T.H. Culhane and Scientific American Science in Action winners and Google Science Fair finalists during a Hangout in Swaziland.

In 2012, the Scientific American Science in Action award became part of Google Science Fair. Last month, one of the judges for both, T.H. Culhane, traveled to Swaziland to work with our 2012 winners as well as another finalist and more; we had a Swaziland Hangout during the visit.

Now I’m thrilled to bring to you a post submitted by all of them about their experience. Enjoy!

by T.H. Culhane, Rohit Fenn, Amit Fenn, Sakhiwe Shongwe and Bonkhe Mahlalela

T.H. Culhane:
In the summer of 2012, after the grueling days of judging were over and the awards ceremony celebrating the three Google Science Fair and Scientific American Science in Action winners and prizes had been announced, I, a returning judge for both competitions, had the privilege of sitting with a large group of the young and idealistic finalists and hatching a plan that might give wings to a hope that had been bubbling up within each of them throughout the tense but exciting weekend of presentations.

Our mission: to keep alive the mutual spirit of cooperation and comraderie that these young people had brought with them to Mountain View California from all over the world and nurture the bonds of affection and synergy that they had developed during the judging process.

Our mission was to model the truth that true science is a mutualistic interdisciplinary teamwork-reliant endeavor and that science fairs are not like sports events with winners and losers but more like conferences and symposia where colleagues get a chance to rub shoulders and light fires of new understanding by putting their heads together. How would we do that?

The consensus that emerged once the anxiety of being judged and wondering who would get the awards was gone, was that the best part of the weekend at Google had been the chance to assemble together, young and old, to share ideas and see how each other’s pet projects could fit together to make meaningful contributions to society.

Many of the youth spoke about wanting to be in a kind of superhero team of do-gooders, like the Avengers, the X-men or the Justice league. And all wanted an excuse to keep getting together, year after year.

The dream: create a summer camp for all Google Science Fair and Scientific American Science in Action finalists, and their families and friends and mentors and judges, and have it somewhere where the synergistic science could truly be put in action.

That dream became a reality this past August, launched in miniature but with great success and hope for future expansion in the tiny country of Swaziland, a landlocked country sandwiched between coastal Mozambique and the massive and diverse landmass of South Africa.

We chose Swaziland because it is the home of our first Science in Action prize winners, Sakhiwe Shongwe of Siteki and Bonkhe Mahlalela of Simunye , villages near the sleepy capital city of Manzini. Both were 14 when they started their research into improved hydroponic agriculture using waste materials to dramatically improve farmer’s yields in the poor soil of their country, and they have used the prize money to further their education and research. I was given the privilege to serve as their mentor for the last two years, but without actually being on the ground with them, improvements to their system remained theoretical rather than empirical.

Meanwhile Rohit Fenn of Bangalore, India, who had been a Google Science Fair Finalist the same year our two Swazi innovators received there accolades, along with his older brother Amit, a student of biotechnology who joined his sibling at the awards ceremony, had bonded with Sakhiwe and Bonkhe and had spent hours brainstorming how their improved DIY low-flush toilet could be integrated with the hydroponics system to create a closed cycle synergy.

What was missing from these two innovations, the input side for microbes and micro-nutrients and the output side of new plant growth for the food that feeds the input side, was the microbial transducer that turns the food wastes (whether food scraps or fecal matter) safely into fertilize.

That’s where I, as a Google Science Fair/Scientific American mentor, felt I could help put the science I do and they do in action.

My work as an Environmental Sustainability and Justice Professor at Mercy College New York, and around the world as a National Geographic Explorer through my NGO “Solar CITIES e.V.,” is all about transforming the solar energy found in the chemical bonds of plant and animal matter and organic wastes into clean renewable energy (principally bio-methane) and nitrogen rich compost tea for soil-free gardening systems.

It made sense, we decided, for the five of us to meet in Swaziland and really put our science in action by building Rohit’s toilet and the Solar CITIES biodigester and Sakhiwe and Bonkhe’s hydroponics gardens and hook them all up in the field. Our goal was to set a precedent on the ground that subsequent teams could build on in subsequent years.

So that is exactly what we did this past August after two years of planning: Rohit and Amit flew from India and I flew from Germany and we met up with Sahkiwe and Bonkhe to get the ball rolling. Because we were all coming out of pocket to make this happen, to save money so that we could devote every penny to the materials we needed to build our systems, we stayed in tents on the lawn of the Sundowners Backpacker lodge. By avoiding hotels and staying local we were able to involve all the locals, including 11-year-old Bayana, a brilliant kid whose mom works in the tool shop owned by the backpacker’s owner who was on summer vacation and said, “what you are doing is so cool, and I love science. Can I be part of your team?” His contributions and insights were among the most valuable I’ve ever experienced.

