I was once hired as a magician!

A few days ago, the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village opened its gates to a new group of special residents. The optics of that event alone are nothing short of amazing. For the students, it is a mix of excitement and fear associated with getting acquainted with their new home for the next four years, hugging their new families and getting to know their new friends. For the adults of the village, it is a beginning of a year that may look like any other before, but very different.

As the new kids of ASYV begin their new journey, I thought about my first year at the village. Three years ago, I was given the same opportunity to be part of the Agahozo family. While most of the kids are recruited from families with different backgrounds, often with a very difficult past, I was recruited from a different place. In 2013, I had just finished graduate school and was part of the NASA DEVELOP National Program in Wise, Virginia. I thought it was a cool experience. We got to play with geospatial data and generate meaningful maps. I learned a great deal about remote sensing, satellites and got to interact really cool engineers and scientists.

And then I heard of Agahozo Shalom Youth Village. And they were looking for a magician. Seriously. A magician.

As a background, the village has a unique approach to Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths (STEAM) education — The science center. The center is a group of electronics, computer and mechanics laboratories where kids come to build stuff and learn in a fun an engaging way after “normal” school time. This is a place I would have wanted to have growing up. A place free of rules (except for safety rules), full with gadgets. And they were looking for someone to run the place.

As soon as I heard about the place, I started reading about the ASYV and by the time I got a to speak on a phone with the village’s leadership, I had watched every video I could find, read many stories and would once in a while “visit” the village on Google Earth.

I’d done interviews before, but this one was different. From the very beginning, they told me they were looking for a magician. The real job description said the science center coordinator “must encourage students to ask their own questions about science and guide them to solutions on their own” and I did not understand what that had to do with magic. As the interview progressed, I understood that the center was a special place, with a special mission, in a really special village. So, I concluded that the coordinator of such a place had to be special too. And that got me a little concerned. I am not special.

From since I was little, I loved learning. There something cool about knowing new stuff. Figuring out how to properly write a new letter, how to solve a math problem, how to troubleshoot a circuit or how to talk to someone you really like. But what I liked more was to help others learn. I figured from early on that the best way to know things is to help others learn them. So I started facilitating study groups, became a temporary science teacher, got a job as math mentor in college, volunteered to be a laboratory assistant and organized engineering camps for college students. So, technically, I had some “experience” to work at the center, but I felt nothing could have prepared me to be part of the ASYV mission. But being a magician sounded cool and I took the job in Rwamagana.

When I arrived at the village, my first few months helped me understand what it all meant. The new kids came in and the “old” ones graduated. What a difference four years make! I then understood my job. I was to use science and technology to join the healing and transformation mission of the village that is often summarized into two pillars: healing the hearts and healing the world.

As far as I was concerned, my mission was going to help the students use science and technology principles to express themselves and then think about what the same principles can do to improve the lives in surrounding communities. It may sound counterintuitive, but I figured the only way to do that was to take science and technology out of the way and let the students travel whatever paths their curiosity would take them on without being slowed down by technical details. I liked to explain that my job was to demystify science and technology principles to young people and increase their I-can-do-it-too spirit towards community challenges.

The village did all they could to help me accomplish what I set out to do. At the center, computer, mechanics, electronics and biology laboratories have equipment that is in some cases, better than what I had seen at some universities. It was the place I wanted to be. When the students started coming in, I met people I wanted to be with. Curious young minds who wanted to build things and explore. Kids who did not fear the unknown. With the help of my small team, I tried my best to not let technical details get in their way. When they wanted to build a radio transmitter, we taught them about frequency modulation and antennas. When a young girl wanted to build a booth with an integrated tour guide system, we helped her learn more about sensors, power supplies and microprocessors. When kids wanted to build websites and games, we showed them how to code.

I watched the students become independent thinkers, but more importantly, develop thirst for learning. They became more curious. They asked more questions. They proposed more projects. Then, they started talking about building a solar power system for the disadvantaged in the region. They began teaching local women how to prepare healthy fruit-based meals. It was beautiful.

The time we spent developing a concept I used to summarize in three words — play, learn, and create was paying off. They started by having fun (which is what they wanted to do after a full day of school anyway), ended up learning and in finally, created what they wanted to create.

Watching the students helped me learn a lot of things. I came as teacher, then I became a student. Here are two main things I learned.

