It Takes a Child to Empower a Community

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Rakibou Ouro-Djobo, Chief of Nerdy Operations

August 12, 2015

It is with great joy and satisfaction that we’ve completed the second edition of our STEM summer camp in West Africa. This year, not only did we go from 30 to 150 students from 5 different schools, but also we were in the capitals of two West African countries: Bamako, Mali and Dakar, Senegal. I can’t help but feel pride in what we’ve achieved thus far, succeeding better than we had imagined possible in such a short time in our mission to empower and inspire African youth with opportunities, STEM skills, and confidence needed to reach their full potential.

It is often said in Africa that it takes a village to raise a child. At iNERDE, we believe that it takes a child to empower a village, a community, or a country, which is why our efforts in Africa are focused on children’s education, especially in STEM. Educating young African children, even if it is just a single child, has the long term impact of educating a whole village. I believe that Africa will be as tech savvy and advanced as the rest of the world if we can create awareness of STEM fields in children at an early age. Our dream at iNERDE is to see an Africa that shifts from being a consumer to a producer, and able to compete on the world stage when it comes to STEM.

During this year’s STEM summer camps, we witnessed how the community, starting with students’ parents, and expanding to include partner schools, local teachers, and volunteers were critical to the success of our program. Parents dropped and picked their children up every day, encouraging them to come to the camp. We saw children in tears because they were not able to enroll the camp this year, having completed the camp last year. We created classes mixing kids from advantaged backgrounds with kids from economically challenged environments and were delighted by the effort our local teachers and volunteers made to work with all the children to make the integration successful. We had come to inspire them but they inspired us and strengthened our belief in our partnership of shared values. We saw children abandon their social status to play, learn and work as a team. The financial support that the community volunteered was beyond anything we had anticipated. In Mali, about $2000 in donated food items was contributed from parents and members of the educational community – not wealthy people by any standard – that were used to make lunch for the children throughout the camp. In Senegal, when we found the cost of starting a program in a new country exceeded our projections and our budget, the teaching staff volunteered to take a reduction to an already modest salary because they believed so strongly in the importance of bringing iNERDE to their country. My point is one does not need to be as rich as Bill Gates to make a contribution or have a positive impact within his or her community. People of very modest means in Mali and Senegal contributed all they could. We could not have done what we did without their help.


Our goal of introducing a new way of teaching into the African educational system and new curriculum was well received. We worked with local teachers, who now are our ambassadors within our partners schools, so that they can make use of the new methods and materials they learned throughout the academic year. The children were empowered as they saw how they were part of something bigger than themselves. These children are amongst the first cohort of African children exposed to a rigorous, hands-on, project-oriented science curriculum. They were so happy!!

iNERDE is on a roll! We are looking to expand next year and years to come by adding more schools in Mali and Senegal and new countries in our program. My own dream is to bring iNERDE to my home country of Togo next year. I hope by reading this you too feel inspired to do more for your community and to do more for your global community by helping iNERDE continue building on our success, beyond expectations, of the last two years.


Très serré

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iNERDE Computer Science Teacher Michael Leventhal with his class
iNERDE Computer Science Teacher Michael Leventhal with his class

Michael Leventhal, Chief Nerdy Development Officer

I realized today what the thing is that I miss the most from my time in Africa. When I wanted to show the kids something I would tell them to come around me, close. They would crowd around me, in a compact group, pressing against me on all sides, eager to get as close as possible, to see everything. That is what I miss the most.

The most beautiful song in French is Les Feuilles Mortes … indisputable, really (Juliette Greco’s version here). One of the lines from it is Mais la vie sépare ceux qui s’aiment (but life separates those who love each other). In some of versions of the song I always hear Mais la vie sépare ceux qui se serrent (but life separates those who cling to each other). The alternate lyric makes sense and perhaps is even stronger than the first, opposing separation and clinging together. I think there are must be two versions, though I cannot dismiss that it might just be my faulty ear for French.

