Bahir Dar Research, and a Return to Kenya

Ethiopia has fantastic coffee, everywhere, always.  I love this country.
Ethiopia has fantastic coffee, everywhere, always. I love this country.

The math group in Bahir Dar was incredibly hospitable, and, as mentioned in the previous post, has some really interesting outreach projects going on. They have a couple-few research groups getting started, one working on fluid dynamics, and one working on lattice theory (as in posets, not mathbb{Z}-modules). One of the really inspiring things about the visit was that, in addition to having an awesome and enthusiastic staff, they are also receiving quite reasonable support from the University (and by extension, the government) for advancing their research and outreach projects. People involved in project work can apply to have reduced teaching loads, giving them equal pay but plenty of time to advance the projects. Meanwhile, the university is hiring more lecturers to make up the extra time; presumably this will end up looking like a much more flexible version of the research universities in the US, which have a two-tiered system of research professors and lecturers. This allows them to reward people with good ideas and plans with extra time, rather than making the decision at-or-before hiring time; it’s an interesting idea, and probably much more appropriate to the local context than the US system. It reaffirms my feeling that until African countries will continue to lag in science until the governments get serious about funding the universities for research: Here we have an example of awesome university support which is fuelling great projects. Another positive development is that Bahir Dar sounds like it’s starting to put caps on the number of courses people can teach; this keeps people from taking on unrealistic teaching loads in order to get a bigger pay-check, a real problem in Kenya. Of course, such a move also needs to be paired with decent pay for lecturers!

One of thing I heard repeatedly at Bahir Dar was that the research programs need more mentorship. They are about to start offering a PhD program in math, and only have a few PhD holders to start from. This means that there is a danger of the research programs being a bit too over-specialized, especially when combined with the fact that it’s very difficult for people to get out for conferences to share ideas. As a result there’s a real need for interaction with vagabond mathematicians like myself. I think the next time I have a few months free, I’m going to strongly consider going and giving some research-oriented course(s) for the department there. If you’re a vagabond mathematician, I think it would be really cool for you to do so, too! Ethiopia’s really lovely, and it would be an excellent way to get involved in an exciting environment.

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Bahir Dar Math Outreach Projects

Flying over Addis, on the way to Bahir Dar. (This was my first flight in a turbo-prop plane!)

I’m currently visiting Bahir Dar University, in Ethiopia.  It was a natural place to visit while Kenya is out-of-session for their elections.  Abebe Regassa, a lecturer here, came to Maseno last August for the maths camp, and will be co-facilitating the first Ethiopian maths camp this July with Berie Getie.

The math department here is very exciting to be in contact with.  The department is large (now at about 50 staff), has a mandate to get research groups going, and has given Abebe and Berie reduced teaching loads to coordinate outreach activities.  They’re actually already doing a fantastic job, by the accounts I’ve heard thus far.

One outreach project is the Outreach Program for Talented Students.  This project has run for two years, funded thus far by the Gelfand Family Charitable Trust, though it will be moving to Univesity funding soon. The project puts on a science-and-technology camp for 450 elite students.  This year, there will be 300 students from schools around Bahir Dar, and 150 from all over the country. The camp runs for 40 days(!) and uses a team-teaching model (one university lecturer, one secondary teacher, and a lab assistant for each class of 30 students). After 15 days of common curriculum, the camp is split into two streams, one focused on general science topics, and the other focused on ICT and electronics. At the end, 45 students are selected from the 450 to continue working with the Bahir Dar university staff on interesting projects.  (There’s a 62-page report on the program here.)

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Amagoro Library Visit

Playing Set with primary students.
Playing Set with some primary school students at the new Amagoro library.

This weekend I took another trip out to Amagoro to meet see the new Amagoro library, opened by a joint effort of Kiwimbi Global and the Amagoro city council.  The library opened on February 15th, while I was on a trip to Nairobi, and by all accounts has seen heavy traffic ever since.

I set the groundwork to leave a couple Raspberry Pi computers at the library some time after elections; right now they’re still working on getting electricity together.  In the meantime I left a Pi with Jevin, the tech-guy for the Elewana project, so that he can become familiar with the system.

I also met with three groups of primary school students, about to take their final exams before going on to secondary school.  With all of the groups, I talked about how computers work, and the importance of math and computers to all of the various future occupations they were dreaming about, ranging from nurses to engineers.  (One students wants to be a ‘computer wizard’ when he grows up!)  Hopefully planting some Pi’s with interesting resources will help some of the students get where they want to be.

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Fun with the Raspberry Pi

A raspberry pi. I still can’t get the HDMI output working, which makes it a bit anticlimactic. Need to pick up a component video cable….

One of the many projects we’re planning to run involves getting some Raspberry Pi computers into rural libraries and/or community centers and giving youths a chance to learn programming.  We’re particularly looking at bringing on just-graduated students, who typically hav about eight months of dead time between the end of secondary school and the start of university.

So I’ve gotten my hands on a couple RP’s; the last few days I’ve really started hacking around with one in particular.  My short-term goal is to get a working Sage binary together, built for the Pi.  (Admittedly, I haven’t tried the ARM binary at, but it claims to not be built for the particular processor in the Pi.) It will generally be a good public service to get a Pi-ready build of Sage out there in the world.  One will probably need an 8gb sd card to run it properly, though, as the binary will probably weigh in at a bit over 2gb.

