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Michael Leventhal, Chief Nerdy Development Officer

August 1, 2015

Like Senegal, French is used in Mali as the primary written language, the language of instruction, the language of administration, and the common language between Malians that don’t speak the same local language. In Bamako, the local language is Bambara. Bambara speakers are the largest language group in Mali. It is the mother tongue of Pusso and Momo. Aïseta Baradji, our Director of Curriculum, and also a Malian national, is a native speaker of Soninké. She can get by with a minimum level of Bambara in Bamako but when she really wants to be understood she will speak French.

A difference between Senegal and Wolof and Mali and Bambara is that one occasionally sees Bambara written. Bambara has its own writing system, based on the latin alphabet with the addition of a few letters for sounds that cannot be approximated with latin letters. There is not much written material in Bambara, but I have seen books in that language. There is something of a movement to increase the usage of written Bambara and to use Bambara as a language of instruction in the schools. One of the founders of iNERDE, Abdramane Diabaté, attended one of the first bilingual Bambara-French schools in Mali.

I feel that there is a slight difference in the level of adoption and mastery of French between Senegal and Mali. It is more common in Bamako to encounter people with very little French. Dakar may simply be more of a crossroads. It has more of an international profile than Bamako. But I have to think there is another reason; Bambara is simply more valorized in Mali than Wolof in Senegal, as evidenced by its use in writing and instruction. In Bamako I have learned (very badly) a few words of Bambara, in Dakar I felt no motivation to do the same with Wolof.

I may be wrong, but I have sensed from some individual Malians, ambiguous feelings about the French language stemming from the history of French colonialism. As has happened in a few other Francophone countries, I think there are some here that would not be opposed to using, say, English, as a common language. Yet, French is quite entrenched here and it is very useful to give Malians a window into a larger world and a medium for communication both within the country and outside of it. At the same time, I think it is wonderful that Bambara is also promoted as it gives Malians a means of expression of their unique identity without all the cultural assumptions that will be implicit in using French language.

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Many years ago I studied Arabic in the United States with a jurist from Eriteria, Berhan AbdulKader, a skilled Arabist who had been trained in Egypt. Berhan also gave me lessons in his native language, Tigrinya, spoken in Eriteria, and Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia. I learned the Ethiopian alphabet, developed from a medieval Ethiopic language called Ge’ez. The written language of Ethiopia is the oldest in Africa and one of the oldest written languages in use today in the world. The written language has been the pride of Ethiopia and, of course, a means of transmitting knowledge from generation to generation. Some of the oldest texts from early Christianity were preserved only in old Ethiopic. Today, Ethiopia has emerged as one of the emerging economic powerhouses of Africa. In my opinion, a strong national identity fortified by appreciation and promotion of the national language is one reason for that. I see the same sort of national pride in Mali and I think the relatively high status of the native languages is both a reflection and an impetus to this.

You can get in touch with Michael directly at

Travel and Yoga

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Michael Leventhal, Chief Nerdy Development Officer

July 29, 2015

International travel is difficult. Adjusting the body’s clock to a different time zone is, by itself, difficult enough, but at the same time one is assaulted with the discomforts of the travel to get there, a different language, different ways of doing almost anything, different food, different greeting rituals, different body language and more. Culture shock. Doing even the most simple things can seem a brain buster, and that would be the case even without travel fatigue and jet lag having already frazzled your poor wits.

There are more similarities between life in the United States and life in Mali than most, not having experience of both countries, might imagine. There are also vast differences. A traveler newly arrived in Mali from a country like the United States will encounter many challenges far beyond the experience of travel between relatively similar countries.

Here is my number one travel trip: yoga. Yoga is the most powerful tool I know of for overcoming the fatigues of travel and adapting quickly to a new environment. It is very helpful for less-challenging travel and it can be a life-saver when coming to a place like Mali.

Yoga is intimately connected with my being in Mali in the first place. Last year, I had something like a mid-life crisis, an event that led to taking stock of who I had become, reevaluating what was important to me, and deciding what I really wanted to spend the rest of my life doing. I quit my job and focused my energies on my internal journey through life. I had had a yoga practice for many years but I started doing yoga once every day, sometimes twice. After 4 months I had completely transformed my body and, with it, my mind. Ultimately, the end goal of a yoga practice is mental control, calmness, strength, clarity. Some people associate this with being spiritual; I don’t object to the term but I find it imprecise. Yoga can take you to another level of perception, inner perception certainly, but I also believe it focuses external perception as well. You see more truly into yourself and outside yourself. The distant objective is to see ultimate reality but before you get to that there are many steps of increasing clarity and, even if you don’t get anywhere close to the grand prize the intermediate steps make the effort more than worthwhile.

I went to an intensive training program and became a certified yoga teacher. I never intended to pursue a career as a yoga instructor, per se, but in addition to deepening my own practice I wanted to be able to share yoga with others. I have never taught yoga in a class since becoming certified but I have shared my knowledge of yoga with many people. I also learned a great deal in training about teaching. I have made very good use of that knowledge in the Colonie de Vacances STEM.