To love each other and to press together, though, seems to me to be the same thing. In love, bodies obey an irresistible force to press together, to touch, to embrace. Très serré, very squeezed together, it sounds so much better in French, where, somehow, s’aimer and se serrer sound like the same word even though they should be pronounced completely differently. In Africa, I taught, and the children learned, by love. They learned more by touching me than by my words (it would still be true even if my French were not so poor).

When I was a young father studying for my engineering degree, struggling with the rigors of a Berkeley education while trying also to be a good dad, I would often bring one of my daughter’s stuffed animals in my backpack when I had an exam. It was my love for my daughter that got me through this excruciatingly difficult period. Touching her stuffed animal and feeling that love would give me the strength, no matter how dead-tired I was, to get through another exam.

You can’t imagine the warmth of the Malian people, not if you come from my world where we have our personal space, our needs, our loneliness. I have never seen smiles and laughter that come so directly from the heart. Every time I was surrounded by kids, très serré, my own heart felt like it would burst, I had never been thanked for giving a gift, my gift of my knowledge and my fervent desire to give the kids something that could help them, as these children expressed their gratitude. But life has separated those who s’aiment / se serrent. I wish we could share that moment of crowding together forever.

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Interview with an iNERDE Parent

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Fatimata Diallo

August 5, 2015

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Fatimata Diallo is the mother of Binta Daff, a student in iNERDE’s Colonie de Vacances STEM this year.

Binta was nominated to attend the Colonie by her school, Castors, on the strength of her excellent grades in mathematics. In addition to math, Binta likes computers and already helps Mom with her laptop and smartphone.

Fatimata heard very positive things about the Colonie de Vacances STEM from the teachers at Castors and also from friends at L’Ecole du Progrès, iNERDE’s first partner school last year. She also knew iNERDE founder Mohamed Kanté, having gone to secondary school with him at L’Ecole du Progrès. She remembered Mohamed as an exceptional student, but, for her, the most extraordinary thing about Mohamed is that, after starting a successful career in the United States, he decided to come back to Mali to do something good for his country.

Binta is a girl full of energy, according to her mother, bright and eager to express herself in class. She has a strong drive to succeed. iNERDE has been great for her in giving a chance to develop and demonstrate her knowledge and skills. Binta’s grandmother is encouraging her to pursue a scientific career; iNERDE is wonderful for giving Binta motivation to aim in that direction. When Fatimata picks her up and asks her what she did and learned that day, Binta always has a lot to tell. She shows understanding of what she studied and is able to explain very well all that she did. Binta loves iNERDE’s hands-on activities where she gets to build things. She also particularly enjoyed the lesson in DNA extraction.

When asked if there were things that iNERDE could improve in coming years, Fatimata could only say that she is very happy and the program and looked forward to iNERDE continuing its great work in Mali next year.


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Michael Leventhal, Chief Nerdy Development Officer

August 4, 2015

Today I became a Bamako elementary school student. We divided our students into 4 new groups, each assigned to complete a STEM project, prepare a project report, practice delivering the report and actually deliver the report at the Closing Ceremony to room filled with teachers, parents, and other invitées. The projects are Wind Turbine, Solar-Powered Car, Hydrogen-Powered Intelligent Vehicle, and 3-D House. I was assigned to the Hydrogen-Powered Intelligent Vehicle. Each team lined up at the door of the auditorium, boys on the left, girls on the right. I joined the line of boys and we all walked to the classroom where we would work on our project.

The teachers divided us into three groups, each group having their own project kit. The teachers gave an introduction to the project, a definition of the intelligent car and discussion of the deficiencies of ordinary car and the comparative advantages of an intelligent car. With that bit of orientation, we begin to work on our kits.

The car is maybe a 9 inches long, with an electric motor, a tiny electronics board with a microcontroller, two small tanks which hold water and trapped hydrogen and oxygen gasses, a electrolysis/fuel cell for taking water and separating hydrogen and oxygen and powering the cars motor from ion exchange, and tubes and wires to connect everything.

