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Spreading a scientific way of life

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Give a man a fish and he’ll have a seafood supper. Teach a man engineering principles and he could start an aquafarm, devise a better net or fishing pole or maybe even come up with an entirely new way to combat chronic fishlessness.

That’s the premise behind a nonprofit organization called Future Scientist that teaches people to use basic science and engineering to solve problems — and then encourages them to teach others to do the same. The group is the brainchild of biological engineers Gautham Venugopalan (below, right) of the University of California, Berkeley and Richard Novak (below, left) of UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco. “Science is not just for scientists,” Venugopalan says.

Among its projects, Future Scientist has staged an expedition to Haiti to help set up solar panels and is leading an ongoing effort to clean up water supplies in Portobelo, Panama. Anyone can get involved: Volunteers who cover their own trip expenses can contribute their skills to projects and learn to work with communities abroad.

While traveling in Peru, Venugopalan and Novak met villagers who had been given a generator. When the generator broke, no one knew how to fix it, and the gasoline was too expensive anyway. So now, unlike many aid groups, Future Scientist tries to work with the resources and expertise already in a community.

In Portobelo, the team asked residents of the Caribbean coastal community what problems plague their town. Doctors said they see many patients with waterborne illnesses. Community leaders showed the scientists a drinking water tank in which silt collected after heavy rains, turning the water as dark as coffee.

Last year, Venugopalan, Novak and five UC Berkeley students helped design a dam to control storm runoff. Then in January, another Future Scientist team returned to Portobelo and worked with local high school students to build a filtration system that removes bacteria from their school’s drinking water. Not all of the group’s ideas work out. “There’s lots of error,” Venugopalan says. But, as it is in science, that’s all right, he says; what’s important is trying and learning.

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