In 2017 and 2018, Ad Astra will partner with Ösel Bangladesh - founded by explorer and educator Wasfia Nazreen - to operate an Academy in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. We worked with a class of girls, many of whom walk over an hour every day just to attend classes. Given these hardships, as well as the institutionalized marginalization of female students, there is an enormous repository of talent and energy that is going untapped. With a spark of inspiration, we hope to nurture these characteristics and position the students for future success.
Ad Astra Bangladesh, Day by Day
Southeastern Bangladesh is defined by water: ancient rivers built and carved its lush hills, a dense network of rivers ebb and flow with seasonal rains, and the Indian Ocean laps at the sandy shore. And yet, most young people in the area - particularly girls in rural communities whose education is often compromised by financial challenges - lack the tools or background to appreciate the natural processes at work and fully recognize how they may influence daily life.
As a team of scientists and educators, we're working in partnership with the Osel Foundation and National Geographic Education with a class of girls at a school near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Over the course of several months (2017-2018), the Ad Astra Academy curriculum shares the excitement of scientific discovery and provides the tools for a future of intellectual independence and educational advancement.
It starts with the fundamental human need to explore, a drive we often don't realize we possess. We will take the students on field trips to take advantage of this instinct and understand the natural phenomena behind the regional landscape. Equipped with the power of the scientific method, the girls will then translate their knowledge to Mars and request never-before-seen, high-resolution images of the Red Planet from a NASA spacecraft. In the process, we hope to empower our students with the confidence to create new knowledge and provide a spark of inspiration to light a fire of curiosity.
What will the girls discover, from the waters of local rivers to the ice caps of Mars? What will they teach us? And how will we all grow in the process? Follow along for updates to find out!
Our first week of classes began by meeting the 20 girls who would be participating in the Ad Astra / Osel Foundation curriculum over the next several months. As our crew of scientists, teachers, and translators entered the classroom, it was clear that this would be a teaching experience unlike any other: where were the distracted troublemakers, the disruptive pranksters, the vacant stares of boredom? Instead of these classroom staples, we found bright eyes and open notebooks, pencils at the ready.
While this quiet obedience would cause fits of jealousy among most teachers - our students were no doubt the best-behaved teenagers we'd ever met - it masks an underlying problem. The standard educational experience in Bangladesh - as in most places around the world - is centered on memorization and repetition rather than understanding and questioning. We quickly found that a fear of being wrong, or even of being different, eclipsed individual interests. A synchronized repetition of the eight planets was no problem, but when asked which planet they most wanted to visit, or if they thought any might host aliens, we were greeted with quiet giggles and averted gazes.
It was our goal to introduce a different way of thinking - one where questions are valued more than answers and individuality is celebrated. Exploration is the perfect tool for this task: when swept up by the natural urge to climb the next hill or peer around the next rock, we use our senses to learn new things, unwittingly becoming scientists in the process. It’s an addicting, empowering feeling, and one we hope to share with our seemingly timid students.
The first order of business was to unveil the power of the scientific method – an engine of discovery powered by questions. We used a simple experiment testing our reaction times based on sight, touch, and hearing: through peels of laughter and furrowed brows, sight came out on top, and the cycle of questions, hypotheses, experiments, observations, and analyses became real.
And so, equipped with the tools to turn exploration into knowledge, we ventured out to the hills, rivers, and beaches of Cox’s Bazar…
We got to the school in the first day, the girls received us with a corridor of flowers. The power was not working, so before we could start the day the handymen of the school came to fix it. Some of the girls were excited and taking pictures of us while we set the equipment, while the handymen, clothed in traditional muslim garments, got the power working in also traditional methods. Finally they got it working and we could start.
The teaching went mostly smooth. We did not want the kids to think that we came here to their country to teach them science because they cannot do it themselves. So, we started with an introduction to the scientists from Bangladesh and bengali scientists in general. Satyendra Bose and Meghnad Saha are two of the greatest exponents of bengali scientists. Their achievements are very hard to teach at grade school level, and that was the problem, going to physics of atoms and all of that for girls who, we came to know later, didn't even know yet that the Sun was a star.