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David Ssevviiri Visit

A Colubus monkey, from Kakamega forest.

Dr. David Ssevviiri was in Maseno the last couple days; he’s a Ugandan mathematician currently in Kampala, educated in South Africa. David’s an incredibly bright guy, very interested in a kind of narrow research area of prime ideals (and prime modules) in ring theory.  But he has a voracious appetite for learning new things, and seemed very happy to soak up as much algebraic combinatorics as I was willing to throw at him.

One of the things that was really clear in our conversations was the need for easier connections between African mathematicians and the rest of the world mathematics community.  South Africa has been doing quite a lot (with plenty of international support) to ensure chances for the best mathematical brains in Africa to get a quality graduate education.  Unfortunately, when the resulting mathematicians go back home, they are often cut off almost completely from the broader research world.  This is because the research communities in most African countries are very small, and most of these countries don’t have a science budget to support research activities.  Since much of the research funding in the developed world comes from national agencies like the NSF (in the US), this means there are very few opportunities for Africans to receive funding.  Additionally, for international grants they are in direct competition with international researchers, and the University systems in Africa largely aren’t preparing people (yet) to be able to compete on level footing for these kinds of grants.

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Crescent Island

Uma Kambhampati wanders near some giraffes.

Elizabeth came into town on Thursday, which has been really fun!  On Saturday we took a trip to Crescent Island, on Lake Naivasha.  It’s where the film Out of Africa was filmed way back in 1985.  There weren’t any animals living on the island, though, so they shipped in a bunch of charismatic megafauna: zebra, gnu, Thompson’s gazelles, antelope, and, yes, giraffes.  There aren’t any predators to thin out the herds, so the island, while small, is really packed with animals.  And they’re pretty tame: one just walks around amongst them, no big deal.

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Election Day (US Edition)

With Fulbright Scholar Erik Nordman and his wife Jen at the US Embassy’s election party.

I spent the morning of Wednesday, November 6th at the residence of the US Ambassador, where a big election-viewing party was taking place.  There were maybe three hundred people at the event, all told.  I went with a couple great Fulbrighters, leaving our hotel at 4:30 am to get to the residence at 5.  Of course, our travel calculations included time for traffic, which for some reason wasn’t bad at that hour, so we actually got to the show a bit early.

It was a very nice morning!  The party featured a mock-vote, which resulted in 166 votes for Obama, 44 for Romney, and 1 write-in vote for Hillary Clinton.  The crowd included lots of people working at the Embassy; I met people from USAID, the CDC, and the consulate, amongst others.  There were also around thirty or so secondary students who had been invited, along with some law students from the University of Nairobi who were very friendly.  And yeah, lots of free coffee.

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Because it’s there.

A tree apparently growing out of a rock, just above the tree line.

Today I climbed up the biggest hill readily visible from Maseno with Aryan, a San Dieagan who’s living at the hospital.  Basic strategy: Pick the largest hill visible from Maseno.  Climb it.  Repeat.  (Well, the repeat will be for another day, but we have some candidates picked out.)  We didn’t really know what to expect in terms of paths; essentially, there’s beautiful hills all around with these giant granite boulders sticking out of them, but we have little idea what the local interaction with them is.  The one we climbed today had farms situated on it, probably to about half way up, including some really steep little plots that we passed through on the way back down. There are cows wandering around everywhere, occasionally exactly where you want to pass by, but that was the most ferocious animal we met.

At the road side we were approached by a guy who was intent on being our guide up the hill; he tried to scare us into taking him on by telling us that the hill was full of vipers and panthers.  This wasn’t terribly persuasive, though: I think we would have been in just as terrible a position if he’d been with us as not.  He didn’t look quite sturdy enough to take on a panther in a fist fight.

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Amagoro Mini-Maths Camps

Moding High Motto: To Arm the Brain to Conquer.

This weekend we ran four mini-maths camps! These are half-day events held at high schools, which give a sort of introduction to the kinds of things that we do at the main maths camp in August at Maseno.  On this particular trip, we were partnered with the Elewana Project, which works directly with a number of schools in the area; they mainly bring in students from the US during the summer to work with students, though they are beginning to do some two-week camps aimed at improving educational outcomes for secondary students.

The upshot on this particular trip was that the schools we visited had decently-maintained computer labs, thanks to Elewana’s ongoing efforts with the schools.  The schools also have student computer clubs, which allows students to have regular access to their computers.  As such, our program for the camps were focused on:

  1. Getting across the basic idea that mathematics is about understanding and applying a system of rules, and
  2. Getting a little bit of familiarity with the software, so that the students can explore and learn more after we’ve left.

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Akirachix MobileGarage

A speaker at the MobileGarage event.

Today is the kick-off of the Maseno MobileGarage, a two-day boot-camp hosted by the Akirachix, a group promoting ITC development for women and more generally.  The idea is to give trainings on mobile application development to the local students.  I gave a short 15-minute talk for the kick-off emphasizing the importance of developing open-source tools in addition to focus on winning the lottery in the app store.

With luck, I’ll be able to poach an enterprising undergraduate to help develop an Android version of the photo-uploading script I wrote; I think it would be a great app for getting student work up on a website quickly and easily, which facilitates peer-learning and peer-review of student submissions.

Good times!