A guest post from Amy Buchanan-Hughes and Lina Munro, trustees of The African Science Truck Experience (TASTE) – a mobile science laboratory in Lwengo District, Uganda, which is partly funded by the Biochemical Society.
“The problem with Africa…” is a popular conversation topic in Uganda. Ask us at TASTE what is wrong in Africa, and we will tell you that the science scene here needs more global attention. Half of the Ugandan population are under 15 years old, many of whom study up to 15 hours every day at secondary school. One might assume this procures excellent exam results and yet in 2012, 42% of Ugandan students failed their Biology O-Level, 65% failed their Chemistry O-Level and 53% failed their Physics O-Level.
Of course, exam results are not everything, but the result of this poor foundation is that only 1 in 6 university students is studying a science-related subject. There is one doctor for every 12,500 people in the country (compared to one for every 450 people in the UK). In 2009, scientists from the UK published 45,649 scientific and technical journal articles. Ugandan scientists published 143. How can any country hope to develop without a scientifically trained workforce?
From what we have seen, there are 3 key reasons why secondary school students are failing their exams:
- Most schools are too poor to have science equipment, so the first time students see even a test tube is in the practical paper of their O-level exam – worth 40% of their total marks. They do not gain any scientific skills, either practical or analytical.
- Many teachers rely exclusively on the chalk and talk method, so students barely understand what they are taught.
- Science is seen as a boring, esoteric and inaccessible subject. Although some students aspire to be doctors, nurses or engineers, their motivations are the money and respect they will earn rather than an interest in the scientific work.
Using a mobile science lab, TASTE visits schools across Lwengo District to carry out exciting hands-on science lessons. We hope this will make the situation better by illustrating scientific theory in practice, instructing the students in science skills and above all, inspiring the next generation of African scientists.
The Ugandan school year starts at the end of January, and our first lessons took place on 6th February this year. Our most popular biology lesson during the first term started with an introduction to catalysts and enzymes. Starting with some hydrogen peroxide in test tubes, we asked the students to write what they observed before and after they added a small piece of avocado. At one school, the effervescent effect elicited an outburst of “It is amazing!” from one student. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the opportunity for a student to carry out even a simple experiment like this must be worth many times more.
In the same lesson, students carried out a simple experiment to determine the effect of pH on the activity of amylase. This was an opportunity for us to instruct them in many different laboratory skills, such as using pipettes, observing colour changes, and even the skill of following instructions in numerical order!
Our measurement for the speed of signals in our nerves was surprisingly consistent between schools, at roughly 10 – 20 ms-1. We compared it to the average speed of Stephen Kiprotich, Uganda’s gold medal winner at the 2012 Olympic Games, who won his marathon at approximately 5 ms-1. The students laughed at the thought of lying their nerves out end to end and challenging Kiprotich to a race.
John Cleese once said that “he who laughs most learns best”, but Ugandan students are frequently ordered to “get serious” and “read hard” rather than to enjoy what they are learning. When we started measuring reaction speeds using rulers, students inevitably started to drop them by mistake.
At first, they hastily stifled their giggles, fearing they would be punished, but when they realised that we were laughing along, they visibly relaxed and engaged with the activity.
Our regular work takes us to 13 different schools. We visit each school three times per term for a day at a time, carrying out practicals with the four classes leading up to O-level. For the younger students, the practicals often encourage ‘independent’ discovery – in one lesson, we give each student a magnet and ask them to classify any items they can find around the classroom as magnetic or non-magnetic. In the higher classes, the focus starts to shift to prepare the students for their practical exams.
Outside of these regular lessons, we get involved in as many other activities as we can, to maximise our reach and impact. During our first term of work, we noticed that most students are unable to draw graphs (further investigation showed that most teachers are also not confident and therefore avoid teaching the skill). We therefore ran free graph-drawing workshops for students across the district, and despite the fact that they were during the school holidays, we had packed classrooms every day.
We have also run four days of teacher training so far, to introduce teachers from our target schools to our upcoming lessons. The training is designed to empower the teachers to get involved with our lessons when we come to their schools, with the hope that in the long term they will be able to teach practicals even without us around.
On International Women’s Day (8th March), we held seminars for girls across the district to inspire them to choose science-based careers in the future.
As well as introducing them to a list published by the government of the eight most marketable career fields right now, all of which rely heavily on science (for example “the environment” or “biotechnology”), we brought out our copy of the Science Grrl calendar (see http://www.sciencegrrl.co.uk) and for the first time they started to believe that they could follow in these women’s footsteps.
More recently, we were invited to help out at the Biochemical Society’s A* Science Club Brain Masterclass at Mbarara University of Science and Technology, just a couple of hours from our headquarters. It was really exciting for us to work with students outside our normal age range (most students at the Masterclass were studying for A-levels), and from much better schools than those we normally work in. We were inspired by their insightful questions about the brain and their enthusiasm for all the activities throughout the day. At the end of the day, we spoke to the students about the possibility of working for us as lab assistants during their 8 month holiday between A-levels and university, and we have already had some interested phone calls.
Right now we are a very young organisation, but we have hit the ground running – so far we have reached 1360 students, and taught for over 300 hours. We are very grateful to the Biochemical Society as well as our other donors who have made this possible so far, and we look forward to continuing the work for many months and years to come.