The school founder showed up at the school to greet us. He had a heart attack and Wasfia says he recovered specially fot this program. If only it was that easy. Talking to him, he gives us a bit more of background on the school mission and difficulties. Most of the girls come from a marginalized part of society, they need aid even to get uniforms. Sometimes the families don’t even send their girls to school on their own, and he has to insist with the families to get them to attend the lessons. He started the school 20 years ago under the shade of a mango tree. For three years he operated under that mango tree, when finally he could upgrade to a bamboo shack. From one shack to two, to three, then word got around, and he finally built the school in an area that was originally a pond in a rice field.
He’s apologetic that it’s hard to find specialists that can guide the students, and lack of high-tech material and facilities. A common utterance from him is the bengali word for "incredible", referring to our presence, saying how grateful he is that we came to his school. He stresses that all of them have dreams, and he feels it's their duty to give them the opportunity to dream. He reiterates the challenges they face: lack of leadership, lack of teachers, poverty (some of the girls don’t even get three meals a day), juvenile marriage. It's frequent that families will simply pull the girls from school to get them married, and there's nothing he can do when that happens. In his words, it’s been a war for the past 20 years to keep this school going. One of the success he says, is that through the years, the school got two hundred girls of these otherwise "forgotten girls", as he calls them, into "government schools" with scholarships.
We head back to Cox's Bazar at the end of the day feeling the sheer magnitude of the challenge and the atlantic weight on his shoulders.
On the morning of December 19th, the students, a supervisor from the Dipshikha school, and our entire team set off for an excursion to Cox’s Bazar, world renowned as one of the longest beaches on the planet. Many of the girls – proud as they were of this superlative distinction – had never seen this patch of coastline, or the raging waves and expansive sands that define it. Quite naturally, everyone was very excited, arriving an hour before their set departure times.
We started the day with a meditation session by the beach, where the girls were shown the art of mindfulness and led through breathing exercises. As we began to review the importance of journaling and observation during exploration, we were pleasantly surprised to see several students already taking notes on what they had observed on the short walk from the road to the beach. A number of the girls expressed how meditation helped them balance some of the inner turmoil, and candidly shared new finding from analyzing their thoughts.
Once in this reflective, observational mindset, we set up two stations: one by a nearby waterfall and one along the beach. At the waterfall, they got an up-close lesson on erosion and the important role that trees play in holding hillsides together. On the beach, they watched as tide pools and outflow channels made ripples, carved sinuous curves through the sand, and shaped the surface in ever-changing ways. It was Mars in miniature: by sketching the small landforms and comparing them to martian features, they were well-prepared to develop new hypotheses about past water on the Red Planet.
During lunch, we noticed the litter strewn across part of the beach and discussed the importance of collecting trash to keep our own environments healthy. After finishing their food, the girls collectively gathered all the packaging and tracked down a (rare) trashcan.
In the afternoon, we set off for a hike into the lush hills across that tower above the shoreline. Through a field, across a small stream, and up a steep dirt path, we continued our observations and collected samples for microscopic analysis later in the week. Even as the scorching sun weighed the adults down, the girls were fearlessly chasing one finding after another.
After a full day of exploring, observing, and hiking, the girls hopped on the bus to head home, reluctant to say farewell to their natural playground for the day. The sparkles in their eyes as they said goodbye rekindled a hope amongst all of us that, perhaps, these were the sparks of lifelong inspiration we were wishing to create…
In the second day we took the girls on our excursion trip. We took them to the closest inspiring flashy outdoorsy place around: the beach. The day before, we scouted an extra site finding a small canyon with a waterfall. That was some litter around, but the place would do to teach about structure formation.
As the girls arrive, they're dressed in what is probably their best clothes. After two days seeing them in the identical blue apron uniforms at schools, the bright and varied colors is a refreshing sight, giving them more identity. Even the teachers are more produced.