The car itself was not, with instructions, too difficult to assemble. Of course, there are always the instructions that don’t work, as was the case when we were unable to inject water into the fuel cell. We spent time trying without success, but it turned out the car worked anyway. Then there are the instructions that aren’t there that are needed, like the requirement to plug the lower tubes coming of the fuel cell. Fortunately, one of the teachers was able to diagnose the problems. The “other kids” had much better dexterity than me, when they saw how inept I was at assembly they took charge of actually putting the car together. Once it was all connected, the electrolysis starting, the hydrogen and oxygen gasses being produced bubbling out their container in the tanks of water. Once we had enough gas, we connected the motor to the fuel cell and, to everyone’s amazement, the car worked, propelling itself across the table and changing direction when it hit an obstacle. It didn’t take much longer for all three teams to have their cars running.

The teachers led us through a review of the experiment, a secretary was appointed to record all relevant information for use later when composing the project report.

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I slipped for a little bit into teacher mode and talked about the organization of the project presentation. I showed a presentation I had prepared, on an unrelated subject, just to give the kids an idea of what a Powerpoint presentation could look like. We then went over the structure of their presentation: title page, summary of the project, problem they wanted to solve (what’s wrong with cars today), what would be the advantages of the intelligent car, material used in the experiment, results, analysis of what didn’t work and how it was addressed, conclusions. The project accomplishes a lot of things at once, it is the capstone of the camp. The kids learn some more science, put it into practice, describe the scientific underpinnings of their experiment, analyze, hypothesize, understand and correct errors, obtain and record results, and think about the implications of their work including social utility. They are learning how to organize and present technical information, to think in a rigorous way, to communicate their work to others, and to use a presentation tool like Powerpoint.

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We spent some more time digging into the science behind the combined electrolysis and hydrogen fuel cell. The students didn’t have much background in chemistry and it was challenging for them to get a handle even on the high level concepts. I had a bit of brainstorm to repeat the type of exercise I created for computer systems, with students performing the roles of the essential components in a little skit. One student was a water tank, holding two molecules of water, two hydrogen atoms/students and one oxygen/student holding hands to form a chemical bond. Using a jump robe as our positive and negative leads, we connected a battery/student to the hydrogen fuel cell/student and passed each water molecule across the fuel cell to perform electrolysis, dividing the molecules into two hydrogen atoms (still holding hands because they were brother and sister atoms) on one side and the oxygen atom on the other side. The hydrogen atoms also picked up a negative charge electron (I’m a computer scientist, I might have the chemistry wrong here) and the hydrogen atoms and the oxygen atom went into gas containers/students for each. We then disconnected the battery leads and used the jump robe to connect positive and negative leads to the motor/student. Two hydrogen atoms and the oxygen atom passed on either side of the fuel cell, the hydrogen atoms giving their electrons to the motor which started to turn. As the hydrogen atoms and oxygen reformed a water molecule the motor started the car/student which propelled itself, turned after hitting obstacles and continued until the motor stopped working. The other two hydrogen atoms and the oxygen passed through the fuel cell, the motor restarted, the car continued for another period.

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While their grasp of the concepts will certainly be very approximate, I think the students did get a framework to think about what was happening with the hydrogen fuel cell car. They know some very important things, like water can turn into hydrogen and oxygen gas, that there are molecules, molecules are made of atoms, and that it takes energy to break molecules apart. Materials contain potential energy and that energy can be extracted by some process. That energy can be turned into motion. The experiment also connected directly into our programming lesson where students learned about giving instructions to a computer to control direction. They could easily imagine how a chip could control the direction of the car, looking for and correctly identifying the microcontroller.

It was a lot of hard work! The teachers gave the students little breaks where we sang songs and did little dances. I recommend this practice to scientific workers everywhere, it really helped to recharge and refocus afterwards on the task at hand. Of course, I was the worst student at singing (I tried to fake the words but was quickly caught), much to the delight of my co-students. I thought I was pretty good at the dances, but for some reason my dances provoked even greater hilarity than my singing.

