Caroline Escoubas-Güney, my niece, is a medical student in Nice, France and her family sponsors a student at the Nicolas School. Over the years she has heard a lot about our visits and her family has generously donated many school supplies. After our recent chats she decided to apply for a month long internship with the Pediatrics Department of the Ayder Hospital in Mekele and a second month as a volunteer at the Nicolas School. While at the school she spent most of her time with the Biology teacher working on protocols. Her biggest claim to fame is demonstrating how to isolate the DNA of a banana. Caroline also worked very closely with the school nurse: together they measured the Kindergarten students against the World Health Organization’s nutrition guidelines. Her father, Pierre Escoubas, a University professor in zoology and bio-chemistry, decided to join forces with Caroline. Their visit was a tremendous success and the entire team hopes to see them again very soon. Here is Pierre’s take on their stay. Spoiler alert: Read the bit about the goats head!
“I joined my daughter Caroline in Mekele for a short visit, towards the end of her 2-months stay in Ethiopia. As she had been working for a month as a volunteer at the Nicolas Robinson School, this was the opportunity to travel to Ethiopia and see the school for the first time, and help her with her Biology projects. We had beforehand worked together on the implementation of some practicals for the biology teachers so I was interested to see how everything had been working out.
Seeing the school for the first time was quite a shock (in a positive way) as it is difficult from pictures and videos to fathom the impressive size, cleanliness and beautiful layout of the two campuses and the remarkable achievement that this represents. One can hardly imagine today that the whole project started from scratch on an empty plot of land some 15 years ago! After only a few days in Mekele, the school appears to the first time visitor as a kind of oasis in the middle of the city, and one easily understands how much this means to the children who receive an education there!
As my Ethiopian trip was to be very short, I was only able to spend two full days at the school working with the Biology teachers Mr. Teclab and Ms. Selam. It was nevertheless an enjoyable experience and hopefully a fruitful one. Caroline of course had done most of the work already, cleaning up and organizing the biology lab, demonstrating the various protocols for the teachers, and running experiments with them. My on-site contribution was therefore much more limited, but I tried to bring additional expertise in zoology and biochemistry teaching, acquired during my years at the University. In two days, I was able to show the two teachers and their assistant Ms. Kevra how to prepare an insect collection for biology classes on taxonomy and insect biology, and how to dry and prepare plants towards the constitution of a small herbarium that could be used to teach plant biology. Clearly the biology labs need to build up a collection of biological specimens that can be used to show students the anatomy and diversity of animals and plants. We will hopefully have started the process and the teachers and their students may now be able to gather animals and plants and preserve them for future use.
The biology lab is equipped with the basics but teaching materials clearly require an additional effort. As I was not aware of what was available before my arrival at the school, we looked though the cupboards to find usable resources for teaching various topics. Among other things, we found a batch of brand new Play-Doh jars that had just been donated, and that proved to be a very interesting tool for teaching a variety of subjects. Play-Doh can be modeled into just about anything and therefore used for multiple purposes. After some brainstorming we figured that it could be used to build molecular models of molecules, thus bringing to life three-dimensional models that will help the students understand better the basics of biochemistry. Using toothpicks as molecular bonds, We set upon building models of amino acids to teach protein assembly, and making use of wire fetched by Teclab from his storage room we managed to produce (after several tries) a half-decent model of DNA, showing the double helix structure. I know after returning to France, that this has met with success as I have since seen pictures of the students replicating the model under the supervision of Teclab. So it looks like Play-Doh will continue to be a useful teaching help at the school. Caroline also made good use of it, making chromosomes of different colors to explain the mechanisms of cell division to several students.
But the highlight of those two days was undoubtedly the dissection of a fresh goat head! It started with the need to obtain a sheep brain to explain vertebrate brain structure. However, said sheep turned into a freshly killed goat, still dripping blood on the floor of the lab, and the dissection of the brain itself into a whole operation that involved five different people armed with a variety of tools and knives and transformed the biology lab into something akin to a butcher’s shop! After much effort, we managed to extract the intact brain and it now sits in a jar of formaldehyde for the students to peruse. In the process, some grade 12 students streamed into the biology lab and I took the opportunity to dissect one of the goat’s eyes and show them for the first time the structure and innards of the vertebrate eye. Their fascinated stares clearly demonstrated the need to implement more practicals in the biology curriculum as this remains the only way to truly understand and memorize some of the lessons, biology remaining after all a science of observation and manipulation.
After our work at the school, Caroline and I embarked on a 3-days trip to the Danakil depression where many adventures awaited us! The highlights of our awesome journey included driving 4×4 cars across the salts flats at sunrise, visiting the Dallol sulfur deposits and hiking at night to the top of the Erta Ale volcano for a memorable sunrise, not to mention getting stuck in soft sand with our car after chasing some ostriches!
Altogether this was quite a memorable trip, and a great opportunity to discover the Ethiopian culture and people. Invariably nice, smiling and helpful, always ready with a smile the Ethiopians are indeed lovely people. Hopefully the great achievements of the Nicolas school and the unrelenting and selfless efforts of Max and Kathryn Robinson will continue to bring them education of higher standards that will afford some of the children at the Nicolas Robinson School the opportunity to pursue higher education, become global citizens and better support their families in the future.”