Meanwhile, the lodge owner, Sergio Almeida, and his staff, jumped in to make our entire trip a success.They enabled us to build at their lodge to turn their wastes into fuel for their kitchens and gardens, they turned their driveway into a workshop and training space for the community to manufacture the systems and then provided their truck and staff to take what we built to Sakhiwe’s grandfather’s farm to deploy our joit innovations in the field. It was true community synergy and demonstrated the power of the concept that is the Solar CITIES mission: “Connecting Community Catalysts Integrating Technologies for Industrial Ecology Solutions.”
You can see what we did here and also here:

I’m excited to continue the tradition we have started and help it “level up” through event greater participation by the growing family of Google Science Fair/Scientific American finalists. Next summer, our plan is to continue with a trip to India and then back down to Swaziland. We are all excited by the possibilities, dreaming of incorporating the student’s ideas for water purification, improved solar energy, cleaner fuels, more efficient engines and automated environmental sensors among other great ideas offered up in our science fairs. And besides helping to “save the world” we’ve learned that this kind of applied cooperative science is really fun!
But don’t take my word for it. Read what our young synergy team members have to say in their own words:

Amit Fenn:
“When Google announced that there would be a science in action award for the Google Science Fair 2012, I wasn’t quite sure what it meant. Aug 2014, 3 days and 10,000 kilometers from Bangalore my brother Rohit Fenn and I, Amit, stepped out on our first visit to the African continent. It was T.H. Culhane’s idea and his enthusiasm that brought us here with our tent and backpacks. Science seemed a far cry from my aseptic college lab. But if the google science fair taught us one thing it is that a dash of science and a whole lot of attitude can make a difference in the world we live in. In the 31 days we were in Africa we met with people from 20 nationalities heard 11 languages stayed in majestic homes and in the outdoors in our tent. All this for 7 days of a “Science in Action Camp: to explore technologies that have the potential to change the world. If anything, Science in Action is the Tower of Babel, all of us with our different tongues coming together. SIAC has been about sharing enthusiasm touching hearts and making a difference.”

Rohit Fenn:
“It had been two years since the Google Science Fair 2012, when all of us were flown to Palo Alto for a truly life changing week. A couple of us finalists were pushing for a follow-up event where all of us could meet again, share and integrate our ideas on a platform where these technologies would actually be needed and could be put to practical use.

After the meet up at Swaziland had been confirmed, all of us were thrilled about the opportunity of being able to spend a week with one of the judges: Dr.Culhane. Ever since the science fair, I have kept constant contact with him because the work he did with sustainable development was exactly the line I wanted to end up in for the long haul. He was the perfect kind of exposure that Sakhiwe. Bonkhe and I, Rohit, needed to be able to set up our projects. And where better to do it than in the small Kingdom of Swaziland, a place that was just the right size to be able to adopt these ideas on a national scale.

As soon as all of us met in the country, there was that vibe again! The excitement of innovation and the drive to make a difference in the world, just like we’d experienced at the science fair but recreated in its own flavor. Almost immediately our conversations began to gravitate toward how we were going to get around to bringing all of our minds together to create sustainable systems of agriculture, small scale energy production and waste management. All three areas the team was clearly passionate about.

By some serendipitous coincidence, the lodge we congregated at Sundowners, which was run by a group of people that were very interested in a lot of what we were doing and offered their place as a worksite for us along an array of tools we needed to work with and had all the connections to the right people.

The two sites we decided on to set up our projects on were the aforementioned lodge along with a farm situated in a rural part of Swaziland, close to Manzini.

Within a day of arriving we got our orders of water tanks and IBC’s that were the core components of the biodigester we were setting up. The mechanism for the toilet I had brought over from India and the materials for the farm were easy to locally source. The next couple of days were non-stop work but we enjoyed every minute of it. Shuttling back and forth between hardware stores and scrapyards to look for the needed parts. Part of the fun of a project like this is how little one can pre-plan. When coming to a completely new environment, I think its an important skill to have as an engineer to be able to improvise with what’s locally available.

In the case of my toilet design, what we brought from India was the piping mechanism only, everything else was open to improvisation. This was where I felt like this whole event took our projects one step higher. The basic design for the toilet mechanism was something I had two years ago, what was different here was the structure itself. What would it be made of, ceramic, steel, clay? It had to be easy and cheap to produce. On a visit to a nearby scrap yard I found the answer- rubber, from the 136 million discarded tyres every year. It would make for a perfectly lasting, comfortable, cheap and durable material to make toilets out of! So upon designing a cistern and toilet seat out of rubber that my PVC mechanism could sit into I brought back a couple of tyres and began working with them. Two days later, we had a fully functional, cheap and portable toilet that we graciously had tested by a volunteer. It was a success! I’d be happy to hand out any of the plans and designs to anybody interested.

The five biodigesters we set up as two separate units, were a success too, well only to the point that the mechanism in place for the digestion has been tested and all that was left for is the bacteria to produce enough action, which I’m sure by this time, they have.

Our final days we spent setting up the low cost hydroponic farms, again using the discarded tyres as traps to retain the moisture in the soil which was nourished by fertilizer from the biodigester!

We parted ways having accomplished more than we set out to do and thoroughly enjoyed each others conversations and company amongst the many many nights of barbecues, campfires and pool parties but damn, the game drive we did after all the work was done was the icing on top of the cake.

This whole experience has been enriching and rewarding to me personally in so many ways. Being a part of something bigger, everyone wanted to be involved and everyone wanted to help out. This has been possible only because TH Culhane and Scientific American decided to take Science in Action forward beyond a mere slogan or an award.”

T.H. Culhane:
So here is our call to action:

All of you in the Scientific American Science in Action and Google Science Fair family who want to put your ideas in practice out there in the real world are welcome to be part of our team in each year’s in field summer camp.

Together we can make science, in action, truly create a better world for all.

Join us!