We live in a time when science, technology, engineering and mathematics surround us. They are an integral part of daily life.
Inventions that once seemed futuristic are now our reality. From the mobile phones we use, to the internet, how we commute and even the food we eat, we cannot separate ourselves from STEM and its place in the modern world.
In Africa, Kenya has been at the forefront of technology and innovation, with world firsts such as Safaricom’s M-PESA, which revolutionised financial services and accelerated financial inclusion. But the time has come for us to do more with the resources we have. It is time we took bolder steps towards laying the foundation for us to create our own innovations, to solve our own challenges, and perhaps even those of the rest of the world.
A great resource towards realising this ambition is our young people, who, with the right motivation and support, have the potential of using STEM to contribute significantly to the growth of our economy.
It is this vision that drove a group of science teachers from the Dagoretti Community in Nairobi County to come up with an initiative to change the perception that science is difficult and complex. The teachers, led by Mr David Olwanda, who is a Biology and Chemistry teacher at Riruta Satellite Education Centre, came up with the Dagoretti Science Open Day to ensure students in the community schools, many who come from lower-income families, have equal access to science equipment, information, and opportunities.
The first Dagoretti Science Open Day was recently held at Riruta Satellite Education Centre, bringing together students from five primary schools and three secondary schools in the area to interact with mentors from different fields of science. The sessions covered agriculture, waste management and renewable energy, coding, manufacturing, veterinary science, robotics, and artificial intelligence.
Students spent time with the mentors, dubbed ‘Science Inspirators’, from a variety of STEM-oriented fields and gained hands-on learning and understanding that STEM is cool, and that everyone practises some form of science all the time, whether they are conscious of it or not.
There were engaging demonstrations and presentations by Science Inspirators from Flexi Biogas, GearBox, TME Education, Global Minimum, and Fun and Education Global Network. The students also had one-on-one sessions with veterinarians Elijah Langat and Dr Diana Onyango.
Storytelling is a proven way of imparting knowledge. As such, the Science Inspirators also shared their experiences, from personal and financial challenges growing up, to tips and learning tools, encouraging the students that they too can achieve success in science.
Students were also exposed to a wide range of STEM applications, starting with basic science concepts using items found in the home, such as baking powder, to more complex uses such as science in manufacturing through engineering, artificial intelligence, and software, with demos of 3-D printing and a robotic arm at work. The students also studied motherboards and gained an understanding of their uses in machines.
To showcase the agricultural and environmental applications of STEM, a simulation that monitors illegal logging in a forest demonstrated AI at work in a real and relevant way, while a bio-digester demonstrated that it is not necessary to cut down trees for home fuel. The students also discovered that science can be used to identify an animal’s allergies, and that the way an animal walks can be an indication of illness.
Events such as the Dagoretti Science Open Day help to bridge the access gap, which is borne out of financial constraints that prevent many students from accessing such knowledge at public schools. Due to the low fees paid by students, it is a challenge for many schools in the community to have well-equipped science laboratories, let alone access higher-level science equipment and tools such as robotics.
According to Mr Olwanda, many students are not conversant with the vast array of careers and hobbies that exist in science. Additionally, many students do not believe they can perform well in science and carry the perception that it is too difficult, hence the need for events such as the open day to debunk such beliefs.
Fortunately, many organisations are aware of the role that they can play in championing STEM by supporting education and mentorship programmes.
Safaricom PLC, which has consistently supported youth empowerment through its BLAZE platform and its partnership with Young Scientists Kenya to promote uptake of STEM, was the main sponsor of the open day, while Coca-Cola provided refreshments for the students.
To ensure the gains made are sustainable, Mr Olwanda and the team plan to reach out to science teachers in other communities with the intent of holding science open days across various communities within Nairobi County and eventually, nationally. The team believes there are many opportunities for students through science, and it is important to reach as many students as possible and expose them to science in a new and exciting way.