What if it doesn’t work?

“The Fear”

Anyone who has ever run a practical workshop/lesson will probably have woken up at some point in cold sweats thinking “WHAT IF IT DOESN’T WORK??”

failed experiment

Science Fail

There is no denying it this is a frightening prospect.  Being faced with a room full of students, eager and expecting to be dazzled and having your experiments fail.

But this is science… This IS engineering. Sometimes things aren’t going to work and if your not prepared to teach your students this simple fact they are going to be in for a nasty shock when they enter the working world.  Plus you are denying them problem-solving skills, the most important tool in an engineer’s tool kit.  Part of the engineering process is always going to be things not working and making mistakes.  This is something we should be teaching our students at a very young age.

Apart from the lack of resources, this seemed to be one of the biggest obstacles in the Rwandan education system.  Teachers in Rwanda are judged against very high standards.  They have a very difficult curriculum to get through and are under a lot of pressure to deliver it all and deliver it correctly.   It’s scary and I can relate…

Turning up to a new school to run a solar workshop with a new group of students can be intimidating.  Turning up to run a solar workshop in a monsoon will evoke “The Fear”.

I know my solar buggies aren’t going to work in these conditions and I could just tell my students this.  But isn’t it much more effective (or at least entertaining) to get them all outside and watch them all struggle to find a patch of sunlight?


Sun Searching

Heh heh…. Once we had taught them this painful lesson but valuable lesson, we introduced capacitors.   Instead of running the buggies directly from the sunlight, they could charge capacitors off the panels and then attach them to the buggies.

Then things got interesting… students started increasing the number of panels, using lamps to charge their capacitors and some bright spark even charged their capacitor off a battery (controversial, but ultimately highly effective). Effectively they were engineering.


Solar Races

The sense of achievement gained from solving a problem yourself, or coming up with an innovative idea can be so much more rewarding than being given the answers.  As Lawrence Bragg once said:

 “How dull a detective story would be if the writer told you who did it in the first chapter and then gave you the clues.”

Other Practical Lesson Fears

Apart from looking like an uneducated fool in front your young apprentices other fears include:

  • Students breaking everything EVER
  • Students melting their hands off in a short circuit
  • Losing students in the wilderness of “outside of the classroom”
  • Someone senior coming into your lesson of experimental mayhem

All of these terrifying realities are no-where near as scary as denying young people the chance to experiment, learn their own mistakes and come up with new innovative ideas.


Keeping them outside the classroom



Teaching Begins

Wiriwe!! …. and welcome to my 3rd blog entry.

After a lot of meetings, conferences, making promotional material, visiting sceptical headmasters/headmistresses…..the teaching has finally begun!

Last week my 2 extremely dedicated UK mentors came over with suitcases full of equipment to help me carry out lessons for the week. We had 2 main lessons based on electronic engineering and solar engineering:

  • Electronic Control
  • Solar Buggies

The aim of the lessons is to introduce practical, hands-on science/engineering lessons to secondary schools in Rwanda.  In Electronic Control the students use various different switches to control make the buggies carry out a series of manoeuvres.



In Solar Buggies we experiment with solar panels, different light sources and capacitors to see how fast and how far we can get our buggies to go.

Solar Buggy

Solar Buggy

The first thing to say is that none of us are teachers.  We are 3 engineers who are extremely passionate about promoting engineering to young people and believe the most successful learning is done outside a textbook.

So armed with nothing but determination and a box full of fun we set off.

Gashora Girls Academy of Science and Technology has handpicked the brightest and best A-level students in the science subjects.  Last year they sent 10 girls to leading international Universities, 3 girls to the African Leadership Programme and on an average school day the students stay up until Midnight doing their homework.  MIDNIGHT. … every night.

The curriculum that these students study is University level engineering.  I made the mistake of opening one of their textbooks and almost had a panic attack.

Despite being massively intimidated by the curriculum, we were still very excited about teaching this group of intelligent young women.

However, when we gave our class of aspiring engineers a battery, a motor and a switch and told them to make the buggy go we witnessed a sea of bemused and confused faces.  This was going to be a challenge…

Due to a lack of resources and their jam-packed syllabus the students had almost no experience of practical lessons. But there was so much potential and we were determined to make it work.

We split the students into groups of 3 and set them various tasks.  We didn’t ask the students to follow a recipe or series of instruction, but got them to come up with creative solutions to our challenges (like true engineers).

Although it started off slow the lesson soon picked up pace.  The students were transformed into engineers before our eyes, working through problems, making mistakes, destroying equipment, but most importantly enjoying and understanding what they were doing.

