Girls using science to change their communities in Kenya

Written by Lucy Mwandawiro, International Baccalaureate chemistry teacher and Educating Girls in Science (EGIS) project coordinator, reports on some of the achievements of the EGIS outreach project run by the Aga Khan Academy Mombasa.

When I was growing up, I believed that science was difficult because all my classmates told me so. It was only when my chemistry teacher told my dad about my talent in science that I moved from home science class to chemistry class. This was the beginning of my learning encounter with chemistry, which ended up with an advanced degree and a career in teaching science. More than 20 years later, in August 2016, I will be part of a team bringing together over 100 girls in Kwale County, Kenya to talk about how they are taking responsibility for bringing solutions to their communities based on their science experience in class.

 
Using classroom science to improve quality of life

Rechal Adam is one of these girls. She is confident, a good communicator and has taken a leading role in her school’s science club to make life better for those around her. Together with science club members and their teacher’s support, they have taken part in a community-initiated project which is taking science beyond the classroom.

On interviewing community members, Rechal and her friends found that many of the homes do not have toilets. When it rains, the surface water gets contaminated, and this is the same water that some people drink. Rechal and her friends found that cholera, diarrhea and dehydration are common sicknesses in their community. According to United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6, at least 1.8 billion people globally use a source of drinking water that is fecally contaminated, and each day nearly 1,000 children die due to preventable water and sanitation-related diarrhoeal diseases.

These girls are part of the Educating Girls in Science (EGIS) project, which is supported by the Intel Foundation and Aga Khan Foundation USA and implemented by the Aga Khan Academy Mombasa. EGIS has trained girls in science clubs to use classroom science to respond to issues within their communities. Its purpose is to encourage positive changes in attitude towards girls taking science subjects and showcase science as a life skill to improve the quality of life.

Rechal, together with the science club members, have suggested the use of biosand filters as a way to clean the water, reduce gastrointestinal diseases and create awareness. They reflect in their proposal that “although this may not solve the water crisis in the Jego community, it can become part of a comprehensive public health policy to restore the fundamental right to clean water.” The water filter has gone through progressive improvement after presentation to their peers and science teachers. The hope is that eventually it will provide members of the community with a means of accessing clean drinking water.

 Solving problems with biogas

As a student, I understood the science taught in the classroom, but I silently struggled to link many of the topics with everyday experiences outside the class. EGIS girls, Lindsey Chanzera and Shufaa Salim, among 63 other science club members at Matuga Girls High School, are making strong connections between classroom learning and improving the quality of life. They came together to figure out how to deal with the smell from leftover food in their school and suggested the breakdown of organic matter in the absence of oxygen to produce biogas.

 

With the support of their teacher, Mr Rajab Tsuma, their solution was an innovative mini biogas plant using locally available material. While exploring the issue, the girls realized that biogas is a good alternative to fuel and could be used in rural areas where electricity is not available. They found out that different types of animal waste have been used as biogas in other parts of Kenya. This solution is one way of addressing a large global issue. United Nations SDG7 has reported that over 1.2 billion people – one out of every five people in the world – do not have access to electricity. The majority are concentrated in a dozen countries in Africa and Asia. The Matuga girls are now collecting and testing their product as they create a cleaner environment around their school kitchen.

Developing competencies in science

Through EGIS, the Aga Khan Academy Mombasa has been working with the Ministry of Education Science and Technology; the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD); the Centre for Mathematics, Science and Technology in Africa; and science teachers on teacher training initiatives. To date, the EGIS program has developed training materials and has trained 41 male and 24 female teachers in inquiry-based approaches for teaching science, as well as methods for making the subject more relevant to the experiences girls go through in their daily lives.  

The 24 community-based projects undertaken by the girls in the EGIS program are enabling them to acquire competencies recommended by KICD, including critical and creative thinking, problem solving, decision making and communicating effectively. The EGIS team looks forward to meeting these girls and their science teachers in August 2016 to create a forum where these competencies will be demonstrated as knowledge, skills, attitude and values change.