At age 23, Isaac Newton was sent home from Cambridge University when the Great Plague hit Europe, killing an estimated 100,000 people and closing Newton’s school. During this period, he developed many of his fundamental theories, including calculus, that would greatly shape modern science. About 350 years later, nearly two million school-going children have been sent home from school because of Ebola, which has currently killed over 10,000 people. In addition to the almost one-year gap in schooling for young people, the economic implications of Ebola are catastrophic. However, similar to the way that artists, philosophers, mathematicians and scientists like Newton triumphed during and after the Great Plague, I am hopeful that young people will bring transformational change to Sierra Leone after this modern-day plague.
My hope comes from a new generation of problem solvers who have continued to propose and develop solutions to various challenges through Global Minimum’s (GMin) “Hack-at-Home” bi-weekly design series. The Hack at Home program has engaged over 900 young problem-solvers across Sierra Leone, who have submitted ideas for tackling community challenges, using virtual communication platforms like Facebook and Whatsapp to share their prototypes and receive feedback from mentors. For example, Jasonta Coker and Joseph Kebbie were among the youth who used locally available materials to create prototypes for personal protective gear for health workers. They were consequently introduced to leaders of the national Ebola Task Force and the Ministry of Health, to whom they presented their prototypes for feedback.
Jasonta and Joseph are not alone. Similar to the emergence of renaissance leaders like Robert Hooke (Hooke’s law of elasticity) and Robert Boyle (the “first modern chemist”) in London during the plague, young people in Sierra Leone are forming networks through the Hack at Home program that will support them as they continue to develop prototypes and solutions to challenges within their communities. Seventeen year old Hassan Swaray, an active participant in GMin’s learning initiatives, created and distributed a movie to combat stigmatization of Ebola survivors (he has since been invited to apply to be a National Geographic Young Explorer). Other youth are discussing ways to create a new schooling system while still others are testing new prototypes to manage garbage in their environments.
Sir Isaac Newton did not transform science in a day. However, many of his discoveries were based on theories he developed while home from Cambridge University during the plague. We are hopeful that school will resume in Sierra Leone shortly, but in the meantime, I draw strength from the home-bound hacking I see from youth like Kebbie, Hassan, and Jasonta. Who knows how their inventions today will shape science and the future of Sierra Leone?