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October 2022 (Volume 31, Number 9)
The kits—supported by the APS Innovation Fund—have already reached 1,400 students.
By Jesse Kathan | September 9, 2022
Secondary school students in Arusha, Tanzania, using static electricity to pick up small pieces of paper. WS2’s low-cost lab kits have reached 1,400 students across eastern Africa—and the initiative is aiming to reach more than 3,500 more.
When Cecilia Rolence was a child in Mgeta, a small village in Eastern Tanzania, she was fascinated by a doctor from the village hospital.
“[I remember] how smart she was in her white coat,” Rolence said. Her interest in science began to blossom. While her school had little laboratory equipment and few science instructors, Rolence found support in a female chemistry teacher, who empowered Rolence to enroll in university and eventually complete a PhD in materials engineering.
Now a textile and leather researcher at the Tanzania Industrial Research and Development Organization, Rolence is passing on her hard-won knowledge to help the next generation of young female scientists.
Rolence is part of the leadership team for WS2, an international collaboration of women scientists that aims to unite and support women in science and engineering around the globe. This year, the group distributed science lab kits to hundreds of schools across East Africa.
The organization was born after a 2016 conference in Arusha, Tanzania, when graduate students from the US and East Africa gathered to share their experiences and collaborate. There, Jill Wenderott, then a graduate student at the University of Michigan, met Joyce Elisadiki, a Tanzanian engineer and physics lecturer at the University of Dodoma.
“We connected both over being women graduate students in STEM, but also recognizing the differences in being a woman in STEM in different parts of the globe, and thinking of how we could work together to share resources to support women,” said Wenderott.
The two co-founded Women Supporting Women in the Sciences, an international collaboration of women scientists.
After hosting a series of professional development seminars, the organization received a grant from the American Physical Society’s Innovation Fund to develop laboratory physics kits for students in primary and secondary schools.
Seven international development teams with members from East Africa and other countries developed kits with topics ranging from astronomy to optics, each with two or three experiments and then a design challenge. Among those tasked with lab-kit design was Rolence.
The experiments were crafted to explore complex ideas, like electrical energy, using extremely accessible components, like balloons and bits of paper.
“We wanted the supplies to be very easy to obtain,” said Wenderott. “And we wanted each kit, if you were to use it with one student, for all of the supplies to be less than $2.75 USD.”
The teams also focused on making sure the science kits would be interesting and accessible to young girls. “Sometimes physics examples can be a bit focused from sort of the male perspective, like playing with cars and balls and ramps,” said Wenderott. “We were trying to design experiments that would be appreciated and enjoyed by boys and girls, wherever they were in the world.”
She said students particularly connected with the food science kits, which explored food preservation with materials science and chemistry. “These are things that really everyone is going to enjoy and engage with, whether you're a young boy or young girl,” said Wenderott.
So far, seven types of lab kits have been distributed to eight partner schools across Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Ethiopia, reaching 1,400 students—about 70% of them girls. The organization’s goal is to reach another 3,600 students—at least 5,000 in total—with the rest of the money from the Innovation Fund.
The organization is also beginning to analyze feedback from the partner schools and surveys students took before and after the activities.
“There's been a lot of really positive feedback,” said Wenderott. “We're hoping that we can see a change before and after, that maybe more young kids see themselves as liking science or being good at science.” The organization will start releasing results in November and plans to have a complete report available in early 2023.
Of the 1,400 students the lab kits have reached in eastern Africa, 70% of them are girls.
Now that the lab kits have been disseminated, WS2 is working to put the lab instructions—which include teacher and student manuals and surveys—online, where they’ll be available for free use by instructors around the world. They’re also working on translating the documents into other languages, such as Swahili and Portuguese.
Meanwhile, the teams that conceived the initial kits are already beginning to envision future experiments that could focus on topics like computer science or artificial intelligence. And longer-term, WS2 leaders hope that the international relationships the organization is building will lead to future initiatives and even research exchanges with African researchers like Rolance and Elisadiki.
“There's different things that can arise from creating an international initiative that really tries to create these personal connections,” said Wenderott. “The problems that we're facing . . . impact people that are not just in your local community, but really are in your global community. Finding ways that we can be collaborators across borders is really important.”
Jesse Kathan is a science journalist based in Berkeley, California.
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