It was in the course of yoga teacher training that I made the decision to commit myself fully to making iNERDE successful. Just as I used yoga to heal my body and stretch my mind, if not to, at least, towards, ultimate reality, iNERDE was the most logical approach for me to contribute to healing the world. In traditional yoga philosophy, a person serves best by serving their best in the capacity it was given to them to serve. I am a master technologist. With iNERDE I am applying my best skills in the place in the world where they are needed the most.

I wrote many blogs during my yoga teacher training on this journey, you can probably find them somewhere in internet-land if the subject interests you. Let me go back, now, to my travel tip.

The very best preparation I know of for a long flight is yoga. I do yoga as close to my flight time as I can. For a very long flight, I do as much yoga as I can. Of course, anything is better than nothing. If you have a few yoga poses that are very effective for you, 15 minutes just before the flight can mean the difference between a comfortable flight and arriving in shambles. I’ve done yoga in busy airport terminals, waiting for my flight. (San Francisco, always the enlightened city, has yoga rooms in its terminals.) The ideal, though, for, say 12 hours of travel, would be 2 or even 3 hours of yoga the day of flight, being physically exhausted enough when arriving to the plane so that you easily fall into a recovery sleep for most of the flight. I had the opportunity to do that on my flight from San Francisco to Paris. When I arrived Sunday morning in Paris I got off the plane with nary an ache or pain, wide-awake, spent a busy Sunday in Paris with family and friends, went to bed at a normal time in the evening, Paris time, got up the next day at 6am, took a train to Germany, gave a presentation in a business meeting, came back to Paris, and drove to Lille in the north of France that evening. That was, in fact, a long and tiring day for my first full day in Europe, but, thanks to yoga preparation, I managed it just fine.

Yoga the day before a flight is also effective, even two days before a flight will be of some help. From the physical point of view, yoga prepares the body against the stress of being in a fixed position in a confined space for a long period of time. It also prepares you against the mental stress of travel. Even being herded through a security screening can be relatively unperturbing when I’ve mentally prepared myself with yoga.

When I can, I also try to do yoga as soon as I can on arrival. I have done many years of Bikram yoga. One characteristic of Bikram yoga is that the sequence of postures is fixed. It is easy to jump into a class anywhere in the world once you are familiar with the sequence, even when the class is in a language you don’t understand. YOA, yoga on arrival, will immediately get all the kinks that might have crept into your body during the flight out, will help with adjusting to the time change, and will mentally prepare you to deal with whatever level of culture shock is going to hit you.

There aren’t any Bikram yoga studios in Bamako, Mali. Still, yoga is the perfect tool to bring to Mali to deal with travel fatigue. It is a restorative physical activity which can be done at any level of exertion in only the space needed to stand upright. I don’t have access to a gym or a pool here, I could go jogging but it wouldn’t be all that pleasant on the rough roads and possibly counter-productive with all the motorcycle and car fumes. (In Dakar I only saw two people who were obviously foreigners – one was riding a road bike, in spandex cycling clothes, dodging potholes and zig-zagging taxis on a busy road, the other, a woman jogging. Even I thought, crazy white people!)

Yoga practice has given me a very highly attuned awareness of my body. I am a speedskater and started practicing yoga to treat lower back pain, common in that sport. Three months after starting yoga the lower back pain completely disappeared and I have not have any back pain whatsoever for over ten years. I haven’t had any aches and pains in all that time, only injuries from sports which I quickly heal from with the help of yoga. So if there is something going amiss in my body I feel it right away, because my default state is to be free of any discomfort. I had observed, before I started my yoga practice, yoga practitioners talking about some problem with their body and came to the conclusion that yoga practitioners have more physical problems than people that don’t practice yoga. I later realized that these yogis talked about problems because they were unusual, that they were aware something was wrong, and were addressing it before it really became a problem.

There is a down side to having this level of awareness of one’s body. I now have almost no tolerance to alcohol. I used to enjoy wine, beer, or liquor from time to time. Alcoholic drinks have a rich history and are often part of fully appreciating a culture. So, I have always enjoyed imbibing as part of being a citizen of the world. However, now, I feel the effect of even a small quantity of alcohol right away as something that damages my physical equilibrium.

Such fine sensitivity is very helpful here in Mali, as one is exposed to many things that may overwhelm the body’s defence mechanisms. I have gotten sick several times, whether from food, water, heat, fumes, or something else. As soon as I become aware of a problem developing, which, for me, is well before I am incapacitated, I take immediate remedial action. Sometimes it is resting, or nourishment. I have also done intensive yoga to fight something off. I felt an infection starting in my lungs but successfully fought it off with two three hour sessions of yoga. Part of it is physical, yoga brings nourishment to the body at a cellular level, strengthening its ability to fight infection. Part of it is mental focus. It is well established that people with a positive attitude are healthier and live longer. Yoga is bit like being able to supercharge the effects of a positive attitude at will.

Yoga may, indeed, be a miracle, but it can’t solve every problem. Travel is still very challenging, even for super-yogis. But it is the most useful and powerful thing I bring with me on my travels. It has been the greatest possible help in making all of my travels as enjoyable and as productive as my trip to bring the iNERDE Colonie de Vacances STEM to Senegal and Mali has been.

Teaching Computer Sciences in Africa

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Michael Leventhal, Chief Nerdy Development Officer

July 29, 2015

I developed 4 hours of instructional materials in Computer Science for iNERDE’s Colonie de Vacances STEM. Four hours may not seem like much but it took me about four months to develop the material. Teaching computer science and/or programming to elementary school age children is relatively new even in the United States. I had to think carefully about how to make it work in Africa.

