pharmaceuticals – only the main supply depot in downtown has more materials. Duphar, on the other hand, has a large depot that mainly serves school laboratories. This includes equipment, such as glassware, filters and even stirbars next to the chemicals for use at schools. The director of Duphar took us on a tour of their supply depot, both for chemicals and for general lab supplies – they also have physics lab equipment, such as magnets, voltmeter, ampmeters and even an electroscope.

In general, it looks like most chemicals here are inorganic salts – there are only a few organic chemicals around, so synthetic chemistry here would be pretty difficult. On the other hand, nobody is synthesizing any chemicals here, so that makes sense. It also means that supplier industry is a very different business here than in the US. Catalogs of chemicals are kept secret, lest the competition can see what is being offered and buy different items – not that there would be much demand, since it seems that the primary users of chemicals and glassware are those secondary schools with enough funding to build a science lab. Nevertheless, most standard solvents, a large variety of inorganic salts, some elements such as sulfur and bromine as well as standard glassware is available here – though some parts are almost prohibitively expensive and we will definitely try to find substitutes.

Lab space ideas, local materials, and start of Galileo experiment

January 26, 2015

During the times when we weren’t teaching on Tuesday and Wednesday of last week, we were thinking about how to renovate our lab space. The space is large, but in dire need of a new roof, possibly new walls, ventilation, lighting, and counters. We met up with Straton, the architect of the Maranyundo Girls School, whom I had met in a seminar at Tufts about two months ago. He was very kind to me at the time, and has continually be very kind to us during our time in Rwanda!

We had many questions for him about how he built up the lab space at Maranyundo and what sorts of building materials are common in Rwanda. Here are some sketches of our ideal lab space that we showed him:

Straton and QinQin at Aroma’s Cafe, looking at the sketches
Left: birds-eye view of lab space, Right: side view  

Even though the Ministry of Education requires that all lab spaces have a large number of sinks, there is a way to amend that requirement, according to Straton. We only need 3 sinks in our space, on the chemistry counter top, along with a home-made fumehood, heaters, and an eyewash. On the opposite side of the room, we will have a soldering station and a permanent computer for data analysis. Ideally, the students would take their projects to the middle of the room, where we will have ~6 big tables (2 groups each). The small room to the side can be converted into a storage room for chemicals and a dark room for experiments with light. Straton also suggested having a ~4000L water tank to supply the sinks and safety shower, which the storage room may already have.

The following day we discovered one of the best resources we’ve had so far! Christian and Andrew at the MASS design group (http://www.massdesigngroup.org/). They design and build hospitals and other structures across East Africa. Much like Straton, their goal is to use as many locally available materials as possible. For instance, they found a way to turn volcanic ash into exterior wall panels, and it’s a stylish option that many of their clients are making use of.

Testing Galileo experiment. Using the very scientific substitution of a sitting QinQin for a mass.
Students discussing the errors.

We brainstormed ways to substitute for common chemistry and physics lab materials: perhaps glass-coated ceramics for glassware, custom-made metal apparatuses for distillation equipment, glasses lenses for optics. In general, it’s very easy to get a custom-made metal structure from one of the metal-working shops, if you know exactly what you want. There are definitely interesting materials available locally (if not made locally), especially in the Quincailleries, as we’ve also discovered.

In class on Tuesday, we started introducing the students to uncertainties in measurements. After talking about the difference between statistical and systematic uncertainties, we had the students measure the volume of a cuboid (inspired by J-Lab!). Some of the main lessons were that we’re able to get beyond mm precision on a ruler, and that combining errors for something like the volume doesn’t involve just multiplying length error by width error by height error.

A happy Jakob!
An observant Jakob.

Wednesday, we started the Galileo experiment. Many of the students experienced the obvious problem–the times that they wanted to measure of the ball rolling down were far too short for them to react. Only 2 groups realized that it might be helpful to make multiple measurements, so that was still a lesson that needed to be reinforced in the students.

Creative students doing independent science projects.

February 2, 2015

We finally arrived back in Boston two days ago. After a 24-hour plane ride that started with wearing t-shirts and light pants, we were thrown into freezing cold temperatures and mounds of snow on the ground! What a shock it was for us. We’re missing Rwanda, the warm temperatures, fresh fruits, friendly handshakes, and Kepler!

Our last week in Rwanda was quite the whirlwind. In our class, we started the week of independent projects that were from the students’ own ideas. They thought up experiments like showing that 2 parallel mirrors make an infinite number of images, showing that an egg will get sucked into a bottle with a too-small opening by air pressure, measuring the dependence of a pendulum’s period on its start angle, and much more. We were very pleasantly surprised that all of the students had ideas that they wanted to test–that shows to us that they are thinking independently and are self-motivated.

Making a plan of attack for testing Archimede’s principle
QinQin talking with students who want to measure the density of air by making a hot air balloon.

Our role during the independent projects was to guide them through what they wanted to test. At the end of the week before, every group of 2 submitted a proposal for their project, including what they want to test and how they want to test it. Some projects had a large scope–measuring the boiling points of too many different kinds of liquids for instance, and we helped them make the projects smaller and more manageable.

Making a spectacular reaction with soap, milk, and food coloring!
Counting the number of images between mirrors.

Not all of the experiments worked out–as we had expected. It was partly due to equipment malfunctioning–inaccurate thermometers, not being able to buy an electronic balance because of its ridiculously high price. But those were actually good barriers for the students to deal with, since materials limitations are also very much the problems of real scientists. Other experiments didn’t work out because the students didn’t have enough time. This is something that we could stress more in our future lab class–that time is limited, and using it to your advantage is the most important lesson that a scientist can learn.

