When a conceptual physics class at Mamaroneck High School covers the physics of peanut shellers, the students’ eyes light up and each clamors for a chance to speak. It’s not this simple machine – which separates peanuts from shells – that excites the students. Instead, their enthusiasm comes from using the machines to improve life for some of the world’s poorest in rural Malawi.
Since Thanksgiving, the students have held bake sales and solicited private donations to send a set of five hand-powered peanut shelling machines to several Malawi villages in the Lilongwe (central) region. Since a bushel of shelled peanuts sells for ten times the price of an unshelled bushel, each machine will increase the income of the local farmers tenfold and substantially reduce their workload. (De-shelling peanuts by hand is very difficult, and the slow work limits profits and restricts the amount of food farmers can provide.)
“Our first challenge as a group was to explain this complicated project to the high school administration and then get approval for it,” explained Dr. Michael Franzblau, the MHS physics teacher who discovered Full Belly Project, a non-profit dedicated to designing and distributing low-tech, income-generating agricultural devices to developing countries. He and the students had been researching possible causes for the class to adopt, with the one criterion that there be a relevance to physics. “Although this project is certainly unique for a high school physics class, it is in many ways comparable to a class a college student may take at some of the large universities with social engineering curriculums,” he said.
MHS is the first high school to work with Full Belly Project, but the project’s executive director, Jeff Rose, said his organization hopes to work with many more high schools in the future and to use the work that MHS is doing as the basis for a new, dynamic high school curriculum.
“Working on a project like this is terrific for high school students because it opens their eyes to an international perspective, which is crucial to our country and to the world,” said Mr. Rose. “Ultimately, the plan will be to connect U.S. schools with schools in Africa for an international collaboration. I’ve been quite impressed with the enthusiasm and dedication these students in Mamaroneck have shown towards this project.”
Researching the physics of the peanut sheller – known as the “Universal Nut Sheller” – employs a few basic physics principles, which Mr. Franzblau’s students have been diligently studying: torque and leverage (when you turn the crank), centrifugal force (the spinning of the handle out to the side when you turn it) and friction (how the shells are separated from the nuts). When students demonstrate how the universal nut sheller works, they speak confidently about the science behind it. They are proud to point out how they are learning by experience, and they speak to the ‘real-world example’ they feel is benefiting them.
“It’s especially gratifying to see how involved these kids are and how much they as a group are taking ownership of the project,” said Dr. Franzblau. “For many of them, it’s the first time they’ve been intimately involved in a community service project, and it’s very rewarding.”
The students have been corresponding with Lameck Makutu Jr., a Malawi engineer who will build the nut shellers on site. They also raised enough money to send a video camera that the villagers can use to document their experience with the Universal Nut Sheller. While they’re uncertain they’ll hear back about the impact the sheller has had, they are all fairly certain about one thing: they will have made a difference in many peoples’ lives. “And, for most of my students, that’s the most important thing,” said Dr. Franzblau.
The students used some additional funds to purchase a “demo” peanut sheller, which arrived at the high school at the end of May. They had a lot of fun testing it out and figuring out how it worked.
Each Universal Nut Sheller costs about $47 and serves 730 families or about 3,500 villagers. The product, developed and distributed by the Full Belly Project, won a 2008 Tech Award for its utility and innovation and was cited in Popular Mechanics.
Mr. Rose, a former Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa, just returned from spending three weeks in Malawi and is more energized than ever about the future of the Full Belly Project. “We’re conducting a survey with farmers to find out what they really need to increase their income; it’s our form of market research. People don’t usually ask the farmers themselves,” he explained. “We have a full business plan in place moving forward surrounding the simple technologies we’re creating and licensing to manufacturers. It’s pretty exciting.”
For more information on the Full Belly Project, visit www.fullbellyproject.org.