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Back to School—Sitting down with Aaron Friedland

Aaron Friedland is the founder and executive director of The Walking School Bus foundation that works for the betterment of underprivileged children, to ensure that they are provided with a platform to enjoy affordable access to education. The organisation has helped thousands of students all over Uganda and India to achieve their dream of going to school. His work at UN Watch, a nonprofit, opened his eyes to the world of education and economics while giving him the inspiration to start The Walking School Bus organisation. We, at The MIT Post, had the privilege of conversing with him which led to him sharing his experiences and insights to us chronicling the growth of his organisation as well as about its future plans.

A TWSB Chicken Coop Installed in Putti Village. Image Credits: The Walking School Bus website

The Walking School Bus organization is a unique initiative taken to spread education. How did the idea come up? Was there any particular event that inspired its genesis? 

The short answer is yes. When I was in my first year at McGill University, I had an opportunity to spend some time in Uganda visiting the Abayudaya community, who thrive in Eastern Uganda and practice Judaism. An inspiring coffee farmer named J.J. Khaki decided to unite the Muslims, the Christians, and the Jews in the area and made them work together and farm coffee together. In doing so, not only did he improve the relationships between these communities, but also helped in improving the business. As the businesses improved, these farms started sending the children to school together which led to the emergence of interfaith schools and I’m very proud to say that these days some of these schools are being supported by The Walking School Bus. In terms of how the genesis took place while visiting Uganda, I was quite impressed by J.J. Khaki’s story and so wanted to see his work. What I noticed in doing so, was that some students had to walk over five kilometres to get to school every day, and so you had these people who had to work very hard to get there. This was when I first became interested in removing the distance that acted as a barrier to education.

While I started taking my Economics degree and applying it to their growth models, trying to help them optimise their coffee farming, a relationship was formed. But it wasn’t until four years later when I was doing my Master’s in Economics that I decided to visit Uganda again to truly understand how distance affected attendance rates. So what I started doing was, I would travel to school in the morning with the students and I quickly realized that once students got to school, they wouldn’t have any food and that made things difficult. So I figured that it was going to be difficult to motivate people to go to school if they didn’t have food once they got there. The other issue that I noticed was the number of teachers didn’t speak English very well, though English was part of the national curriculum. Many didn’t have good textbooks if any at all. There were classes with 200 students and one teacher using only five notebooks and so it didn’t make sense to be supporting people to get to school if the rest of the issues weren’t solved first. This experience made me realise that improving student-access to education required a more holistic approach and to me, this meant helping develop the transportation system and in the long run helping out with the other problems as well.

Aaron talking about his foundation. Image Credits: The Photography Club, Manipal 

Seeing how well people took to the principle of the organization around the world, are there new ideas that are being worked on with regards to expanding the functionalities of TWSB?

There are a few ideas and here and I will talk about the new innovations that are taking place in our curriculum program. We built solar power classrooms which we call break boxes. Also, we just added a few new pieces such as the bright box micro, which is an innovative box. It’s approximately a meter in length by a half a meter in height, and inside it, we have deployed Raspberry Pi microcomputers, and up to 30 tablets. Our entire offline education is actually stored on that and it comes with solar-powered Wi-Fi routers and range boosters. These are currently being used in United Nations refugee settlements in Uganda and are also being deployed in India. Another thing we’re developing is our break box macros and these are 20 and 40-foot solar power classrooms. These are also being deployed in United Nations High Commission refugee settlement programs. The curriculum has also been advanced, and essentially, it’s everything on Khan Academy along with everything from an amazing reading platform called SiMBi, which I also co-founded. It also includes all information from Ken and Wikipedia and is made available offline so you never have to pay monthly fees to access this content. And so we’re doing some pretty innovative things in the intersection of technology and education, which we’re very excited about.

There’s a sequence of meticulous steps followed during the introduction of the organization in a new area. What are some of the difficulties faced while setting up TWSB in a new place? Which country/area has been the most difficult to start the business in? Why?

One of the major issues we had, was the time it took to build the human resources. Sustainability always takes time. It’s very easy to plan a project and to think that it is going to work well. The difficult part is to actually make a development project last and have it run sustainably. And this is something that we pride ourselves in doing. But it takes a lot of time. The process involves initially identifying a few partner schools that are going to be good stakeholders, and those are identified based on how good the school management is. The school management plays a massive role. We look into how the school has allocated funds in the past and also whether they use their resources well. All of these things help us decide if they’re a good partner for us to be working with. Ultimately, if you don’t have a right partner who’s going to take ownership and be passionate about the project, the project will fail. So it’s very important that you slow down and identify the right partners.

