Ian Lockwood


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Sustainability Lessons at the Sholai School

Kitchen area of the Sholai School oveshadowed by  the higher Palani Hills.

Kitchen area of the Sholai School overshadowed by the higher ranges of the Palani Hills.

Several weeks ago my family and I took an eye opening day trip to the Sholai School just down the hill from Kodaikanal. The visit has helped me think about ecological teaching and learning as well as themes that are at the center of my work as an educator, photographer and writer. I entered the teaching profession in order to make a living learning and teaching about the planet with a special focus on South Asia. Increasingly, as I was reminded of on this trip, the idea of sustainability has come to be a central theme in my professional and personal life.

The Sholai School, also known as the Center for Learning Organic Agriculture and Appropriate Technology (CLOAAT), was set up by Brian Jenkins in 1989. It has grown slowly and now has considerable land area and a broad range of educational goals that it addresses. The school size is small-only about 40 students- but it addresses a range of ecological and sustainability themes . Students actively participate in their living, food production and the maintenance of the school. The teaching of J. Krishnamurti have been instrumental in shaping Brian’s world view and the pedagogical focus of the Sholai School. Brian is an old family friend who I first met when he spoke to our senior auto maintenance class at Kodaikanal International School in early 1988. The Sholai School also owns a Stirling Dynamics (India) ST-5 biomass-fueled engine which my father Merrick spent time looking at and advising Brian on.

Brian Jenkins the founder, principal and man behind the Sholai School vision. Seen here collecting rubbish at the school's landmark footbridge.

Brian Jenkins the founder, principal and man behind the Sholai School vision. Seen here collecting rubbish at the school’s landmark footbridge.

During the course of our visit we were able to see most of the campus and enjoyed a personal tour from Brian. The school was not in session but the staff was working on various projects and the fields. The Petupari Valley, where the school is located, is known for its coffee, fruit production, home-made cheeses and idiosyncratic people looking to make something different in the world. With an altitude of 1,000-1,400 meters it is a less extreme environment than the upper Palani Hills plateau. This is well suited for agricultural experiments and has the “goldilocks” just-right feel to its weather. Effective water management is a crucial aspect enabling success of the Sholai School experiment. The school uses surface water from streams, collects rain water and also has several wells, such that they are self-sufficient and free of any municipal or government water supply. They are  independent of grid electricity and generate power through photovoltaic panels and a micro-hydroelectric turbine. Cooking is done on biogas (fed by waste from cows and the campus toilets) and wood collected from the large compound. The campus includes numerous plots of agricultural land where the community grows much of their own food using organic methods. The buildings, built of stone and covered with tiled roofs, are aesthetically pleasing and look similar to the nearby village hamlets.

We weren’t able to observe classes in session but the critical aspect of the curriculum involves teaching students the practical skills for living sustainably. The Gandhian ashram ideal has influenced the planning and the whole community participates in daily maintenance (seva) of basic needs. Although Brian has had his differences with neighbors there is clearly an attempt to break down barriers and invite the local community to participate in the experiment. I appreciate this, remembering how so many international schools that I have been associated with function as bubbles of elitism in their communities. At the Sholai School there is an emphasis on hands on learning that primarily focuses on providing healthy, organic food.  Brian has a special interest in mechanical learning and there are automotive and wood workshops, reminiscent to me of Johnny Auroville’s place. Brian’s historic 1930s Austin 7, the vehicle that our class had inspected in 1988, is still working and Sholai students get a chance to work on it and several other vehicles. Place-based pedagogies are important and the students learn about the area’s biodiversity, the traditions of the Tamil villages and the history of the area. I was thrilled to see that they have a GIS lab and have done interesting work in map the watershed that their streams are fed by. The school offers students a chance to sit for the Cambridge (IGCE) exams, which allows them a chance to reenter the other world and attend university. There are also opportunities for older “mature students” (university age) to spend time learning at the Sholai School. Clearly the Sholai School faces its set of challenges: recruiting and retaining faculty and staff  is difficult and it takes a special teenager to take on the challenge of living and learning in its isolated valley. Brian is charismatic, headstrong and clearly eccentric, but he is a passionate voice for sustainability in the wilderness.