There are occasionally culturally specific references that don’t work with African kids; they are funny when you run across them but are more rare than one might suppose, given how much American culture has spread throughout the world. One of our our projects required the kids to bring cereal boxes from home – West Africans don’t eat cereal for breakfast and the kids had no idea what a cereal box is – despite the concerted efforts of General Mills to cerealize the world.

In computer science one African specificity is that many of the kids have limited exposure to computers, aside from the now ubiquitous smartphones. When I ask what computers can be used for one common answer is to make calls. Those that have had some access to computers generally don’t have much experience with the internet. By far, the number one internet application that kids will name is Facebook. Internet access is almost universally painfully slow so most kids never get beyond the really important stuff like updating their Facebook page. I myself gave up after waiting 10 minutes for a single page to load. Only one student out of 150 knew what Google was; internet speeds are such that surfing the web is still not feasible for most Malian internet users.

Of course, computer science is not just about the internet, though it is useful to start with some internet fluency to motivate the study. The kids sense that computers are extremely important but they have little sense of why. To me, as a computer scientist with a lot of hardware experience, the fun part is the underlying computational math, the electronics, and design of systems as well as the programming and the applications. As an instructor in computer science, I wanted to give the kids a taste of the math, science, and engineering – while keeping it fun, targeted at their age level and background but rigorous in terms of teaching basic concepts of computation they would be able to apply in other STEM fields in addition to computer science and to be able to build on.

I looked at most of the material developed in the United States for elementary school education in computer science. I took a training course offered by That material is, in my opinion, really excellent. Despite the name and the emphasis on programming, does a very good job teaching computer science fundamentals. I would have considered using some it in Africa but it currently requires high-speed internet access. is working on non-internet based version so I may be able to consider using it next year. is also working on localization, that is, allowing it to be presented in multiple languages. Quite a bit will come out in French now, but the translation is imperfect and there is still embedded English text here and there. Still, the effort is being made and iNERDE is considering working with to improve the interface for French-speaking African kids. also has “unplugged” activities for teaching computer science without using a computer. That was useful for Africa and I got some good ideas from that material.

My employer, Xilinx, works with local elementary schools, sending our engineers there on their lunch break to teach the kids about computers. I volunteered before leaving for Africa to get some experience teaching to iNERDE’s target age group. Xilinx engineers have put together material from a few sources, using MouseSquad and As a chip company, we also teach the kids about computer systems hardware and have created our own mini-course in Python. The kids seem to enjoy the hands-on introduction to computer systems hardware. I decided to also adapt this for Africa.

All iNERDE Colonie de Vacances STEM activities are hands-on and project based. Students learn the principles, build something, test it, debug it, improve it. Reverse engineering is also a frequent topic; study something, form a hypothesis of how it works, test the hypothesis, use what you learned to improve the design or build something similar. My first lesson in computer science was structured around the idea of reverse engineering, taking a computer, trying to understand all its parts, forming hypotheses about what each does, and most importantly, taking a computer apart to see how everything is connected, and physically touch and closely examine every component.

I feel there is another specificity to teaching in Africa, it is a bit of a broad generalization so I express it only as an opinion based on my limited experience and observations. I think that group activities are particularly effective here. The African cultures that I have seen strongly reinforce social bonds and solidarity, as I described in my blog about the traditional African way of eating. I find this to a very interesting and promising characteristic for STEM education in Africa. In my university studies the engineering departments were beginning to experiment with emphasizing group projects and cooperation. In the tech world, almost everything that is produced is the work product of large teams, while individual contributions are important the dynamic of the group is most often the most critical element to success. Yet, engineering students were leaving school with very little idea of how to work effectively on teams and it could take several years to fill the gap in knowledge of real world work practices before a new engineer becomes a valuable contributor. My university was attempting to address this problem and I think they were on the right track. Following the iNERDE paradigm, I had already oriented most of instructional material toward group work but as I gained experience teaching African kids I steadily increased the amount of group work until almost everything was done in groups. For example, I had a number of exercises which I had intended to have the students complete individually. However, I had some students who were very quick and would finish the exercise before other students. I gave those students responsibility to teach the other students at their table how to do the exercise. The end result was typically that all the students at the table finished by understanding the exercise much better than if each had only done their own work.

I began the computer systems lesson by asking the students what they think computers are, what computers are used for, and how computers work. In this kind of discussion there is no wrong answer but sometimes there are very interesting answers that lead to more interesting questions. In general, the students are game to make an attempt and the brainstorming was typically quite animated. I eventually steer them to the idea that a computer is a machine for processing information or data and that information may include many things like letters and numbers, words, documents, and equations, but also sounds, images, touch, and even odors and chemical reactions.