Unconventional Education

As many people will confirm, studying sciences and technology is hard. In fact, professors at my university used to read us Romans 5: 3–4: “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance character; and character, hope.” And then they would go on and talk about how gold is purified by fire. So, I understood the look on some people’s faces whenever I talked about our science center activities and fun in the same sentence.

In addition, what do you teach kids who have access to all information in the world? Kids can now fact-check their teachers in real time. And this just reminded me of what used to happen to students who pretended to know what the teacher didn’t — something not pretty. Nowadays, a teacher cannot claim to be the know-it-all figure in a classroom.

So, I decided to drop the whole teacher thing. I figured I had been a student for most of my life and that qualified me for being one thing: a study buddy. So I became a friend. A study buddy. Then a mentor.

The center also taught me a lesson in education technology. I learned that teaching cannot be reduced to a mere logistics and infrastructure problem. Even though we had good equipment, we did a lot of hacking. We used IV kits from the health center to demonstrate Ohm’s law, water bottles and flashlights to teach light propagation, aluminum foil from the kitchen to build electronic alarms, etc.

There is a saying that the world is today’s student classroom, and what we did at the center was our attempt to transform the world around us into our students’ laboratory. In fact, the test for new mentors was to choose a scientific topic and have them successfully explain it using only stuff in the interview room. We used to say that you can either fit what you want to teach in what surrounds you, or let what surrounds you limit what you can deliver.

I also learned a lot talking to fellow mentors at the center. There is only so much I could do in terms of salaries and other benefits for the mentors, who were also my friends or former participants in camps we had run a few years back. So, we talked about sacrifice. The need for an extra mile. We talked about the zero budget option in every situation. The option was the answer to “if all the conditions (financial or otherwise) stay the same, what would you do to accomplish the mission to the best of your ability?” The result is not always without cost. It costs energy. It costs hours of sleep. It requires selfless love for what you do.

I learned that in education, a positive mindset is very important. At this point in time, since we cannot teach our students all they need to know, the best thing we can do is teach them how to learn better. How to use the available information to their advantage. We need learning environments that put a positive attitude, thirst to learn and discover before tools and technologies. Because in the end, for a lifelong learner, the world is a classroom, every circumstance a teacher.

I also found that in a world of shiny iPhones and mighty computers, there is a need talk about patience. The messy nature of building something from scratch. The willingness to follow steps and not cut corners. That “good enough” is not the new good.

We also talked about innovation. How it is not a privilege of big companies or something only done by young people in jeans sitting in front of computers. It can be done by people from all walks of life including that policymaker introducing new processes, that young engineer building the next financial platform, that farmer trying to grow new types of fruits, that teacher who is teaching differently. Those thinkers who are able to learn from the past, look at the present with a critical and objective eye, cut through the web of information created by realities of the past and present to see possibilities in the future.

Finally, communication skills cannot be overemphasized. Current realities can make good, but poorly communicated thoughts irrelevant. Our students should be able to visually and verbally communicate their ideas. They should be able to write and speak their minds.

Life

While I had some of the best times of my life so far at the science center, the most meaningful conversations happened in the dining hall, in the gardens, in the canteen, in living rooms or at the clinic. We talked about life. We laughed. We quietly listened to each other. I got to learn a lot about life from the masters. It is always amazing to see kids who were tested to the limits, who had every reason to give up but instead, decided to forge ahead and be messengers of hope in a world that is in an increasing need of good news.

The kids kept me grounded. They constantly challenged my theories about change. The world that really needed changing was mine. Myself. My surroundings. If at the end of the day you can go to bed having helped someone go from point A to point B, you have changed your world. The world.

They taught me to see beyond the shiny and hear beyond the fanfare. That a pat on the back is only a push to keep going forward, not a sign to look back or stop.

To the ASYV community, thank you for the honor to be part of the incredible journey. Thank you for giving me a chance to be part of the science education. To some people, it sounded small. To me, it meant the world. When the call came in for me to transition out of the village, I left with a full heart and a soul hungry for more.

To my new little brothers and sisters beginning your first year at the village, take time to take it all in. Not too much time though, school is beginning soon. Your new home was built by love and you are surrounded by people who care. People prepared to help you succeed. The best. So, go be your best.