Further up the hill from Sholai School is Kodaikanal International School (KIS), now moving into its 112th year. It is an established school that played a historic role in introducing the International Baccalaureate into India and the South Asian region. Ideas of critical thinking, service to the community, an appreciation of the idea of India and learning based on values are important elements of the KIS educational philosophy. As students many of us were exposed to ecological and conservation issues through weekend outings and explorations into the Palani Hills. In my experience, our self awareness and spiritual growth was nurtured not in the church pew or classroom, but by these outside experiences and the interaction with friends of diverse backgrounds all in a unique, south Indian mountain landscape.

Flag Green on the main KIS campus. A favorite place for lazy afternoons, south Indian lunches and classroom lectures.

Flag Green on the main KIS campus. A favorite place for lazy afternoons, south Indian lunches and class interactions.

THe Ganga Campus of KIS, site of the primary and middle schools. THe large area gives a sense of the "old kodai"- cool, spacious and green.

The Ganga Campus of KIS, site of the primary and middle schools. The large area gives a sense of the “old kodai”- cool, spacious and green.

KIS has its roots in American Christian missions that used to send their children from across Asia to attend what was then a small residential school in a very sleepy, unknown Indian hill-station. My parents were both amongst those children, travelling from Madhya Pradesh and Ceylon to a far off place called Kodai. All that has changed now and the school caters to a largely urban Indian/global clientele. The town has grown into a small urban area with year-round tourist traffic (think of Daytona Beach crossed with a picaresque hill station, set to a pulsating Bollywood dance number!). The school is physically surrounded by this growth, though it has some of the largest, green pieces of property in the township. The school maintains excellent academic standards, places students in outstanding world universities and has produced citizens that seek to change the world in a positive way. Service to the local and global communities are important values in KIS but students are nevertheless pampered. Many of the students come from extremely privileged backgrounds and a large, hard- working support staff helps to keep the campus fed, clean and running. Environmental education is thus far limited to a classroom, service projects and the hiking program and there is room to explore ideas of sustainability. As an educator and KIS graduate it seems that there is much to be learned from the Sholai School experiment just down the ghat road. 21st Century learning, an evolving pedagogical idea of our times, will have to extend itself from using media and technology in learning to addressing the pressing ecological needs of our times. Sustainability and how we as a species can thrive and survive without destroying our life support systems is a fundamental focus need for education. As KIS and other residential schools in India look to empower students with ecological world views and a greater understanding of sustainability, the Sholai School experiment offers a small-scale case study of a possible pathway.

Further Links & References

Basu, Soma. “Thank you Mr. Jenkins.” The Hindu. 24 May 2012. Web. 28 July 2013.

“Kodai Hills Green School.” NDTV. Web. 25 November 2010. Web. 28 July 2013.

Krishnamurti and Education. Web. 28 July 2013.

Northfield Mount Hermon Work Program. Web. 29 July 2013. Check out this site to learn about the “work” program that all students participate in.

“Rocky & Mayur share a vegetarian meal at the Sholai School.” NDTV. 7 October 2012. Web. 28 July 2013.

Sholai School (Center for Learning Organic Agriculture) official site. 28 July 2013.

The Sholai WayGobar TimesWeb. 2006. 28 July 2013.

Written by ianlockwood

2013-07-29 at 5:58 pm

GIS Developments at OSC in 2012

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Bangladesh Change Matters

Two sets of images from the ESRI/Landsat site called Change Matters. In both sets of pictures an early (1975) Landsat thermal/infrared image is compared with a more recent one (2000). The third image on the far right shows the NDVI, which give an estimate on vegetation change (either increases or decreases) during that time period. The above image set shows the Dhaka urban area while the bottom image details the beautiful waterways and mangrove forests of the Sunderban. I was living in Dhaka when both images were taken. One notable feature in the lower set is the birth of what is known as “Egg Island” in the south-east of the forest. It is not visible in 1975 but by 2000, a year that I last visited the area, the island has emerged. Today it continues to grow (see Google Earth image at the end of the post).

This year has seen a steady growth of Geographic Applications (GIS) in it usage to promote student learning in the humanities and environmental sciences at OSC. Some of this has been in the classroom, where a greater number of students are using GIS software to meet course expectations in the Internal Assessment and Extended Essay. A good deal of the growth in the last year has been in my own understanding of the myriad applications and data sources that are now available to users. I’ve become especially interested in remote sensing and the Landsat data archive that is now freely available. Perhaps the greatest development in GIS as a tool for teaching and learning in recent years has been the explosion of online applications and freely available data. This post will offer a short synopsis of these with the aim of providing an overview of teaching and learning options of GIS with a special focus on the South Asian region.