Initially, my next activity was hands-on examination of a computer but Pusso had observed that the idea of information flow was still relatively abstract. He suggested doing a kind of human simulation of the data flow in the computer. It proved to be an inspired idea. I wrote the names of the parts of the computer on sheets of paper; “I am the keyboard”, “I am the screen”, “I am the CPU”, “I am the hard disk”, “I am the fan” and so on and had students come up, take the signs, and play the role of each part. I then had three students play the role of input data, “2”, “+”, “3”. The keyboard typed out the data, the keyboard cable guided the data into the computer to the memory, the memory gave the data to the CPU which produced the results (another student) and gave the result to the memory. The memory made a copy of the data and gave it the hard disk. The memory then gave the result to graphic card, after which the display cable guided the result to the screen which showed the result to the class. During all of this activity the fan was busy fanning the students-computer to keep the system cool. The exercise introduced the names of most of the parts of the computer, gave a simplified idea of the function of each part, and conveyed the idea of data flowing through the system. It also got the students physically moving, using a bit of the idea that physical movement and sensation reinforces learning. Finally, it was fun and students happily realized that there would be nothing boring about learning computer science.

After the data movement exercise we were ready to take apart and understand a real computer. I had procured a dead computer for this exercise. The students were divided into two groups and one group came up at a time and crowded around the computer. I had a different student perform each of the dismantling operations. First, we looked at the exterior, observing in particular the exterior ports for sound coming in and out, the keyboard, the display, and the ethernet cable, to verify, indeed, that different types of information does indeed come into and out of a computer via the ports. We also looked at the power plug and heat vents as discussion of energy consumption was also an important part of the lesson. A student removed the cover. I asked the students to guess what the different parts of the computer were. The students removed parts, one by one, passed them around and I discussed the function of each part.

Having two groups, I had each group do a little work and then go back to their desk while the other group was at the computer. The group at their desks worked on a paper exercise where they needed to link the name of each part of the computer to its image and the description of the function of each part of the computer to its image. This gave immediate reinforcement to what they had learned actually working on the computer. I would put back the part or parts just removed by the preceding group for the group at the table and repeat the exercise.

Energy is an important topic in the iNERDE curriculum. I strongly emphasized that a computer is a system that needs electricity throughout to function and spent a lot of time discussing the conversion of electric energy to heat and the need to remove heat from a computational system. We looked at the power supply, observing that many wires came out of it, distributing power throughout the system. As a chip guy I have spent much more time thinking about heat sinks than most people that work with computers but despite being maybe a little obscure I felt it was a good topic for the lesson. First of all, it is the most interesting looking thing you see when you take apart a computer, so it is hard to ignore, and you need to remove it to have a look at the CPU. We carefully examined the heat sink and I drew it on the board showing how the heat from the CPU is transmitted into the heat sink and rises in the fins by conduction and that the fan, by sucking air through the fins, removes the heat. This discussion was good for me in that I will never forget the relatively uncommon French word for fins, ailettes. I also introduced the possibly non-intuitive notion that abstract processes like calculation (or thought) require energy because the CPU consumes a lot of electricity, producing heat, requiring strange things like heat sinks to cool the chip. The kids seemed to readily associate heat generation by the CPU with their brain heating up when they were trying to solve a difficult math problem.

We took out the motherboard, saw how the external ports we had seen in the back of the computer actually were attached directly to motherboard to get data to the memory and CPU, just as we had done in our human computer simulation. I flipped the motherboard over and we could see the wires going to memory and from memory to the CPU.

Also being a chip guy, I wanted to give the kids some notion of what a chip is to demystify it, at least a little bit. I prepared a sheet with images of a chip and its pins attached to a motherboard, a magnified image of a silicon die, a schematic of a transistor, and a picture of silicon wafer. To give them a little bit of an idea of scale I told them that there were more transistors in some computer chips than there are people in Africa. I did not include this information in the review material and I really only meant to give some notions, but all in all, I’m not sure this little discussion was useful. I actually have had the idea for many years that it could be valuable to teach children some basics of circuits; I actually had this idea first in my university class as I found it so fascinating that circuit design can be highly visual, circuit schematics are simple, beautiful and express ideas with astonishing economy. Perhaps I’ll experiment with this idea some day in the iNERDE curriculum. Certainly, it would make more sense to introduce silicon if one were to actually dive into it and take the time to actually explain what a transistor is.

Another topic I touched lightly on was networking. I wanted to explain that computers could be connected together and that information between computers was actually exchanged by physically connecting them with cables and that millions of computers are physically connected together to form the internet. I don’t think I had enough time to elucidate this concept sufficiently and the impact, in any case, would be less significant on my students with their limited internet experience. Given that most of their access to computation is on smartphones, it also necessitated that I add some explanation of wireless networking. One of the other iNERDE projects is construction of a simple radio so I felt I could tie in wireless networking to that. However, as with the material on chips, I think it was a little ambitious to also pack in this material.

The last exercise was back to hands-on and was a good conclusion to the lesson. We examined the internals of a laptop and a smartphone. We saw how the laptop was smaller and much more compact than the desktop computer, and also could run on a battery, but still had most of the same components of the larger computer. We also saw that that the smartphone had a very small motherboard, with a CPU, a very large, relative to everything else, battery, a camera with a tiny lens, and a fairly large 3G chip. The previous discussion of wireless networking helped a bit; when one student asked how the a smartphone made calls I pointed to an antennae cable and the 3G chip and explained how it worked like the radio, receiving a signal and converting that into sound in the 3G chip.