Here are some snaps from the lessons we taught at Gashora Girls and Rwamagana Lutheran School.

Me being extremely useful...

Me being extremely useful…

Physics teacher Robert getting stuck in

Physics teacher Robert getting stuck in 

Jeremy and our newly trained engineers

Jeremy and our newly trained engineers

Paul and Jeremy manning the projectiles station.

Paul and Jeremy manning the projectiles station.

Engineering - problem solving

Engineering – problem solving


Constructing pressure switches

Constructing pressure switches

Teaching in these schools was such a delight.  The students were so eager to learn and SO well behaved.  At the beginning of the class we were practically shaking them by the shoulders to get them animated, but by the end they were sticking their hands up, asking questions and designing their own experiments.

At the end of the lessons the students filled in evaluation forms.  The last question asked them to write down “any other comments” they had.

Here are some of my favourite responses:

“The workshop was very nice and very interesting.  I thank you very much so may God reward you, but the time was not very much for me because the the lesson was good.  My question is that when will you be back for our next lesson.  We loved you.”

“Thanks you’ve encouraged me more and more to be a engineer and I’ll practice it at home, thanks for you coperation!’

“I know more about engineering and I like it so much.  So now I wish to become an engineer.”

“Other comment.”

 It was such a fantastic week!  The next step is the training of the teachers.   As well as teaching students I will be training teachers in how to use our kit so that the lessons can continue after I have gone.

Stay tuned for more instalments…

Shelter Building

RWANDA: land of a thousand hills, lightning capital of the world, home to 1/3 of the world’s mountain gorillas, EXCELLENT coffee, volcanoes, lakes, rainforests…

… and 2 rainy long seasons.

Rwanda operates under the following system:

rain cloud image

There is no getting around it.  The country grinds to a halt as soon as those raindrops start falling.

 Our engineers are no exception.

As an electrical engineer there is not much you can work on safely once the rain starts pouring.  So, Ivan (Engineer at GLE) and Maz (Engineer Without Borders) were given the task of designing and building a shelter that can be erected quickly when it starts to rain. Thus removing any excuses for postponing work. 😀

Design Constraints:

  • Enough room for 2 people to work in with tools;
  • Portable by truck while down;
  • Portable by 2 people while up;
  • Usable on rough ground;
  • Making use of the available materials.

These were the available materials:


Aged/weathered wood in GLE gardens

We started by making a prototype out of pencils and masking tape:



Cost to company: 14 pencils, masking tape, 2 coat hangers, 1 working day, 2 engineers, 2 beers, 1 hip-flask, 2 chocolate chip ice‑creams

Savings to company: no one was killed … just

Next we put pen to paper and got down some initial designs:


SAM_1565SAM_1568 - Version 3

Scribbling’s of madmen

Then we got to constructing (HURAH!!):


Constructing A-frame (defying gravity + health and safety)



bowline knot, bolt, notch, tensioner


Dumba (GLE mascot and all round good guy)


Ivan with our standing structure

Here’s what it collapses to:


… mmmmm slick

The next stage is to made a giant tarpaulin-sock that will fit neatly over our structure.



Fundraising, Cakes … and ales

 Hello and welcome to my first post!!

 Most of you probably realise I’m not in Rwanda yet, but yesterday was such a little EWB (Engineers Without Borders) adventure, that I just had to do some blogging.

 I currently trying to raise £900 for EWB, but lately fundraising was going slow … people were between jobs, saving their monies for summer holidays and just generally being tight arses. On top of all this my gorgeous housemates decided they were all going for a ten day jolly in a France villa and leave me on my tod.   Moral was at an all time low.
 But I decided it was time to pull my socks up and hit Newcastle’s delightful family festival.  I cleaned the kitchen (take note housemates), hit Morrison’s, donned a pinnie and got baking myself some tasty treats.

Then I hit up Newcastle’s family friendly Ouseburn Fest, which was absolutely BUZZING with folks.

 Yes Newcastle!!
Now it’s a long time since I’ve been in a position where I’ve needed to sell my goodies on the street, so I was feeling pretty nervous.  But I really shouldn’t have been because the folks of Newcastle were in FINE form.

I was selling to families, fishermen, rubbish bin collectors… the people were loving it!  One Guy insisted on paying double the price for a bit of lemon drizzle cake. Another guy, who just happened to be smoking a herbal cigarette, approached me and almost cleaned me out of my first batch of cakes.  He then asked me to bring him a bacon sarnie when I was on my way back…or some chips. That didn’t happen.

I had an absolutely wicked day raising money for EWB. Thank you the people of Newcastle for your generosity and pure charm 😀