In terms of difficulties that we’ve had, sometimes you think you know best when you don’t. A story that stands out to me was when one of the farmers and one of the communities that we were working within Uganda had agreed to run what’s called a linear programming Community Supported Agriculture model to identify the optimal crops, to maximize caloric output, to minimize water consumption and to maximize iron output. One of the headmasters, who’s a farmer, turned around and said,” I understand that spinach is best and that it’s going to be good for this. But I actually want a sweet potato.” We had to explain that we were farming specifically to optimize iron output. Finally, we had to reach a compromise in which we decided to allocate additional space for sweet potatoes because incentives have to be well aligned. If this individual wasn’t interested in supporting the farm because it didn’t have what he wanted, the project could have failed. This is an example of being a bit flexible and open-minded and recognizing that though you may know best, you actually might learn more from the locals and from their wants and needs and it’s important that you approach these things from that standpoint.

A Solar Powered Classroom installed in Putti Village. Image Credits: The Walking School Bus website

How was working in India different from working in the other countries you have set up similar ventures in?

I can actually sum it up in one word- jugaad. You see this “can do” attitude where a community will come together and say, “Okay, we need to get that ship container up on that hill and we don’t have all the resources we need and the crane isn’t gonna move far enough”, and then you have this jugaad or innovative approach, which is—let’s make it happen. What we see in India is that these the communities that we work with come together to frugally innovate and to just make things work. One example is how we’ve set up a water catchment system using this jugaad approach, which includes having gravity filtration going down into our water catchment systems. So we’re using gravity to have the water roll off the roof of our solar power classroom and into catchment devices. This follows a very job garden methodology for building water catchment systems with filtration in India and it works beautifully. It works perfectly because it ensures that the projects are successful and the communities because they’ve been innovative in helping with the projects, feel ownership of the project so they want to sustain them as well because they have heavily invested in them by providing ideas. While working in India, one of the things that have always inspired us is that jugaad approach. The other thing is just what a pleasure it is to work with these communities where you have the most incredible people who are so humble and who are so passionate about their work.

You have a background in economics. How useful was this while setting up the business model of the organisation?

I’d say it wasn’t very helpful. It was useful for all of the back-end research that we had to. But I am much more of a passionate researcher than I am a business guy. The business models were set up out of necessity more than anything else and our expedition business model is what helps to fund a big part of our projects.

TEDx Manipal featured Aaron as one of their main speakers. Image Credits: The Photography Club, Manipal 

How has your childhood and upbringing affected your adult life and the way you function as an individual? 

Travelling to school with kids in Uganda made me realise just how privileged my childhood was. I noticed how they had to walk more than five kilometres daily to get to school and how growing up, I didn’t have the same work ethic with respect to getting to school. If I was tired or hungry or wasn’t in the mood, I probably wouldn’t go to school and here you had people working very hard daily just to get to school. This really made me think a lot about my luxury of access to education and food and how much I had taken for granted. So that was when I first became interested in solving this problem. Another thing that served as inspiration was that I’m dyslexic and hence struggled to learn to read when I was growing up. This made me understand just how lucky I am to know how to read today because I had an amazing set of parents and an amazing social security net that cared for me and nurtured me.  If I had grown up in rural Uganda, people would not have been able to justify spending money on my education because it would have been too expensive. I would have probably joined the agricultural economy unable to escape poverty and I definitely wouldn’t be doing a PhD. I believe that it is imperative that the same educational social safety I was privileged to, is applied in more rural communities and also on a global scale. What excites me and the team and what pushes us to strive harder is the belief that this is possible and that this can happen.

How can we, as college students help in making education more accessible to those less privileged than us?

This is what I am most excited to answer. There are actually two ways college students can help make education more accessible and these are what I would like to explain right here. First thing being, come on an expedition with us at TWSB, meaning, start researching and applying your academic degree to meaningful research and then come apply it in the field with us. When we have field operation expeditions in India or Uganda, students from MIT are strongly encouraged to join us. We do a lot of work with raspberry pi microcomputers, and so we’re always looking for students to help us build these. Something else we require built are specialized sensors that monitor and evaluate how much water has been collected. We’re always looking to deploy more of our bright box micros, which require further UX UI and front end and back end development. And we’re always looking for passionate econ students and agriculture students to research or models with us. So researching and working with a Think Tank on an expedition is one way to help make education more accessible. Another way would be reading books out loud on SiMBi. That’s a really great way to support the global community of readers. Thirdly, I’d like to set up a Walking School club at MIT so that we can start actually having more student researchers coming with us frequently and they can also get credits when they research with us. That’s something that we’re very interested in doing because we believe it can help make a difference.