I began the next lesson in computer science with a review of the first lesson and was extremely pleased with the very high rate of retention that the students demonstrated. They actually knew more about computer systems hardware at 10 years of age, and living in countries with limited access to computers and the internet, than I knew when I entered Berkeley as a freshman in electrical engineering and computer science.

Week 3 in Dakar – All Good Things Must Come to an End

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Farmata, Empowerment Agent in Dakar

July 25, 2015

As the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. We have reached our last week of activities at the Dakar camp.

This week we were joined by a lovely lady, Aiseta Baradji who is the Director of Nerdy Curriculum at iNERDE. She came in and integrated with the kids right away.

We started the week off with another round of jeopardy. I was really proud of the kids during jeopardy because contrarily to the first time, they were really into it and had answered most of the questions correctly. It’s safe to say that they were following in class. We had a surprise visits on that same day. We had two young men who invented a device called E-Control. They came in to talk about their device and in the process they inspired the kids to become better versions of them and to grow up and become a change in the world. By the end of their visit, the kids were sad to see them go and tried to continue their conversations with them during the break.

The next day, was a fascinating day for the kids. We taught them the importance of conserving clean water and to appreciate it because many people don’t have access to clean water. We taught them to filter dirty water. A lot of the kids were skeptical when we showed them how to make a filter. They didn’t believe that the filter they were about to make could turn dirty water cleaner. When they had their filter in place and ready, we provided them with dirty water so that they can start the process of filtration. When they saw the first clean drop of water, they exclaimed “Madame, ca marche.” (Miss, it works!). Their faces lit up and they were so excited. The next activity which was molecular science got them as excited as well. I popped a balloon in class using vinegar and baking soda. This was a fun way to teach them about chemical reactions and atoms.

On Wednesday, we did a small round of jeopardy to test their knowledge on what they had learned the previous day. It was a great success. We helped the kids work on their projects by introducing them to PowerPoint. They will use PowerPoint to help them present their projects.

Thursday was field trip day. We took the kids to ANACIM (Agence Nationale d’Avation Civile et de la Meterologie). ANACIM is a weather control station situated at the airport. The kids were very fascinated and they learned aspects of the weather that they never knew. They saw a balloon filled with hydrogen gas released into the air. The balloon serves as a recording device. It tells the meteorologists everything that is happening in the space, from temperature to the speed of wind and also the level of humidity. We were also given a presentation on the climate change and the greenhouse effect. Our last stop was at the newsroom where we met the weatherman of the news channel RTS1. The kids were given the opportunity to present the weather forecast to see how it gets done before it is broadcasted on TV. At the end of the visit, some kids told me that they wanted to do the visit again. This made me really proud because we were able to bring the kids to a place where not only will they learn a lot, but also have fun in the process. On our way back to school, we stopped by the airport terminal to meet Monique Diaw, one of our student’s mothers. She is the Delta Airlines flight manager here in Dakar. She explained her role and how she got to be a flight manager. She gave each of us chocolate and a Delta Airlines pin. In all, we had a great day.

On Friday, we spent the whole day working on the projects and helping the kids with their PowerPoint presentations. All the groups have assembled their projects and some just need to add in the finishing touches.

We had a fantastic week and I’m proud to say that the camp had a huge impact on the kids. Hopefully we will be able to impact more and more kids in the coming years.

Public School, Private School

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Michael Leventhal, Chief Nerdy Development Officer

July 27, 2015

This year the iNERDE Colonie de Vacances STEM in Mali has students from four schools in Bamako, three private and one public. Last year we only had students from one private school.

The other day we were interviewed by a local television station. The reporter was asking some tough questions; actually, I quite admired the penetration of her questions and the diligence with which she dug into her story. She asked where our kids came from, we responded that they were selected by our partners school and proceeded to name them. After hearing the first three, private schools, she cut in, “Rich kids. Why don’t you take kids from public schools?” We explained that, first of all, we had one public school, that the program was just in its second year and that we planned to increase our public school participation as time goes on. That we had started with the one school we had a personal connection to (Pusso’s alma mater, L’Ecole du Progès), and added the schools that had asked to participate this year, including one public school.

It was a reasonable answer but I think the whole issue is more complex. iNERDE has a strong commitment to opportunity for Malians from all walks of life. Having myself come from a working class background I’m particularly passionate about reaching those kids that haven’t had opportunity handed to them. However, our primary mission is not to directly address economic inequality in the countries we operate in, it is to contribute an educational approach and curriculum that will enable Africans to fully participate in the world economy and to solve problems requiring innovative thinking and technology in their countries. I have observed in Senegal and in Mali that kids here are not at the same level as kids in the high-tech countries. While we want to enable individual opportunity and empowerment for as many kids as possible, we also want to help get some number of kids to the level where they can compete at the highest international standard – with, one day, South Korea, Germany, the United States, or China. We may be crazy – but we aren’t – we don’t accept a world divided into rich countries, countries of opportunity, and poor countries, countries devoid of opportunity. We don’t see any immutable reason for a world like that. We certainly don’t see a shortage of talent, energy, intelligence and creativity in Africa.