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Sunday Morning in Faladié

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Michael Leventhal, Chief Nerdy Development Officer

August 2, 2015

I took an early morning stroll in our district, Faladié, this Sunday morning.

We were supposed to have a late night last night; it was the wedding reception of the brother of Pusso, Cheikh. However, Sarah, my daughter, had come down with a stomach bug and as it didn’t seem to be getting better, I felt I should stay with her. Of course, it was a disappointment, especially as I had planned to wear my new bazin. But I was also happy to repair a fault that had haunted me a bit for many years by staying by Sarah’s side. When Sarah was 10, I took her with me to the Sinai Desert. We were in a kind of tour group – not the kind riding around in air-conditioned tourist buses – we slept in tents and rode in Jeeps and went off the beaten track, but we were all foreign tourists and always in the care of guides. There was a group of French who didn’t speak English; Sarah enjoyed serving as their interpreter. One night we were on the coast and some of us wanted to leave the campsite to go to a restaurant on the beach. It was late and I wanted Sarah to stay in the camp, in the care of a French family. She didn’t want me to leave her, I decided that I should not give in to her and left her, hysterically crying and protesting, with the French. In retrospect, I realized that if there is a reasonable place to have separation anxiety the middle of the Sinai desert is probably it. Only a parent can understand … mistakes like that stay in your mind forever. So I was glad, some 20 years later, to stay by my daughter’s side this time all evening long. She recovered the next day, participating in the continuing wedding party at the house and even joining a dance in her honor after the griot had sung and chanted her praises … and, after a fashion, mine (“vous n’êtes pas un clochard” – you are not a beggerly bum, Malians love to tease).

So, contrary to plan, I had an early night and got up very early in morning. I went out to buy freshly baked bread. Enjoying the coolness of the morning air, I decided to extend my excursion and took a long stroll around Faladié. I crossed the principal avenue, Rue du Gouvernor (The Governor’s Street), and walked around the tranquil residential neighborhood in that section of Faladié. Faladié could be called a middle class neighborhood, with the caveat that it can be misleading to try to compare relative economic levels of different sectors of society in Mali with a country like the United States. There are some large and fairly elaborate houses in Faladié, many of the inhabitants have professional jobs, and many, if not most households have a maid. The roads and public infrastructure, however, are poor, as elsewhere in Bamako, and the shops stock the same items sold everywhere in Bamako. It isn’t a neighborhood of chic boutiques. Space is plentiful in Mali, and basic building materials and labor is cheap so the average house is really not bad at all if one does not consider the deficits of poor infrastructure.

The first thing that struck me as I began my stroll around Faladié was the sight of maids, up and down the street, in front of the houses, sweeping. A traditional broom in Mali is a bunch of long bristles knotted together, without a handle. It is a durable and highly effective device for sweeping, but it is necessary to bend over to sweep the ground. As the brooms went whoosh, whoosh in unison I had a mental image of a film, I think it may have been Mary Poppins, where all the maids in a London district are out in the early morning, sweeping the stoops, singing and perhaps executing a dance step or two. I don’t mean to suggest that the work of a maid is so joyful … or that it is not … I just relate the association that came into my head. The residential streets in Faladié are dirt but it rained recently so it wasn’t dusty at all. There were some water puddles and mud here and there, but it wasn’t difficult to walk comfortably on the roads.

A ubiquitous kind of shop in Senegal and Mali is a small building, one might envision it as a sort of large shed, which opens fully in the front. Various products can be sold from these kiosques, it may be food, shoes, vegetables, clothing, groceries, telephone cards, pottery, and so on. On larger streets these kiosques may line the road, mixed in also with larger, more substantial commercial establishments we would call shops. In the residential parts of Faladié there are also kiosques here and there, often at intersections, but not with the same density as would be found on major roads. They are simply the local shops serving the immediate vicinity. Most of the shops were not yet open, but some of the kiosques were starting the day, with the merchants laying out their wares or cooking in front of their stall.

