Cheesy, huh? But fun!
We used bicycle generators and installed photovoltaic panels and small wind generators, built electric cars, did community gardening and composting and urban tree planting, built composting toilets for urban apartments, and trained our students through Digital Engineering for Multi-Media Occupations through a program we called “DEMMO Productions” to become like National Geographic film-makers so they could report with a fresh eye on how humanity can solve its biggest problems.
I worked with the Office of Naval Research on STEM Robotics curricula to improve opportunities for inner city schoolkids,
and spent the past four years teaching Environmental Science to low income students at Mercy College NY, working with returning military veterans and running our service learning trips to Israel, Palestine, the Dominican Republic, Brazil and Jordan on initiatives to help refugees stay safe from disease and be resilient to disaster.
In my off time or “vacations”, I engage in what we call in our Sustainable Tourism program at USF, “Voluntourism”, travelling on my own or on National Geographic grants to places like Alaska, and Ireland, South America, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana and Turkey, and Haiti, to name a few, to share with friends around the world how to do what the French call “bricolage” – Do it yourself systems for improving what we call the “FEW Nexus” – the Food Energy Water nexus – to meet the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
But the good news is, they are actually the simplest and most effective of all the things I’ve studied and taught.
This technique is actually so simple that in my Non-profit organization, Solar CITIES, we consider the transformation of things like banana peels and orange and lemon rinds and avocado skins and pits and all that stuff the literal “ low hanging fruit” in sustainable development. And you don’t have to be a professional to do it, and yes, you can try this at home or at school.
In our Solar CITIES education curricula we work with our robotics students to outfit the digesters with Arduino mcirocontrollers and Rasberry Pi microcomputers running C and Linux, coded by the students kitted out with ds18b20 waterproof temperature probes and pH sensors and 3D printed tipping cup gas sensors designed and printed by the students… the systems can be fully automated with servos and solenoids run by apps using remote sensing or by artificial intelligence to gather data and increase efficiency. And when it comes to math, we graph all that data in Excel spreadsheets or SPSS statistical software and generate graphs. The quantitative reasoning and analysis portion of this project can bring in every possible math-science skill set. And it is meaningful, current and important. It represents real applied science desperately needed for problem solving immediately. It isn’t just a textbook exercise. As a Google Science Fair judge for the past 6 years, I can say that it makes one heck of a science fair project. There are new frontiers of science to be explored with the “food-waste-to-fuel-and-fertilizer solution in the food-energy-water nexus. That is why I , as a National Geographic Explorer and educator, devote so much of my life to it.
I answered her immediately saying that serendipitiously I had just arrived in Washington from Europe and actually had the jet lag day free to rest until a 5 pm meeting and would be happy to meet. Within 10 minutes a reply came from the vice principal of the school who had received an excited email from the student, and she invited me to come spend the day at the school. So the next day I took a bus – I always ride public transit when I can, or ride a bicycle – into the inner city and met with the students and science teachers and we hatched a plan to build a demonstration biodigester at the school. Within a few weeks they had the materials ready and I was able to get my former Egyptian student Moustafa Hussein, who also serendipitously happened to be visiting the US pursuing an internship in Washington – to spend a few days at the school sharing techniques for building the
As another example, last year , in Amish country in Lancaster Pennsylvania , 10 year old Clayton Young and his friends decided to explore homebiogas as their local science fair project entry and came home winners. Their experiment, which I replicated at my own house -- because good science must be repeatable – was to engineer a bathroom based toilet waste biodigester system for their house and prove it could be done safely, cheaply and without odor.
Fortunately, as part of a home schooling community who use each other’s homes as their school classrooms, they had very enthusiastic parents and their science supervisors. They invited me out to Pennsylvania to spend an afternoon with them getting started and then took it from there, showing that you can take an individual’s toilet wastes every day and turn it into a manageable liquid fertilizer and useful biomethane in the home, using home depot buckets as the core technology. Their research helped corroborate work that I had started in my house in Germany and other families are doing with us in New York and Pennsylvania and West Virginia, bringing the “food waste eating, fire breathing dragon” in out of the cold and into the home.
Because that is, in fact, what a home biodigester is – a domestic dragon. You may have seen the film “how to tame your dragon”? Well this is how!
We call ourselves Solar CITIES, by the way, because we believe that the best way to achieve a solar powered civilization is to use the sunlight we all throw away and that is available for free and is causing a nuisance and even killing people – food and toilet waste. Yes, food and toilet waste are fantastic forms of stored solar energy created through the process of photosynthesis and available 24 hours a day, day and night, rain or shine, and the fact that we haven’t been teaching kids to look at it that way is responsible for so much misery in the world, and we can correct that. Our students can help correct that.
Perhaps most excitingly, students who participate in such research can actually get published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, a real great resume builder for college applications. Here is Clayton, and his Mom, as co-authors in the paper I am presenting at Eciyes University in Turkey at the International Council on Alternative Fuels Conference this December.