At OSC we continue to use the ArcGIS platform as our primary GIS software package. When I started up the program several years ago I was aided by several useful ESRI publications and online lesson plans from the ESRI Education Community. Notable amongst the books was the series Our World GIS Education (four volumes, first published in 2008). These are a bit dated now but the lessons and data still serve as a basis for the DP Geography study of population pyramids and the MYP study of the South Asian monsoon. Meanwhile the UK’s Geographical Association, in collaboration with ESRI, has published a book entitled GIS for A-Level Geography by Peter O’Connor (2010). This is probably the single, best volume to have for IBDP teachers looking to integrate GIS into their teaching. The examples and data are UK-based but it succinctly explains all the basics and has good examples. For a comprehensive introduction to maps and their applications the 6th Edition of Map Use  (A. Jon Kimerling et al 2009) is an invaluable resource. Further print resources that I have acquired to aid teaching of GIS are listed in my Wikipage.

Galle Fort Field Work

Snaps shots from the Galle MYP Geography/Humanities Field study.

Snap shots from the Galle MYP Geography/Humanities field study.

In the early parts of this year I designed a unit of study around the historical city of Galle on Sri Lanka’s South Western coast. It was part of a broader unit on globalization and tourism using Sri Lanka’s experience as a case study. We were interested to see to what extent land use patterns in the fort reflected evidence of a  development strategy that uses tourism to promote economic growth. The study involved designing and then conducing a series of surveys on a short field visit. Both Grade 10 MYP Humanities batches went down and spent a day conducting interviews to and gathering field data. Students mapped this using land use data from the Urban Development Authority. An example of what the students produced from the study is given below. The fort makes an excellent location for study; it is compact, free of traffic and is a safe location for students to wander around in. The new Southern Expressway makes the trip doable in one day- a perfect example of time-space convergence.

Student work on truism and land use in Galle Fort featuring the talents of Leila, Jesse and xx.

Student work on tourism and land use in Galle Fort featuring the talents of Leila, Jesse and Shubhanshu.

GIS Day at OSC

We celebrated “GIS Day” on November 15th with the support of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). GIS Day, of course is a global event celebrated by organizations and educational institutions using GIS. The focus of our event this year was “using GIS to better understand, analyze and address climate change.” Salman Siddiqui the head the IWMIC GIS lab and I chose the topic based on some new work that IWMI is doing and the growing importance of understanding climate change and global warming that is evident in the IB Group III and IV curricula. Usign the OSC auditorium foyer we displayed a gallery of OSC student work and IWMI posters. GIS Solutions, lead by Thillai and Ramesh were on hand to talk about and promote different GIS software options here in Sri Lanka. The main event consisted of series of lectures that were aimed at a wide range of student ages. Salman gave the keynote lecture on how IMWI is using GIS to better understand and analyze climate change. The day was capped off with an interactive session in the library computer lab for participants. Juri Roy Bruman and Prunima Dehiwela brought a batch of Geography students from the British School and they helped give a broader perspective for options of using GIS in the IB/A-Level frameworks. Several OSC humanities and science classes joined the lectures and the turnout was healthy. Although we would liked to have invited more schools from Colombo, computer spaces for the interactive sessions limited this.

GIS Day 2012 Collage


In the August post I mentioned Bhuvan, the geo-spatial and earth observation portal from the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). With the support of IWMI’s GIS lab team I have learnt how to access some of its data and have been especially happy to be able to download a wealth of high-resolution tiles of remote sensing imagery. One of my first tasks was to learn how to use Web Map Service (WMS) links in ArcGIS and Q-GIS. This essentially allows you to import map data that is found on an online server into your GIS software and then combine it with shapefiles and raster data that you have in your own databases. Seems quite intuitive, but it was a revelation to actually succeed in combining the data. Bhuvan hosts a detailed land cover WMS file (see map below) and there are other data sets (floods, waste lands etc.).

SWG WMS (12 2012)

Land cover map of the southern Western Ghats with data provided by the Bhuvan land use/land cover (terrain) WMS. The 500 m contour was generated from an SRTM using ArcMap.

