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ISK Engineering Students Tackle Deforestation, With Camels!

By Maciej Sudra & Denzil Mackrory
ISK Engineering Students Tackle  Deforestation, With Camels!

Kenya’s camels are one factor contributing to deforestation. ISK’s STEM Engineering students wanted to know if these animals could be part of the solution and outfitted them with seedball dispersal gear (photo: ISK).
Deforestation is a complex global problem. It is a leading factor in climate change and causes soil erosion and degradation, desertification, siltation of rivers and lakes, flooding, and loss of habitat for countless plants and animals. In developing countries such as Kenya, which rely heavily on wood fuel as the major energy source for cooking and heating, deforestation is widespread and replanting is a continual challenge.
In the last 50 years, Kenya has lost over half of its forest cover and continues to lose its remaining trees at an alarming rate; the Kenya Forest Service estimates that over 10,000 hectares of forest are lost each year. Millions of trees are being cut down due to illegal logging, uncontrolled grazing, and exploitation for charcoal. The charcoal trade has had particularly dire consequences in Kenya’s arid north, where great swathes of the slow-growing indigenous trees have been cut down to meet the rising demand for charcoal.
Many of the people living in northern Kenya are nomadic pastoralists who keep goats and camels, both of which are well-adapted to the harsh living conditions. Unfortunately, while an important source of livelihood, these livestock further damage the environment as they overgraze and eat the few germinating tree seedlings that do exist.
The design challenge posed to students taking the STEM Engineering course at the International School of Kenya (ISK) was to see if these animals, rather than contribute to the destruction of the environment, could be part of the solution and act as vehicles for “seedball” dispersal.
Seedballs are tree and grass seeds coated in a protective “ball” of chardust (dust made from charcoal). The biochar coating of the balls helps to prevent the seeds within from being eaten by predators, such as livestock, birds, rodents, and insects, as well as protecting them from the extremes of temperature until the rains arrive.
Once soaked, the seedball helps retain and prolong a moist environment around the seed to encourage germination. An average camel can comfortably carry over 200kgs, which represents over 90,000 seedballs. What’s more, if a partnership is established with the local community, they work for free!
In areas where there are few roads and rains are unpredictable, could freely roaming tree-planting camels help reforest Northern Kenya? Students in the STEM Engineering course at ISK were determined to find out just that.
Following the design cycle, students started by researching camel behavior, geographic tree distribution, tree seed germination, as well as doing market research and gathering data on seedballs to inform their designs. Based on this research, students created different digital and physical prototypes that they used for testing purposes. Some designs employed arduino-controlled electric motors and servos to release the seedballs, while others focused on purely mechanical solutions, relying on the natural rocking movement of the camel to distribute the seeds.
To aid in the prototyping process, students built a metal camel on wheels to simulate the movement of a real animal. After a month of design iteration, the students were ready to test their designs on a real camel. Amid much hilarity, a camel was brought to school and students were able to test their various prototypes with the camel and finalize their designs before the actual field trial in a conservancy in northern Kenya.
Soysambu Conservancy in the great rift valley is a 48,000-acre wildlife conservancy and cattle ranch on the shores of Lake Elementaita. Due to its proximity to large settlements, the ranch suffers badly from illegal logging for firewood and charcoal. Every year, as part of ISK’s intercultural trip program, a group of Grade 10 students do a three-day trek with camels through Soysambu, learning about the local culture and environment.
This year, in addition to the usual load, the camels carried the final versions of the seedball dispensers designed by the students. The camels spent three days planting indigenous acacia seedballs along a pre-planned path.
We look forward to coming back to Soysambu next year to evaluate the impact the seedballs have had and hopefully test out the next versions of camel seedball dispensers.
On the back of this project, Red Bull Amaphiko, a global program that champions social entrepreneurs driving positive change in their corner of the world, has made a short video about the project and supported its further development with the purchase of 150 kgs of seedballs—that’s over 60,000 seedballs!
Furthermore, two other wildlife conservancies that also have camel herds have been in touch about the possibility of replicating the project on a larger scale, and with slightly different design specifications, since the camels in their conservancies are free-roaming.
This project, which has taken learning beyond the walls of the classroom, is a prime example of how the posing of engineering design tasks enables students to be authentically engaged in experiential learning to solve real-world problems—in this case, deforestation.
Engineering design tasks such as this provide natural opportunities to integrate science, mathematics, and technology. Students integrate their knowledge when applying it to a problem-solving task, giving their knowledge relevance. They appreciate that knowledge is not siloed into disciplines but rather integrated across fields and applicable to real-world problems. What matters most is effectively solving the problem, not determining where the knowledge comes from.
Engineering design tasks also afford students the opportunity to personalize their learning. Students can choose at what level of depth they wish to investigate/research the problem to inform their designs. They can work to their strengths to come up with design solutions while still being challenged to work out of their comfort zones when necessary, as required by their designs.
Providing mentorship is key to keeping students on the path toward bringing their ideas and designs to fruition. In this task, different students have shown proficiency in a wide range of standards from Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), Common Core, and Technology Literacy curricula.
In field testing the camel seedball dispenser designs, we also encountered opportunities to improve our cultural proficiency. Students were required to work with end users during field testing—in this case, Rendille nomadic herdsmen from northern Kenya. Without the human experience of talking to and learning from people of other cultures, the designs would not have been successful.
Going forward, we look forward to more opportunities for authentic learning using engineering design. The planet is our inspiration, and its problems are opportunities to develop solutions, one engineering design task at a time.
Maciej Sudra and Denzil Mackrory are ISK High School STEM Teachers.

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