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Faith Harron, '21

Faith Harron, ’21

Melting cheese: Sustainable and contextually defined service

We’re crouched on the stony walkway leading to the school, waiting. Our cardboard shoe boxes have been covered in foil; we have mirrors and glasses to concentrate the light; and the cheese sits ready on the bread. It’s a hot and cloudless day. The solar ovens—our foil-lined boxes—should be melting the cheese with the power of sunlight, demonstrating our lesson for the day. Unfortunately, they’re not.

It wasn’t the sun over the Pamir Mountains or the box construction. The problem was assuming cheese in Tajikistan is the same as it is in the United States.

This solar oven experiment was part of a makerspace curriculum that supported fifth grade students in Khorog, Tajikistan as they explored science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM). Makerspaces are intentionally collaborative, inclusive spaces designed to encourage exploration, creativity, and self-driven learning.

A student in the inaugural cohort of the maker's lab program shows off his virtual reality cardboard headset (sans phone). Summer 2018, Khorog, Tajikistan.
A student in the inaugural cohort of the maker's lab program shows off his virtual reality cardboard headset.

Along with local teachers, students, mentors, and members of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), I implemented the initial version of this program the summer after my first year at Stanford, serving as a co-instructor with another Stanford student. For seven weeks, students learned about renewable energy, electricity and circuits, 3D printing, virtual reality, and more.

In the last few weeks, each student or small group chose a project. It could be anything related to STEAM—it just had to solve a problem or be an idea that could benefit their community. Students worked hard to create amazing projects and then got to show them off in a final showcase open to the community.

The reason that this piece begins with the story about cheese is because it’s a good example of what I learned regarding context-dependent service—the importance of situating a solution or program in the relevant community, particularly for long-term, sustainable service. Mentors and AKDN partners aided my understanding about how to create programs that worked and were community focused and led.

For example, while the “melting cheese on bread through solar power” experiment works with some types of cheese commonly found in the United States, cheese is not as popular or widely varied in eastern Tajikistan, and what cheese exists is usually harder and comes in a large, solid block. The experiment worked better when we used a buttery spread, and we were able to focus the sun’s light to melt that easily—a solution suggested by our local program coordinator. Future iterations of the maker’s lab program have used this experiment, too, after adjusting it to reflect more locally appropriate materials.

In a similar vein, some materials used in the first iteration of the makerspace had been shipped from outside the country. Part of our last week was spent working with our local program coordinator and teachers to determine what materials could be found in the region and what substitutes we might use if they weren’t readily available. By using their insight and planning for the future program to be entirely locally run and sourced, we were able to strengthen the project’s chance of continuation. Indeed, three years later, the program is still running, and we facilitated an expansion to Osh, Kyrgyzstan.

Likewise, one of the most important things we considered in our implementation of the program was training and working with local teachers. Before local students stepped into our makerspace, we spent a week with the students’ teachers and other teachers from Kyrgyzstan, building and running through the curriculum’s projects. This approach ensured that we had suitable materials and helped us catch problems or identify potential difficulties that students might have in advance, so we were more prepared for student questions.

During the program itself, these teachers joined us to contribute valuable information and assistance, like the science teacher that gave an animated dive into circuits in Russian and helped students better understand the concepts behind our hands-on activities.

Later, these teachers took what went well, adjusted the curriculum to suit their schools and resources, and continued running the program. Its most recent iteration concluded in April 2021 in Osh; the teachers still send us photos of student projects and graduating classes of maker’s lab students through a WhatsApp group.

A program’s sustainability is proven by its ability to last beyond its initial creators and implementers. I’m proud and grateful to say that this program has done just that.

Faith Harron, ’21, studied mechanical engineering and Slavic languages and literatures. While at Stanford, her activities included serving as a Cardinal Quarter as a maker's lab instructor in Khorog, Tajikistan during summer 2018, being a Cardinal Service ambassador from 2018 to 2019, co-founding and leading the Adopt a Science Olympiad Team public service extracurricular from 2019 to 2021, being a member of the Society of Women Engineers' leadership team from 2017-2021, working as a learning consultant with the Center for Teaching and Learning from 2018 to 2021, and being a member of the Public Service Honor Society. Faith is originally from Bismarck, North Dakota.
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