Making Good Works Work
Fifty years ago, math and science were part of a very specific aspect of the American dream — one that led directly to innovation and financial success. Making the world a better place was a different kind of life philosophy altogether. When people tried to merge the two, it often didn’t produce the kinds of results that were hoped for or expected.
As a kid, Mark Cotton dreamed of becoming an engineer and making the world a better place. Now he’s part of a new generation of humanitarians who are trying to ensure that aid not only arrives where and when it’s needed, but that it’s also useful and gets used .
When Cotton arrived in Parombo, a small village in northwest Uganda, nearly two years ago to teach secondary math and science, he found donated textbooks and lab equipment gathering dust. Another Peace Corps volunteer one town over had several computers just sitting in storage. “There was a disconnect between the organization that brought the computers and the people actually using them,” Cotton, 23, explains.
Most of us give money or supplies to international aid groups and then cross our fingers and hope it does some good. But too often, there’s that disconnect to which Cotton refers. Computers and their masses of wires and cables go to places where electricity is intermittent at best. Physics textbooks land in villages where no one is trained to teach the subject.
Part of the problem centers on how we educate people in this country. Cotton has a degree in electrical engineering — not the kind of major one associates with extensive cross-cultural training and sociological study. If he had followed the track of many engineering students, he would have spent nearly all his time in college looking at equations, wires, software and machine guts.
But when Cotton arrived at Seattle Pacific University, a small Methodist university in the Pacific Northwest, the school was developing a major intended to produce scientists who are also successful humanitarians.
Cotton took one of the classes focusing on alternative energy, where he gained new insight into what it takes for a humanitarian project to be successful. “We read books on aid projects and why they failed — thinking about developing sustainable projects,” he explains. “What I took from that was this idea of community involvement and meeting people where they are. You can’t fix someone’s quote-unquote ‘problem’ by just dropping money.”
Seattle Pacific University isn’t the only school concerned that scientists aren’t equipped to help people both at home and abroad. Columbia University in New York offers studies in sustainable development — training civil engineers and urban planners to build without doing environmental damage. And at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, you can earn a degree in appropriate technology. In short, academia is finally realizing what Cotton discovered in Parombo — it takes more than the Pythagorean theorem to make the world a better place.
Putting his education into action, Cotton waited for his own village to receive a set of 11 computers, which thankfully arrived this year. The kicker? “They’re green!” says Cotton. Because they run on solar power, they don’t rely on Uganda’s power grid, which doesn’t reach his village — Parombo runs on generators.
Then, instead of teaching people basic computer skills, he launched right into turning his students into computer instructors. “I treat learning computers similar to learning a language — you become comfortable with it; you have a conversation with it,” Cotton says.
And it seems to be paying off.
“I’ll show one or two people something on the computer. And then I’ll see someone I didn’t tell passing that information on [to someone else]. I’m seeing a really organic trend of passing on knowledge — so maybe that will stick,” Cotton says hopefully.
Now that innovation and humanitarianism have merged, perhaps the next Peace Corps volunteer to arrive in Parombo won’t find those computers just gathering dust.