One not familiar with Senegal and Mali might make mistaken assumptions what “rich” means in Mali. Income levels are somewhere around 50 times lower than the United States. OK, but isn’t the cost of living correspondingly lower? Yes and no. Imported products cost, in absolute terms, the same or more in Mali than in most other parts of the world due to transportation, size of the market, and costs associated with poor infrastructure. Cars, refrigerators, plumbing fixtures, computers, tools. Cars are a necessity for some Malians; a cheap car may cost the equivalent of 10 years salary for the average worker. Our rich “kids” have less material resources than I had growing up working class in Newark, New Jersey. Despite enjoying relative prosperity in their own country, by the standards of the high-tech countries, they will be trying to compete at an international level despite a tremendous deficiency of resources.

It may be, in the beginning, that iNERDE will have the most society-wide impact working with kids that have access to resources that will allow them to build on what they learn in the Colonie de Vacances. We aren’t making any assumptions about what adequate resources are; we already have kids from families with very little that have demonstrated very strong perseverance. We need very strong commitment from the partner schools and from the parents, even if material resources are lacking, for the kids to be able to apply that perseverance. Badalabougou, our public school in Mali, demonstrated that commitment, as did all the Badalabougou parents that sent their kids to the Colonie de Vacances. We are working hard to bring other public schools, with the same commitment, on board next year.

Finding Sarah, NYC-Bamako Girl

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Michael Leventhal, Chief Nerdy Development Officer

July 27, 2015

My daughter, Sarah Brooks, is the Educational Coordinator for the Colonie de Vacances STEM in Mali this summer. As the teacher of Computer Science, I have had the extraordinary joy of working with my daughter professionally the last two weeks of the Colonie de Vacances.

Sarah is living my dream of adolescence. I grew up in New Jersey and as a budding intellectual in my teens I dreamed of seeking fame and fortune one day in the Big Apple. I came out to California to go to Deep Springs College and Berkeley and have, with the exception of some years spent in Europe, Boston, and Idaho, found whatever measure of fame and fortune was to be my lot there. Sarah grew up in San Francisco and wanted to go to school in the east. She spent her first winters in Ithaca, New York at Ithaca College, a cold and snowy place. After completing her degree she decided she was going to make it in the Big Apple and she has been living my dream ever since.

Sarah has the toughest job in New York City. I know that is a big claim, but I make with total confidence in its veracity. She is a public school teacher, specializing in special needs kids. She has worked with children with Downs’ Syndrome and with autism but her current class is categorized as emotionally disabled, ED in teacher lingo. These are kids that have normal intelligence but have suffered severe traumatic events in their lives and have extreme behavioral problems such as violent outbursts. Sarah’s school is the last stop in the public school system before institutionalization. She’s, quite possibly, their last chance to have a future which will include integration into society, a job, and a good quality of life.

After a mere two weeks of being a classroom teacher I’ll be more than happy to go back to working 12 hour days in Silicon Valley, grateful to have, by comparison to teaching, such a low-stress, easy job. And that’s teaching eager students who are there during summer vacation because they want to learn more, who shake my hand at the beginning of the day and say “Bonjour, monsieur”, who raise their hands and are dying to be called on, and who stand up by the side of their desks when they give an answer. The stories Sarah has told me about the violent outbursts of her students, events which occur on a daily basis, are frightening, difficult to believe, and even difficult to hear. The damage that has been done to these young children is heartbreaking.

Though early in her career, Sarah is already a highly regarded, recognized, awarded teacher known for her ability to produce miracles in her classroom. When iNERDE made the decision to increase the size of our Mali campus by 4X and to hire and train a teaching staff composed of Malian teachers and Empowerment Agents that would be unfamiliar with the iNERDE curriculum we recognized that we would need an Educational Coordinator. The Educational Coordinator serves, above all, as a resource for the teachers, helping to familiarize them with iNERDE’s hands-on pedagogical style and with our STEM curriculum. The Educational Coordinator is basically responsible for putting the concept of iNERDE into execution, dealing with the many, many glitches that are encountered along the way, resolving them, and keeping the teaching staff on course. This year we brought a foreigner to Mali for this job because we didn’t have the possibility to train a Malian far enough in advance; in future years this will very likely be a position held by a local educator.

I knew Sarah was the perfect candidate for the job given her experience. I passed on her resume and recused myself from the selection process. In addition to her teaching experience Sarah speaks French fluently having received a bilingual, French-English education and she has prior experience studying and working in Africa (Kenya). My colleagues agreed that she was, indeed, the perfect candidate and she was invited to join iNERDE.

When I arrived in Bamako, Sarah had already been there more than three weeks and had become as much a Bamako girl as she is a New York City girl. In addition to the 120 kids and 12 teachers, I met a lot of people, extended family, neighbors, friends, friends of friends, school administrators, journalists, staff, and on and on. I’m not at all familiar with Malian names, I generally catch the first syllable and one or two syllables at random after that. Sarah had done an impressive job of getting to know a lot of people and, most importantly, remembering everyone’s name. She’s my who ‘s who cheat sheet. More importantly, she has gotten to know all of the teachers very well and was able to get me quickly integrated into the teaching team in each class so that we could work together to deliver the computer science lessons. During the day I don’t see Sarah much, she is always dashing about somewhere on the campus, helping a teacher, filling in for someone, solving an organizational problem. She’s adapted very well to working in Mali, understanding and respecting the way of doing things here, and contributing very positively to the work environment. The Colonie de Vacances is running and running well, the glitches nothing but glitches that are quickly solved. A lot of people are responsible for making that happen but Sarah plays no small part in it.