Bhuvan’s remote sensing data for India is of a high quality, but depending on what area you want it may not always be free of clouds & haze. You have several choices about data under the Thematic Services page where, with a simple login, you can download compressed files. These are unprocessed files with 4 tiles each and you need to process them like you would a Landsat file with multiple layers of multi-spectral imagery. It has been nearly six months since I processed Landsat files and I had to re-learn how to do this. I was aided by Jarlath O’Neil-Dunne of the University of Vermont’s very helpful online slide show. It turns out that the tiles of the Palani Hills area have excellent clarity and resolution. Other areas in the southern Western Ghats (High Range, KMTR, Nilgiris etc.) are not of the same quality. At this point they only have one tile per area for the 56m AWiFS imagery. That should change in the future.

Palanis with Bhuvan Images (12_12)

ESRI’s Change Matters is an easy to use website that allows you to look at early and late Landsat imagery as well as a NDVI images that map change in vegetation. It offers two Infrared views of areas with contrasting dates that are juxtaposed with the NDVI image. The comparison is startling especially when you look for signs of change in vegetation. In the Amazon it is the incredible loss of forest that is striking. Closer to home, the Palani Hills show an apparent increase in vegetation. However, as we all know that is because most of the native montane grasslands were replaced with fast-growing tree species such as eucalyptus during the last 20-40 years. In some places you need to be aware of seasonal changes in vegetation, say between the dry and monsoon seasons in South Asia. Clouds can also be represented as vegetation decreases so the data must be analyzed carefully to get a sense of change.


Another set of images courtesy of the ESRI/Landsat site Change Matters. This set illustrates changes in the Palani Hills and Highwavys. The addition of vegetation through introduced plantations in the upper Palanis is notable.

There are several new developments aiding data acquisition for GIS applications. Google has launched its Earth Engine, which is designed to be a portal for a mass collection of spatial data. NASA and the USGS are also working to consolidate their data under a new site called Reverb. This is where you will go in the future to mine the vast databases of  US government-funded spatial data repositories.

Egg Island (2011) Google Earth Image

A favorite place for birders and naturalists exploring the Sunderban in Bangladesh is “Egg Island.” The Guide Tours led by the Mansur family always took its visitors to Kotka and the area at the southern-eastern portion of the forest. What was once little more than a muddy bank at the point where the forest gave way to the Bay of Bengal was forming every year into a bigger, and bigger island. I first went there with birdwatchers Dave Johnson, Ronnie Halder, and Enam El Haque. Reading about their ongoing visits to the area makes me nostalgic for that wonderfully ethereal forest where I had so many memorable experiences. I continue to use it as an example of succession in a tropical forest. Unfortunately it has been hard to find time to return for an actual visit. The best I can do is view it through the lenses of satellites and the  Change Matters site has a fascinating look at the world’s largest mangrove forest. Egg Island wasn’t there in 1975 when the early passes of the Landsat satellites were made and Bangladesh was a newborn country. But the island had started to form in 2000 when we visited the area looking for Masked Finfoots, Rudy kingfishers, signs of Bengal tigers (we saw pug marks on the beach) and more…! Today it is growing into a larger island in spite of cyclones and sea level rise. This Google Earth images is from 2011.

Written by ianlockwood

2012-12-15 at 6:38 am

GIS Developments at OSC in 2011

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Sinharaja rainforest in the south west portion of Sri Lanka has been an ideal field study site for OSC’s DP Geography and Environmental Systems a& Societies classes for the last seven years. Increasingly, with changes in the syllabi, we have been looking at interactions between human communities and the different ecosystems that are a part of this World Heritage Site. Use of spatial data and mapping study sites using GIS have become integral to our studies.

The last year has seen continued growth go the GIS program at the Overseas School of Colombo. We continue to maintain a concurrent license of ESRI’s ArcMap 10, together with several extensions (3D, spatial analysis etc.) in a package designed for schools, universities and libraries. We have invested in spatial data from the Sri Lanka Survey Department and have obtained vector data for our study sites at Sri Pada/Peak Wilderness and Sinharaja rainforest. Equally important has been the contribution of data and guidance from several national and international organizations in Colombo. Dilip Hensman at the World Health Organization (WHO) has helped us with up-to-date data on health outbreaks, notably dengue at a district and DS (Divisional Secretary)  level in Sri Lanka. Skylor Knoll utilized this in his world studies extended essay. He investigated spatial patterns of rainfall and dengue–related mortality over a two-year period. Tushara at the World Food Program (WFP) has been a helpful guide with understanding and using up-to-date SRTM data. In the previous year he presented a lecture on how the WFP uses GIS to better provide food to (flood and conflict) affected areas in Sri Lanka. Senior student Camie Raguin conducted a short environmental impact assessment as part of her extended essay in the northern areas. With the aid of the able skills of Alex Mylvaganam, she was able to utilize UNDP spatial data to produce her own basic locational maps of her study site. Salman Sidique and his team including Ad Ranjit and Sajid remain one of my best resources for tinkering help. IWMI’s GeoPortal is a great place for free vector data of Sri Lanka and the basin areas where they are working.