Houses in Mali might more properly be called “compounds”. There is typically a wall that surrounds each property, maybe 7 feet high, enclosing, in addition to the house site, a front patio, perhaps a courtyard, separate storage and cooking structures, a space where livestock may be kept and sometimes parking for an automobile. Addresses are given by the “porte” or door number, and, indeed, what one sees in walking along the streets are walls with doors in them. Many houses are two stories, so you may also see the upper level of the house. It was explained to me that houses often are expanded to add a second story when children marry so there is room for them to live with their spouses and children in the family domicile.

Bamako is very green, this part of Faladié is very calm in the early morning, there are many trees overhead, my stroll could not be more delightful. I walk past a large walled complex, a hotel with a sign proposing its air-conditioned rooms, restaurant, and swimming pool. It looks like a charming building, though probably empty since the civil conflict in Mali last year and Ebola in nearby countries decimated the tourist trade. There seem to many schools, kindergartens, and créches (nurseries) in this section of Faladié, also enclosed by walls but often with scenes of children or playful animals painted on them.

There are lizards everywhere in Bamako, sometimes very large lizards, maybe a foot long, sometimes with strange coloration like one that I saw that had a dark green body but a brilliantly white head. There are also a lot of birds. That, and livestock like chicken, goats and sheep kept for consumption and flies and mosquitoes and you have almost all the wildlife I’ve seen in Africa. Sarah and I joked that everyone will expect us to have seen lions and elephants so we thought we’d had better to the zoo in Bamako before leaving so we could dutifully report that we had seen the required African wildlife.

I don’t know how it happens, but you do often see livestock that seem to be wandering about on their own here and there on the streets. I pass three friendly dogs, playing with each other, perhaps they are also minding the sheep standing in the road.

I walk pass one house, or perhaps it is a government office building or even a caserne because there is an armed solider standing in front. One occasionally sees, in front of some of the fancy houses, someone sitting in front, presumably a guard. They usually look quite bored and one has the impression that security situation in Bamako is not that much of a problem. There was a person, described as an Islamist but possibly simply a deranged person, that shot up a bar popular with expats in Bamako last year, killing several. Despite this, it is hard to think of Bamako as a dangerous place. People here are easy, friendly. As someone obviously a foreigner, I thought I might possibly encounter some harassment in Senegal and Mali – I have experienced this in other countries – but it hasn’t been the case at all. Of course, at the market, it is caveat emptor for everyone so there I voluntarily subjected myself to the sales pitches and wiles of vendors and was certainly pitched to and fell victim to wiles, but everywhere else has been completely cool.

A housing complex, “cité des logements pour 80” housing complex for 80, consisting a several small apartment buildings, providing what we would call mixed density housing in the United States to Faladié. The cité sort of follows the walled paradigm, the buildings are surrounded by a wall, though the walls do not fully enclose the complex giving more of a feeling of openness. The is a shop in front which offers video production for marriages and baptisms. I pass a soccer pitch, a group of teenage boys are intensely engaged in an early morning game. I hear singing, loud singing, coming from maybe 2 blocks away. I walk past a mosque, silent, another block further on I see the singing is coming from a Pentacostal Church, services in English and French and Bambara. The church is already packed but more people are driving up, everyone dressed in their finest, suits, fancy African dresses. The doors are open, inside people are standing and clapping and singing loudly, joyously.

I make my way back to Rue du Gouvernor, stop at the bakery and buy two large baguettes, still warm from the oven. I noticed on other days that the saleswoman seems to have difficulty with my accent, so I hold up two fingers when I tell her I want two baguettes. I’m hungry after my walk and really want to grab a piece of baguette but force myself to wait until I get home. I find our porte, walk through the patio into the house. Everyone is up and busy cleaning the house to get ready for the wedding party. Sarah is still lying down, but she is feeling better. The dining area is inaccessible so I sit with Sarah and tear off some pieces of baguette to eat. So good. It is a good morning in Faladié.

You can get in touch with Michael by e-mail at


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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

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.