Sarah likes to walk around our neighborhood, Faladié, in the evening. Taking a stroll isn’t very much practiced here, it isn’t that great an idea in some respects because there are few sidewalks and a lot of crazy motorcycle traffic on the roads. Still, it’s a New York City thing, perhaps, so Sarah is happy to have her father here to stroll with. We’ve taken to speaking French together much of the time, even when we are alone together. It is remarkable, strolling in Faladié with my daughter, talking in French about the Colonie, our work together, iNERDE, the vision we share for what we hope to accomplish in Mali, we talk about the kids, of course, our favorite subject, how so many of the kids here inspire us. May every father be as proud as I am of the amazing, beautiful, brilliant, compassionate, capable, courageous woman my daughter has become.

Eating the African Way

posted in: Blog, CV STEM 2015 | 0

Michael Leventhal, Chief Nerdy Development Officer

July 27, 2015

As a generality, it is quickly obvious to the visitor that extended family relations and community solidarity are a very central part of African culture. Eating from a common platter is one way in which this solidarity is expressed. It may be one of more unfamiliar things one will see in Africa but it also one of the most beautiful things one can experience here.

iNERDE has a team of cooks in Mali. They start cooking at 4 in the morning and each day at 12:30 they bring enormous bowls of food, lunch for the students and the staff. The food is dished out onto large platters while carpets are laid out in the auditorium. The students line up to wash their hands while the platters of food are brought into the auditorium and put in the middle of the carpets. The students sit on the carpets, one for each team, around the platter, and eat their lunch together. The staff sits together at tables in another part of the Parlement des Enfants and also shares their lunch.

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Both the student teams and the teaching teams strengthen their bonds of solidarity during the communal meal. One feels in each of the classes just how strong those bonds are. Yes, people are people and one has their little conflicts from time to time, but there always a bond that is there, much stronger than any conflict. That is why, when there are conflicts, they pass rapidly and are just as quickly forgotten.

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I work in Silicon Valley and while the “Valley” produces many wonders I often feel that most of what is done is there is not done with the intention to produce social good. The intention, mostly, is to make money. Obviously, a successful formula, but one that leaves me, personally, feeling unfulfilled. I think there is a drive in us toward social solidarity that Africans express vividly and Americans may sometimes suppress. It is not for me to decide, but I have a hope that as Africans take a larger leadership role in the world, as they advance in technology and wealth creation, that they also teach the world their culture and expression of solidarity. It is wonderful to share a platter of food with your brothers and sisters, everyone should have the chance to experience it.

Just Kids

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Michael Leventhal, Chief Nerdy Development Officer

July 26, 2015

My daughter arrived in Africa two weeks before me for the start of the Colonie de Vacances in Mali. I asked in a text what the kids were like. We both, somehow, had the idea that African education would be more formal than in the U.S., and the kids more polite. After a few days in Bamako my daughter texted back to me, “They’re kids, kids like anywhere. At first, they were perhaps a little unsure about me. They were confused that I spoke French but wasn’t from France. But once they got comfortable with me, they became … just kids.”

In my opinion, in fact, the students in the Colonie de Vacances are more polite than kids in the U.S. would be. They certainly can get excited, they certainly can get wild, they absolutely love to play, but, all in all, they are pretty disciplined in the class. They say “Bonjour” to the teacher and often shake hands, they raise their hands, always eager to be called on, they stand up when they giving a response, they are studious, work hard, and obviously want to be successful in school. I am honestly extremely impressed by the quality and earnestness of our students and I think they would compare favorably with students in any country in the world.

Having now given 4 classroom hours in computer science instruction I can say that many don’t have much background in this area, with some exceptions, much less than I have seen in the United States. That is not surprising, of course – that is part of the reason iNERDE is here. I do want to write about the exceptions. I have adapted my material to each class, to find the right starting point for each of them and to give them as much as they can absorb but not frustrate them by giving them more than they can master in the short time I have to work with them. I want every student to leave the Colonie de Vacances feeling empowered, having learned something new about computers and successfully put it into practice. For those students that already have a high level or can go fast I have more advanced material. I have students that have shown very high ability, one in Senegal grasped sophisticated concepts in Computer Science with ease. I believe that young person could be a Professor of Computer Science at MIT or start the next Google one day. I want to point out that if there are few people from Africa in such positions today it is not because there is any lack of talent there.

Still, the average mastery of the background concepts needed for Computer Science, at this age, is already lower than it is in the United States. I was in the same situation as my Colonie de Vacances students at the same age. I spent my early years in Newark, New Jersey, growing up in a working class community. I was a smart kid and was at the top of my class in elementary school. My father, thanks to a union job, was eventually able to earn enough to move his family to a suburb, Livingston, New Jersey. Although we lived in the most modest part of town, Livingston is actually a wealthy community and the children I went to school with were mostly from the upper middle class. My remaining years of elementary school, from the third grade on, were miserable. I went from being a top student straight to last in the class. I was already so far behind compared to my classmates that in the remaining three years I could not catch up to them. I began to stutter and to wet my pants. In the fourth grade we had a reading program where the students measured their own progress, reading all the material on one level, taking a self-test, and advancing to the next level only when they had a good result. I wanted to catch up and I cheated, peeking at the answers on the self-test so I could give the right answers and advance. One of the other students saw me do this and reported it to the teacher. I don’t have to tell how I felt, you see that after so many years I still remember this.