Sample student work (Satyanshu & Vera) from a study on demographic trends in contrasting countries using age-sex pyramids generated on ArcView by the Grade 11 DP Geography class in the Fall of 2011.

OSC students in Sinharaja negotiating moss covered boulders along a riparian patch of unlogged forest near the research station. Group shot with Martin at his lodge at the end of the study, a tradition started on our first study in 2005.

One result of our continued GIS development at OSC is that this year’s IBDP Geography classes produced far superior maps of the IA field study site at Sinharaja. This year almost many of the students looked at some aspect of land use in the area and all the students created their own original maps (see samples below). The 1:50,000 vector data from the Sri Lanka Survey Department may be slightly dated but it provides a good basis for ground truthing and observation. We have more GPS units and thus teams can go in different directions to gather data simultaneously. The field visit happened in May 2011 but it took several months to process the data and to finally write it up into their final reports that will be submitted for the DP Geography exams 2012.

Three different maps from the Sinharaja Geography IA showing land use data, GPS points and the ranges of colorful options that students have when putting together their individual study maps. The picture shows a transect traversing a stream in primary forest above the Sinharaja research center. Maps by Terunaga (above two) and Sascha (below).

Collecting different types of data: Harini interviewing a woman about social economic conditions and home garden crop choices, Sascha checking water quality (temperature, turbidity, DO etc.) below Sinharaja using a Vernier probe and students taking GPS points along a secondary forest transect in Sinharaja’s Core Zone.

Sample student work from the MYP Humanities course. Leila, Tomosso and Dylan’s presentations of their spatial studies of the monsoon and other factors (human population, crop choices, land forms etc.). The posters were generated on ArcMap 10 after doing individual analysis on each data frame.

The Grade 10 MYP Geography class, which is now integrated with the History course, spends its first term looking at aspects of the monsoon in South Asia. This is broad-based learning activity that looks at physical aspects of the monsoon, its affect on agriculture in the region and what impact it has on South Asian culture. Most of the time is spent exploring and extended a lesson on the South Asian monsoon that is a module in Anita Palmer et al. Mapping Our World Using GIS. The study coincides with the end of the South West monsoon and the onset of the North East here in Sri Lanka. An amusing aspect is capping the unit off with a showing of a condensed version of Lagaan, the Oscar-nominated Bollywood film. In the story a severe drought and the monsoon serve as important metaphorical backdrops to a lengthy cricket battle in a fictional location in western India during the late 19th Century. The students produced an annotated poster illustrating a geographical question and aspects of their investigation. They need to include 1-3 maps, graphs and annotations (samples above). This will be submitted as moderated samples for their Humanities course.

Personal explorations with GIS Data from South Asia. The two larger scale maps were used for various assessments in MYP, while the Arugam Bay land use was an exercise in using different layers of data from Sri Lanka’s East Coast. The data on the above left map of South Asia is courtesy Natural Earth, which has a free global data set with elevations and bathymetric data.

GIS generated map showing OSC’s post-tsunami supported pre-schools near Hambantota.

On a personal level I made strides in developing my own cartographic skills using GIS when I had to design and produce several maps for my Sri Pada exhibition. “Necessity is the mother of invention” and I continue to get some of my best work done under such conditions. One of the maps below highlights the OSC service projects with Tsunami affected communities in the Hambantota area.

I have also started to explore a variety of other GIS applications, though because we have the license most of my efforts have been focused on ArcView skills. There are now several open-source GIS software packages, including Q-GIS. I have also started to build up a personal teaching Wiki for students to use as an online repository of links and references. I have a dedicated page of GIS Resources with special focus on Sri Lanka and South Asia.  In this next year I hope to polish student skills for use in their course, continue to build up our database of spatial data and to further explore different GIS applications in education.

Written by ianlockwood

2012-01-22 at 5:44 am

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