Community Papers

Coquitlam students thirsty for knowledge

A Grade 8 Maillard middle school class and a Grade 12 Gleneagle student have learned not to take their clean drinking water for granted.

At Maillard in Coquitlam, students used rudimentary materials collected from home and school to build their own water filters.

In Botswana, Saskia Vaisey learned first-hand about the struggles of the local bushmen.

At home, students used laptops, tablets and presentation software to complete their projects and dug out scraps from garbage cans and cupboards to make water filters.

In Africa, Vaisey ran a marathon a day in the blistering heat of the Kalahari desert and mingled with nomadic bush people struggling to water their cattle and satisfy their children's hunger and thirst.

More than 30 students on two sides of the world were linked by technology; here is their story:


"Are you sure that's clean?" teacher Lauren Rotzien asks a group of students who are filtering water in a contraption made of two-litre pop bottles lashed together with tape and a coffee filter to clarify the muddy brew.

She looks dubious but her warning goes unheeded and a boy takes a sip.

No one seemed to suffer any ill effects. In fact, the students appear to enjoy the learning experience and, judging by the noise, were throughly engaged in learning about water problems in Africa and what they would have to do to survive if there was no clean drinking water.

They were participating in a program called impossible2Possible (see sidebar) that links students on an international expedition with academic projects closer to home.

Maillard students

In this case, Maillard middle students were connecting with young adults, including Gleneagle Grade 12 student Saskia Vaisey, who were crossing 400 km of desert in Botswana, half of it by foot, to learn about the cultural, social and economic conditions of the last remaining Kalahari bushmen, or San people, and their struggle as they are removed from their traditional lands.

In text-to-video conferencing with Vaisey and the other six members of the i2P expedition, the Maillard students learned about the personal tolls of heat exhaustion and dehydration, and the challenges in finding water and cleaning it so it's healthy to drink.

"We learned what it takes to clean water in survival situations," said Ivana Basic, who with two other girls experimented using rocks, sand, sponges, and coffee filters to clean water and then measured results with a pH tester.

Another group of boys heated water in a pot and then captured the condensation in another container, hoping to recreate the survival method often used by Bear Grylls, host of the TV show Man vs. Wild when he finds himself in extreme conditions without access to clean water.

"It would be logical to clean it up," explained Boris Perdija, who said heating the water simulates the effects of sunlight and could be used to clean dirty water that might otherwise be a source of illness or disease.

"We thought, 'What could you use if you didn't have supplies?'" he said, acknowledging that some of the suggestions came from i2P students who were on the expedition.


The i2P curriculum for this expedition was developed by SFU chemistry professor and Port Moody resident George Agnes and is available online. Teachers accessing it will not only get ideas for experiments but background on the importance of water to plants and humans.

Agnes, who went on the eight-day expedition with the students, said it was challenging both physically and emotionally. Students learned to work as a team to run 45 km a day in 40 C heat. They had bottled water to keep them hydrated but it wasn't always enough, and students had to overcome their fear of scorpions and snakes, which were abundant, with the former often found beneath their tents in the morning.

"It was incredible for me, and I think for the students, because we saw the same parallels with the way indigenous people have been treated all over the world," Agnes said.

i2P runners

The group was told not to interact with the Kalahari people, who are eking out a subsistence living by raising cattle, but once a soccer game broke out on the outskirts of a village and another day, Agnes said, i2P students got to meet young nomadic bushmen preparing for a celebration. On the last leg of the trip, in a village called Gweta, a group of children joined the i2P students on their run.

On safari, the students witnessed a lion kill, a rare opportunity they were told, and camped in some of the most isolated outposts on the planet, where they saw more cows than people.

Although Vaisey prepared for months before the trip, working with three personal trainers and running 30 km a day, she said nothing could really prepare her for her African experience.

"This was the place that was the most different than I've ever been, not just the geography but the people," she said. "We were there only for two weeks but it made a big impression on me."

She said the combination of gruelling runs, when the students ran a marathon each (about 45 km) a day for four days, sleeping outside, meeting new people and learning about their difficult lives taught her a lot, and she's eager to share her newfound knowledge with others.

"I was interested both in how the people adapted to living in such dry conditions, both the people and the plants, and the conflicts with San indigenous people, the bushmen. Their conflicts are about water," she said.


The i2P students were living in an extreme environment that most Tri-City kids could only imagine. For example, students at Maillard wondered why the lighting was so poor during the video conference. Flash lights and truck headlights were the only source of light available, it turns out, something Saskia quickly got used to once it got dark. She also learned to appreciate water's life-giving moisture when she crossed the Botswana salt pans.

"We drank seven litres of water a day," she recalled.

She never thought of quitting, though, crediting her colleagues on the expedition and her own mental strength for getting her through. Now, she plans to meet with Pitt River middle school students in Port Coquitlam to share her story.

It's likely Pitt and Maillard middle students, comfortable in their warm, well-lit classrooms, won't be able relate to Vaisey's experience of camping and running in the extreme environment of the Kalahari desert. But teacher Lauren Rotzien thinks they'll learn something.

"Anytime you can connect outside of school is a good thing," she said.


• impossible2Possible (i2P) is a California-based non-profit organization that sponsors youth expedition with academic themes linked to important world issues. This year's theme is water availability and use in the Kalahari Desert, and seven students studied the issue while running and touring through Botswana between Oct. 30 and Nov. 8. For more information as well as details about the upcoming expeditions, visit


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