Wasfia starts the day with meditation at the beach, an activity with the women and the girls only. The guys go around and explore the area a bit. It gives us time to interact more with the guys of our local team. We have the translators, Caesar, Nibir, Moni, and Kira, and our photographer/video, Zubayer, or Zubi, in an endearment term. Zubi is staying with us at the hotel, he's a visual specialist and is documenting the experience with photos and videos. He is very interested in science and keeps asking us stuff. It's great to see that much enthusiasm and curiosity, and he's a pretty nice guy too. We go around the beach, it is mostly empty, we are the only ones there at the sand. Us and a multitude of little red crabs. The beach could be pristine, except it has litter. Some of it brought by currents, but some of it from the families who live around. Caesar is another of the local team, a conservation biologist. We talk about the challenges of Bangladesh. This group of well educared bangladeshis is fantastic; selfless ambitions, aware of the problems of their corner of the world, and full of ideas.
Back with the girls, we divide them in groups and take them to the stations. One stays at beach and the other comes to the waterfall. It was a tiny little waterfall, far from a Niagara, but pretty nonetheless. As we get there, the place is full of tourists. That wasn't clear from our scouting the site the evening before. Middle class families flood the place, posing for pictures and taking selfies. It's hard to fight the way to the cove to take the group closer.
Later on Wasfia tells us that the girls were marvelled at the notion of seeing the waterfall. As we headed there from the beach with our group, the other group was looking with wishful eyes asking if they too would get to see the waterfall. They're village girls who do not get to go often to touristic spots. Similarly in Brazil when we took the kids to the Tijuca forest, many had never seen a waterfall before either. As we continue with the outdoors day, we take the kids to the 3rd spot, a place that goes in towards the woods, following a river. That place too was carved by the river, and we let the girls loose to collect samples to look under the microscope when we get back.
After a week of intense new learning experiences, it was time for the big day: the twenty girls were now ready to make that long-anticipated call to a key member of NASA’s HiRISE instrument team and ask for images of Mars. HiRISE is the most advanced camera currently orbiting the Red Planet – it can detect objects the size of a basketball, and has seen dust devils, landslides, and rover landings during its 11 years of illustrious service.
But for the students of Dipshikha to join the exploratory fun, there was a catch! Because thousands of scientists, engineers, and students around the world frequently request their own images, there’s a lot of competition for the camera’s time. This meant that the girls would need to come up with strong scientific reasoning to make the case that their sites would improve our understanding of Mars.
Over the past few days, the students had developed the skills to analyze Google Earth and Google Mars. They virtually explored Mars and zoomed in on satellite images of Earth, astonished to discover places they had heard of but never seen. From scrolling around their local neighborhoods, to London, Saudi Arabia, and Antarctica, they were cruising far and wide! At the microscale, the girls saw new forms of life when studying field trip samples - leaves, sand grains, or murky water - under the microscopes. In this way, the microscopes extended their senses on field trips, just as spacecraft or robots do on other planets.
Back on Mars, each of the four groups had selected two target sites for imaging, mostly based on the criteria of habitability: could there have been water in the past? Are those bright patches ice, or the sun’s glare? What might have caused the channels to form? To build a set of reference points, the class spent part of the week experimenting with how landforms are made, using sand, water, wind, and any other natural phenomenon that might have played a role on Mars.
With the coordinates written down and their scientific justification in hand, the four teams went up and pitched their proposed sites to the HiRISE team. Among the requests were the base of a volcanic cliff, a sinuous channel network, mysterious lines near the north pole, and the dark edge of a crater. Our entire crew could not have been any prouder of the girls, given their transformation into world-class space explorers in just a few days! Nonetheless, the HiRISE images were not a done deal – any given request can take months to acquire, if they fit the mission’s current priorities in the first place. So for now, we all crossed our fingers and hoped for the best…
[Dipshikha school is geographically isolated, and telecommunications infrastructure – to enable a long, stable Skype call with NASA – was lacking. We are grateful to Grameenphone, Bangladesh’s largest telecommunications company, for providing temporary mobile network for our meetings across the world to happen.]
