Human waste as sustainable energy? These high schoolers made it happen.
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Green Mountain Energy

Leroy Mwasaru was a high school student at Kenya's prestigious Maseno School when a dorm room renovation created an unfortunate situation.

The school's outdoor latrines overflowed into the local water supply.

Understandably, this made some people quite upset. But Mwasaru saw this as an opportunity to turn something revolting into a revolution.


All GIFs from Makeshift/YouTube.

If he could redirect the overflowing human waste, it could give them cleaner water and help the school save money on fire and electricity.

See, at that same time, his school was spending a lot of money on firewood, which, like many Kenyan buildings, it used to fuel its kitchens, heat, and lights. It can be labor intensive to gather all that wood — and it's even more expensive to buy it.  Plus, all the soot and ash it creates is not good for the staff to consume on such a regular and large-scale basis.

Mwasaru and his friends speak with school staff about the wood-burning furnace. Image from MakeShift/YouTube.

So Mwasaru thought — why not use a biogas digester instead?

In his sophomore year biology class, he had learned how these digesters can harvest natural bacterial byproducts, such as human waste and turn it into natural gas energy through a process called anaerobic digestion.

"I initially researched renewable energy and biogas [digesters] just to satisfy my intellectual curiosity," Mwasaru explains over email. "After a while, it became so much more than biology — there was chemistry too. It got to solving problems my local community faced, such as lack of access to affordable renewable energy."

Students on the Maseno School campus. Image from MakeShift/YouTube.

Mwasaru recruited a group of friends, and over the next year, they built a working prototype biogas digester for the school.

His initial proposal was met with some level of resistance from the community. "I want to burn our poop to fuel the kitchen" isn't exactly the kind of thing anyone wants to hear from a high school student.

"That's what pushed me to make sure it came to pass, and made sure it benefited them. Sometimes it's the bad energy you get that pushes you to do stuff," Mwasaru says.

Their earliest tests began by collecting raw "fuel" in the form of cow dung, food waste, fresh cut grass, and eventually, water.

These components were then mixed together into a paste...

... that they poured into a plastic vessel — the digester itself.

The natural bacteria contained in all these ingredients was more than enough to spark the anaerobic process as it broke down the organic waste materials.

Over time, the dense physical waste drops down to the bottom of the container, separating from the bacteria's combustible gas byproduct, which can then be collected and used for energy.

Lighting a burner with harvested biogas.

Granted, there were a few hiccups along the way. "I have to credit the failures we have had," Mwasaru says. "Our very first bio-digester prototype had too much gas and exploded, so we had to re-learn and re-invent the model until it was stable."

After a little trial and error, Mwasaru and friends completed their first working prototype — and it was good enough to earn them a coveted spot at the Innovate Kenya startup camp.

See this video here of how his small-scale prototype worked here:

It demonstrated the basic way that the anaerobic process could be contained within a single plastic vessel with pipes to move the gas along, while directing all the other organic waste into the ground. It wasn't enough to power the entire school on its own, but it was a start.

Then, at the startup camp, the teens had the opportunity to work alongside student engineers from MIT to hone and refine their project.

Mwasaru, left, with his friends Amos Dede and Charles, who also worked on the biogas project. Image from MakeShift/YouTube.

In fact, the product that this high schooler devised was so impressive that it earned them funding from Global Minimum — a charitable organization that encourages young innovators and leaders in Africa — to build a second,  improved prototype.

"Leroy seeks to understand everything he doesn't know by asking probing questions, taking notes and experimenting to learn," said David Moinina Sengeh, an MIT Researcher who also serves as Global Minimum's board president, in an interview with CNN. "His curiosity to explore and learn from doing within a motivation to bring broader social change is something that we hope to see in all our youth and frankly everyone."

Mwasaru speaking at the One Young World summit in Arizona. Photo provided by Leroy Mwasaru.

As work began on the next, larger prototype, Mwasaru had the opportunity to travel to America to speak at prestigious conferences, such as Techonomy and One Young World.

He also returned home to the small village where his father still lives and helped to install a biogas digester there too, using the dung from his father's six cows. It generates enough gas for him to share with the other 30 houses in the village. Plus, it made things easier for the women in the village — another cause that Mwasaru is passionate about — who were sometimes spending up to 24 hours a week collecting firewood.

"When I deployed the Biogas pilot in my rural home, I mainly envisioned it as a way of leveraging sustainable renewable energy to make the world a better place through my community," Mwasaru says. "Now I believe through our activities that other sectors [such as women empowerment] could benefit immensely from the approach."

The dining hall at Maseno School. Image from MakeShift/YouTube.

The biogas digester project has since grown into a full-fledged startup/social enterprise called Greenpact — with Mwasaru serving as its CEO.

Since graduating from Maseno School, Mwasaru has taken a gap year to focus on the company's mission to address the lack of affordable renewable energy and proper sanitation that affects some 9 million Kenyan households.

He hopes to steer the company into an impactful organization that offers a wide range of products and services, including biogas digesters. He does have plans to go to college — but for now, Greenpact is his priority.

"I didn't see myself focusing on renewable energy but after doing some work in the field I figured out that I am actually more into renewable energy than I had imagined," Mwasaru says.

Now he's determined to show the world how to turn energy into opportunity and vice versa. The only way to do that is to stop seeing things as waste and start seeing them as resources instead.

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

Researchers at Harvard University have studied the connection between spanking and kids' brain development for the first time, and their findings echo what studies have indicated for years: Spanking isn't good for children.

Comments on this article will no doubt be filled with people who a) say they were spanked and "turned out fine" or b) say that the reason kids are [fill in the blank with some societal ill] these days are because they aren't spanked. However, a growing body of research points to spanking creating more problems than it solves.

"We know that children whose families use corporal punishment are more likely to develop anxiety, depression, behavior problems, and other mental health problems, but many people don't think about spanking as a form of violence," said Katie A. McLaughlin, director of the Stress & Development Lab in the Department of Psychology, and the senior researcher on the study which was published Friday in the journal Child Development. "In this study, we wanted to examine whether there was an impact of spanking at a neurobiological level, in terms of how the brain is developing."

You can read the entire study here, but the gist is that kids' brain activity was measured using an MRI machine as they reacted to photos of actors displaying "fearful" and "neutral" faces. What researchers found was that kids who had been spanked had similar brain neural responses to fearful faces as kids who had been abused.

"There were no regions of the brain where activation to fearful relative to neutral faces differed between children who were abused and children who were spanked," the authors wrote in a statement.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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