I did not feel liked by my teachers, but there was a substitute teacher for a few days in the sixth grade that took to me. He spent time speaking with me, he didn’t make any assumptions about my capabilities and, somehow, that one teacher said things which restored all my lost confidence. When I moved to Junior High School the next year everything changed for me. I was reevaluated and, all of sudden, I was a top student again. I was tracked for the next year into the high achievement program, went in the AP program in High School, won a full scholarship to Deep Springs College and went on to earn a degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at U.C. Berkeley.

By international standards, our Colonie de Vacances students are already behind in subjects which are critical for economic opportunity in the modern world. In our global world, those international standards will determine their access to opportunity. For our 4th and 5th graders it is not too late, but it will be hard work to catch up. iNERDE is here to help give as many kids as possible a shot, and we are working with their teachers to give them an idea of what their kids will need. It will also be hard work for the teachers but they understand what is stake and all of them have expressed their determination to do everything they can.

The kids, they are just kids, but they do have the material to succeed, discipline and determination, curiosity, intelligence, and a strong desire to succeed. My most earnest hope here is that I will do what that substitute teacher did for me, and give the educators working with iNERDE the tools to do the same with many more students.

“Ce que vous avez fait, c’est formidable”

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Michael Leventhal, Chief Nerdy Development Officer

July 26, 2015

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“Ce que vous avez fait, c’est formidable” (It is wonderful what you have done). Perhaps the most gratifying thing anyone has ever told me. Samba Cissé, a program director at the Parlement des Enfants told me this after my class in Computer Systems. He said he wanted to be able to deliver the same lesson to children at the Parlement throughout the year. I gave him a copy of my lesson plan, it contains everything Semba will need to know to accomplish this.

I felt this was worthy of a blog entry, not because I am gloating over praise. Our entire iNERDE team worked to make this happen. What I want to say is that is exactly what we came for, exactly what we hoped to do. We aimed this year to completely integrate into the local school system, using the dedicated and excellent educators here in Mali, to have a long term effect on education. Coming from a part of the world steeped in technology, with a vast array of resources, we aimed to share experience that Malians don’t have yet and that will be useful to them in giving their children access to opportunity.

Another objective of iNERDE that has not progressed as far yet is our objective to create partnerships between schools in Mali and institutions like the Parlement des Enfants and mentors in the countries with high levels of STEM development. The seeds have been sown in Mali. Our next step is to build bridges between committed educators like Mr. Cissé and partners that will help us nurture these seeds and tend them until they blossom.

Four Classes Make a Big School

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Michael Leventhal, Chief Nerdy Development Officer

July 25, 2015

I have taught my first series of lessons on computer systems to each of our four classes. Four classes! Last year iNERDE had one class of 30 from L’Ecole du Progrès – this year we have students from four different schools: Ecoles du Progrès, Castors, la Paix and Badalabougou (the schools of Progress, Beavers, Peace, and the district Badalabougou). 120 students. We decided to mix the kids up, forming four class teams with representation from each school. The teams are the Avengers, the Defenders, the Fantastic 4, and the X-Men; comic books are appreciated by kids everywhere in the world! Each team has its own classroom. Over two days I totted my five computers, handouts, and screwdrivers over our campus to deliver the lessons to each team.

iNERDE’s Colonie de Vacances STEM is housed in the Parlement des Enfants (the Parliament of Children), a large facility with multiple classrooms, a computer lab, a play yard, a playground, offices, meeting rooms, and even a little shop across the play yard that sells ice cream cones. The Parlement des Enfants was initially funded by the Malian government to house activities like the Colonie de Vacances and it is perfect for iNERDE’s activities. It is really like a minature Parliament building, Malian style, with everything a center for learning and play requires.

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It is amazing to me to see that iNERDE, in only our second year, has filled the Parlement des Enfants with eager students, learning DNA extraction, civil engineering, computer science, and many other STEM subjects. Beautiful boys and girls, eager to learn, supported by families completely dedicated to the education of their children.

Of course, I wanted to give everything I had to the kids, and I did. I don’t think I have ever been so exhausted as I was at the end of day. But it went well, very well. I began by explaining to the children that it might be hard at first to understand my accent in French, but that technology is international, each country has its own accent but people from all countries work together and make an effort to understand each other. The local teachers helped in the beginning, translating my version of the French language into French that the children could understand, but as each class progressed, the children started to understand me with little difficulty, the teachers repeated less and less of what I said, and the students responded directly to my questions and I responded directly to their responses and questions. We divided into groups and as each group was called up to work on discussing and dismantling computers, they came running up eagerly to the work table, crowding tightly around, eager to see everything.

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I know that my efforts this summer will change the understanding, world view, and even the path of life of many of our kids, maybe even all of our kids in some meaningful way. And my course was just one of many subjects. And it all worked, I was so afraid we could not pull it off, to increase in size by 5X in one year (there is one more class in Senegal), I did not see how we could manage an entire campus full of kids. But it is working, there are teachers, classes, activities every day, it is relatively orderly, and the students are eager, having fun and expanding their minds.

We did good. And the kids, even better.