At the end of the week, every group gave a 10 minute presentation + 3 minutes questions. We had samosas and cakes to snack on, and the room quickly filled with other Kepler students. I was excited to see how excited they were to learn about their peers’ projects. They asked very critical questions and made the presenters think–and the presenters were very good at responding to the questions!

Measuring the temperature of water as it cools.

It ended up being a very fun class to teach, and it both better taught us how to interact with the Kepler students and taught the students what to expect in the course we teach next year. We’ll talk about the rest of the week’s happenings in the next post!

Looking Back

February 9, 2015

Now, one week after we’ve come back from Rwanda, we’ve had a bit of time to reflect on our experience there. First off, we’re very grateful to the MIT Public Service Center for supplying us with a fellowship to go and to the IDEAS Global Challenge for getting us a small grant for materials. It’s really wonderful that we can get funding for an idea like this from within MIT. Looking back on our time in Rwanda, we also noticed again just how great it was that we found Kepler to work with. They are an incredibly flexible organization, the students are smart and receive good training and everybody was very welcoming and helpful, far beyond what we had hoped for.

Looking Back:

What we managed to do over January:

– Get to know people at Kepler and learn about their vision, teaching methods and how our lab would fit in. The general idea is that Kepler wants to expand access to high-quality education through distance learning programs while training students to succeed locally through in-person seminars and internships. At this time, they only offer degrees in business, communication and health care management, but they are actively looking to expand. The content for all classes is currently supplied by Southern New Hampshire University and teachers mostly try to make students work through projects in groups – they are very big on flipped classroom methods here, similar to our introductory physics classes at MIT. Our lab would be another class that students could take in preparation for their degrees – and possibly jump-start the science program.

– Find teachers, staff and students who are interested in our project and will help us prepare, build, teach or take over the lab. We were not expecting so many of the staff at Kepler to buy into our project – we found two former secondary school physics teachers, Ernest Niyigena and Obed Bigirimana who were interested in a role of co-teaching our class, and got a lot of help connecting to universities and companies from Ernest and Jackson Vugayabagabo. Simon, the computer technician at Kepler, also helped us source material (especially electronics) – and since one of our proposed sets of experiments is based on electronics, we’ll be very happy to keep working with him.

– Teach a short course at Kepler on scientific methods, empiricism and error analysis. For the two weeks that we had, we managed to introduce some new ways of thinking – hopefully that will give us a good place to start next year. We also got a much better idea of what students are prepared to do and what sorts of things they already know. There are many students who specialized in science in secondary school – which means they have quite a lot of theoretical background, similar to a college freshman or sophomore in the US after taking one or two introductory level science courses. Most of these kids are really excited about science and are very enthusiastic about taking our course. However, our laboratory course will be the first exposure to hands-on science that most of them will have had – especially experiments  that are longer than one session.

– Source materials in Kigali. We’ve written a bunch about our adventures – with local hardware stores (Quincailleries), Chemical and general laboratory Suppliers and Electronics Stores. We’ve also negotiated with optical shops for lenses, jewelers for noble metal wires, talked to a few companies about where they source their materials from, discussed building materials with laboratory technicians and architects. All in all, there will definitely be enough material to make a laboratory without importing very many things personally – perhaps some programmable control elements for electronics, but no large pieces. On the other hand, very many materials are already imported, since there is a small market for laboratory supplies with the more affluent secondary schools, and those materials are correspondingly expensive. For instance a small electronic balance (0.1 g resolution) costs between 50,000 and 350,000 Rwandan francs – $ 100 to $ 500. Yeah, lab equipment in the US is expensive, too, but then add importing them to a landlocked country in the middle of Africa… and a quasi monopolistic market with little leeway for bargaining and I guess that’s what you get. And there’s no alternative market – whereas here, there are $ 8 kitchen balances down to 0.01 g on Amazon.

– Tour other institutions of higher learning. We’re really grateful to Jimmy Gasore and Jackson Vugayabagabo for getting us contacts at the college of science and technology, to Ernest Niyigena for connecting us to the college of education and to Prince Dukundane Gashongore for arranging a visit to the maker community at the integrated polytechnic regional center. These visits were very helpful for us to determine the current state of laboratory education here, the issues and problems people currently encounter as well as opening possibilities for collaboration. Labs in Rwanda are currently not oriented towards teaching people how to solve practical problems – mostly, lab curricula consist of simple, straightforward experiments to support the learning of some concept which students learn in their theoretical classes. And even at institutions that have good labs, such as the college of science and technology, the labs are often not used to the full extent – possibly because many instructors fear that instruments will break and they won’t be able to replace them. For our lab, it means that making and maintaining our own equipment is more important than we thought.

– Visit other groups in Rwanda that have an interest in practical science. These included secondary schools, such as the Maranyundo girls school, incubators for businesses, government officials and private companies. We had an especially close connection with k-lab, a start-up incubator for IT businesses that is attempting to build a maker space or fablab as well. Claudette at k-lab and Alex from the information and communication technology chamber were responsible for roughly half the connections we got to other institutions in Rwanda. Most groups were very interested in the laboratory and there are numerous opportunities for future collaboration. Since some of the students at Kepler were interning at a start-up at k-lab, this also got us thinking that it might be useful for students to think about science related start-ups.

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