Action Research: Uganda

Sixth graders study the power of the Nile and the impact of the new Isimba Hydroelectric Power Station.
It began with a casual conversation during a professional development day back in August. Science teacher Eric Friedenson told of his trip to the White Nile in January of 2018 and his plans to return later in the fall to document the damming of the Nile. While there, he spoke to farmers, service industry locals, and healthcare professionals and brought videos of these different stakeholders back to GDS. Sixth grade teachers Kate Maloney and Toussaint Lacoste saw an important opportunity to extend their students’ study of the Nile beyond ancient Egypt.

Despite a 2007 non-development agreement between the Ugandan government and the International Development Agency (IDA) and the World Bank, the Ugandan government awarded a contract to the China International Water and Electric Corporation to build the Isimba Hydroelectric Power Station on the Nile River. Construction of the dam began in 2015 and was completed in January 2019. The massive reservoir it created has left entire communities, farms, and industries literally and completely underwater.

Here at GDS, 6th grade students began in ancient Egypt to understand how the Nile’s power impacted societies and how technological advances—then and now—create winners and losers. As students turned their attention to modern day, Eric’s work proved invaluable. Kate explained, “His video interviews helped students delve into different perspectives and capture the nuances of the dilemma. By listening to others across the ocean, students' conceptual grasp of the distinction—and significance—between primary and secondary sources deepened. We observed such authentic, thoughtful engagement!”

Working in groups, students researched the dam’s construction to understand its impact on each of five different Ugandan constituencies: the Ugandan government, tourism industry, health officials, farmers, and locals in the vicinity of the Isimba dam. At the culmination of the project, each group produced a one-minute public service announcement video based on their research. (Watch some examples below.)

Students in 6th grade teacher Toussaint Lacoste’s class shared oral summaries of their research as they prepared to begin outlining their videos.

Representing health officials, Grace Zia ’25 and Jhet Bond ’25 quoted findings from the Lancet Journal of Planetary Health identifying central Uganda as a population at risk for malaria, with projections for increased outbreak in the 2.1–2.9 million range for cases associated with the dam’s reservoir. “Mosquitoes are attracted to stagnant water,” they explained. “The reservoirs are a breeding ground for a lot of insects that carry diseases. Additionally, all areas that are scheduled to be flooded by the dam have stopped receiving government support.”

Mara Grace ’25 and Caleb Robinson ’25, though opposed to the dam as individuals, represented government officials and argued that the hydroelectric power station would provide electricity in a country in which 85% of people have none. “The government will make money on the dam that can be used to build up the infrastructure and economy of Uganda.”

Representing the tourism industry, Oliver Hsu ’25 and Callie Solomon ’25 noted, “Kayakers, rafters, and rapids will disappear now that the dam is in. Wildlife will also be impacted, and there will be fewer animals to see. Tourists won’t have as many things to spend their money on, and many will choose to avoid exposure to malaria by not visiting Uganda. In turn, that will impact people in the hospitality industry.”

Toussaint explained, “Students have been able to make strong connections with how privilege, technology, access to resources, and the economy impact the gap between those nations that are developed and those that are developing. When we speak of equity and access, it’s not just an ancient or forgotten idea; it’s a reality for many around the world, and these scholars have done a great job in understanding those hardships and difficulties from other perspectives—not just a GDS viewpoint.”

At the culmination of their project, Dr. Jessie Stone visited the students to talk about her mission to provide preventative and primary health care and education through her Soft Power Health clinic in Uganda. She explained about the devastating impact of the dam on local communities, answered eager questions about malaria and her medical work, and told students how she first fell in love with the White Nile on a kayaking trip in 2003. Several of the students’ videos used imagery from kayaking and rafting alongside interviews with locals.

The 6th graders produced a total of 26 videos between Toussaint’s and Kate’s classes. We are sharing three examples below:
  • View a sample video highlighting locals by Bella Carmen ’25, Nora Sasche ’25, and Leo Cohen ’25.
  • Max Anopolsky ’25, Kwaw Pobee ’25, and Kenji Yokote ’25 produced a video to make the case from Ugandan health officials.
  • Naomi Borek ’25, Tigin Unsal ’25, Simon Loftus ’25 represented the Ugandan government in a video.
While it is now too late to prevent this dam on the White Nile, it is not too late to ensure that those displaced are properly compensated. Visit www.savethewhitenile.org to make your voice heard and lend support for those impacted. Furthermore, these students move forward with robust research and advocacy skills they will surely put to action in other arenas. Whether guarding other rivers and communities from threats of new dams or learning to combat hunger in our own city, the work of Georgetown Day School continues: preparing students to take on the great challenges of their complex world. Learn more about GDS's community engagement »

Staff writer Danny Stock tells the stories of teaching, learning, competing, creating, and performing at Georgetown Day School. He is a former GDS second grade teacher and current parent.
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Georgetown Day School is a coed, preK-12, non-sectarian private school in Washington, DC with small class sizes and a diverse school community. Our comprehensive, innovative curriculum includes hands-on learning, honors and AP classes, as well as advanced-level math and STEM courses. An education is not just college prep and SAT scores. GDS teachers focus on providing the best education for each child, from elementary grades through high school. The school performing arts program includes theater, dance, and music. The athletics program offers competitive sports for student athletes, including cross-country, track, soccer, lacrosse, and crew/rowing. With our strong commitment to financial aid, an independent school tuition is affordable.