Highlight of the day: we lose the drone. The idea was to do an activity with the girls where they would control the drone, and we would play the video the drone records. Much of Mars science is done with robots, so we try to give them a taste of robotic exploration, for them to understand that robots function as extensions of our senses. Unlike in Rio, we could not bring the submergible ROV. It would be a pity if we did not bring any robot, so last minute we got the cheapest drone ever. To have girls from a remote rural village in Bangladesh control a cool flying robot? Never were a hundred dollars so well spent. Or so we thought.
The drone battery does not last 5 minutes. It is hard to control, usually banking to one side or another. It does not rover steadily like drones are supposed to do. We test it and after having done reasonably well in low altitute flights, we try the camera, taking photos and recording some brief videos. All seem to be going well. Excited by the new possibilities, high altitude flight is within reach. It begins ok, the drone lifts upwards and we monitor the flight in the video screen. The school yard, then the rice field next to it, the woods, soon we see the fields far away and the main road of the village. Nice. Yet, we soon lose the sense of distance and can't tell which direction the drone is flying to. Afraid it's going too far, we try to bring it back. Soon after we get the direction back right, the video freezes. The control stops responding. Looking up, we see the drone in the distance, hundreds of meters high, and plunging down. The battery ran out midflight.
Oh well. We're never going to find it in the woods. We accept the loss quickly. It was a very cheap drone, and at least we got the video of its last flight. I go tell the group we can't do the activity because the drone is lost. That's when Zubi says: "that's fine, just tell the village and they will find it".
I doubt it, we only have the direction it was going. We do not know how far it went, and where exactly it crashed. Zubi says something in bangla, and then the school teachers start moving. They ask me the direction it fell. I point it, and show the last frame of the video of the flight. It's just rice fields and woods, with a house in the middle. They know the house and want to start looking there. But it was from very high up, and the drone was rotating when it captured the last frame. The search will lead nowhere. We are about to start the afternoon activities, but Wasfia asks me to go with them for the search. Alright, I think, if only to make sure it's hopeless.
We walk down the main road, a group of people soon trail behind us, some adults and about 10-20 children. While I'm still thinking how hopeless it is to try to find the drone, a kid starts shouting in bangla, everybody turns to him. I don't know any bangla, but given people's excitment, it seems that he's saying it was found. We take a small turn from the main dirt road and enter a small alley. Going up a hill I see myself in a village of makeshift huts. Some of the girls of the school live here. A boy runs towards us carrying the drone. The whole village is curious to see the foreigner with the strange machine. I go back to the school, amazed the drone has been found. Wasfia and Zubi are completely unsurprised. The principal says he "spread the rumor" that the machine would blast if they tried to mess with it. Wasfia says she asked me to go because she knew it would be an adventure. Indeed she was right.
Today we did with the girls the scale model of the solar system. Not finding playdo in Cox's Bazar, we bought flour and made planets of bread dough. With the Sun as a soccer ball, Jupiter is 2cm in diameter, the Earth 2mm. They do the math and get the spheres relatively fast. Next we go outside and do the model in the correct scaled distances. From the Sun to the orbit of Neptune it would be 1km in this scale. We were going to use the road up the school for the model, but the principal thought it was a bad idea because of traffic. So, instead, we use the rice field. Placing the Sun in the beggining of it, there goes, Mercury, 9 big steps (meters) away.
And that's the closest one. Venus, some more steps away, Earth, another few, Mars, a little beyond. So far, the girls are not overwhelmed yet. But here comes the next one. Jupiter. 92 steps away. The girls let out an audible gasp!
And there they go, counting 92 steps in the rice field. The next planet, Saturn, how far away from Jupiter? 105 steps. They let another gasp, realizing the distances involved. Uranus and Neptune would be beyond the rice field, so we don't do them, but they got the idea. It's moments like these, of sheer wonder at the sudden realization, that inspire people to become scientists.
We thank the National Geographic Society for their support of Ad Astra Bangladesh.