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International team develops physics lab kits for girls across Africa

27 April 2022

With practical and low-cost experiment designs, Women Supporting Women in the Sciences aims to encourage students to pursue physics.

Celline Omondi facilitates a secondary classroom in Kenya.
Celline Omondi facilitates a secondary classroom in Kenya as the students work on electrostatics experiments. Credit: Photo courtesy of Celline Omondi

After Celline Omondi graduated from Kenya’s Moi University in 2003 with a degree in education and a specialization in physics and mathematics, she went for a job interview at the high school in the Kenyan village where she grew up. She wanted to teach science courses and was excited to inspire the next generation of girls to pursue STEM fields.

However, when she arrived at 9:00am, she was instructed to sit and wait. And wait. And wait. For the entire day, Omondi stayed put, anticipating her interview. She believes the lead teacher was stalling, hoping a male candidate for the job would emerge and offer a more acceptable alternative.

“When the lead teacher saw me, she was not happy,” says Omondi. “She didn’t want a lady to teach physics and math. She was not trusting, not confident with a lady teaching physics.”

Luckily for Omondi and her future students, no such man presented himself. The school reluctantly hired her as the math and physics instructor, and the next year was difficult as Omondi worked to prove herself. The lead teacher continued to distrust her newest hire—that is, until the results came in for the form four (12th grade) students’ examinations in a variety of subjects.

“Mathematics was somehow the second-best subject,” Omondi says. “Physics, of course, was the best subject.”

Today Omondi is a lecturer at Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology in Kakamega, Kenya. She is also one of the leaders of Women Supporting Women in the Sciences (WS2), a young organization focused on connecting female scientists across the globe and providing outreach to girls in primary and secondary school. Along with about 70 collaborators, she has worked to build accessible, relevant, and fun physics lab kits for classrooms in Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, and beyond. Omondi believes these efforts may help change the perception of women in science in Africa and make interviews for future female science teachers a more equitable experience.

Igniting international collaboration

The idea for WS2 was sparked in 2016 in Arusha, Tanzania, when graduate researchers from the US and East Africa gathered for the Joint Undertaking for an African Materials Institute (JUAMI), a two-week immersive program to discuss potential collaboration opportunities. Jill Wenderott, a PhD student in materials science and engineering at the University of Michigan, and Joyce Elisadiki, a PhD student in sustainable energy science and engineering at the Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology in Arusha, met for the first time and formed a powerful connection. “We started talking about ways we could support each other globally, as women in STEM,” says Wenderott.

These issues were especially close to Elisadiki’s heart. “I chose science early. I just love it,” she says. “But I started in my village’s schools, where we don’t have science teachers. You find few girls go to science classes because they are afraid of it being hard.”

Joyce Lyimo (left) and Jill Wenderott (right).
Joyce Elisadiki (left) and Jill Wenderott (right), cofounders of Women Supporting Women in the Sciences, met in 2016 at the Joint Undertaking for an African Materials Institute conference. Credit: Photo courtesy of Jill Wenderott

As Wenderott and Elisadiki finished the last few years of their graduate education, they worked together to create virtual professional development workshops. The sessions were successful at helping women in STEM connect beyond the university, but the duo wanted to reach students at younger ages.

After earning her PhD, Elisadiki says, “I thought of how other girls in remote areas, where they don’t have labs, they don’t have any role models, how they can be reached. I thought, maybe if we have a certain group of females who are scientists, who are very successful in science, then we can be role models to other young ladies and they can be motivated to do science.”

From there, WS2 recruited a network of scientists to develop lab kits for primary and secondary school students. With the support of a 2020 grant from the American Physical Society (APS) Innovation Fund, the international collaboration split into eight teams, each focused on creating accessible but intriguing experiments covering a subtopic in physics, such as food science or light and color.

Electric experiments

During the design process, the teams focused on building low-cost and easily digestible experiments that could be done with materials readily available in Africa. In December 2021, the lab kits came to fruition as WS2 finalized the designs. Focus groups of students tested them at four locations in Africa and one in the US.

Although the lessons are meant to be relevant to all students, WS2 hopes that by bringing in women as facilitators for each experiment—tangible examples of African women scientists as role models—it can provide an extra level of encouragement for girls.

Omondi, who had left her high school teaching position to pursue graduate studies, learned about WS2 at JUAMI’s 2018 conference in Kampala, Uganda. She has since emerged as a prominent figure in developing and testing the experiments.

After helping one of the teams create a lab kit on electrostatics for secondary school students, she traveled to schools in Kenya in December 2021 and partnered with their regular teachers to run two focus groups.

Omondi watched as students ran plastic rulers through their hair to build up charge and then placed the rulers next to running tap water. She explained the forces at work as the stream of water warped its shape and moved toward the plastic. When the effect was more pronounced for some students than for others, the classes discussed how the amount of oil in their hair could change the experiment.

Students in Kenya test out the lab kits.
Students in Kenya participate in electrostatics experiments to test out the lab kits. Credit: Photos courtesy of Celline Omondi

In the final two years of secondary school, Kenyan students can choose which subjects they want to take. “Most students don’t take physics,” Omondi says, but after these focus group experiments, “they promised me they are going to!”

Although most of the labs were a hit with students, a few required modifications before their widespread distribution. In Omondi’s classroom, one experiment didn’t clearly show attraction and repulsion between pieces of charged sticky tape, leaving the students wanting more.

After addressing the focus group challenges in a revision stage, WS2 is now distributing seven different lab kits to schools across East Africa, with a goal of reaching more than 5000 students. Omondi will help deploy the lessons when classes resume in Kenya at the end of April.

A worthwhile challenge

Following the large-scale distribution of the lab kits, WS2 aims to continue the project by covering more scientific fields and translating the manuals from English to Swahili and other languages for easier and more widespread use.

However, for the group to continue, the participants will need both funds and time. WS2 continues to rely on the 2020 APS grant for funding the lab kit initiative, but that funding concludes next year. Everyone involved in developing the WS2 lab kits is a volunteer, and Omondi, Wenderott, and Elisadiki all speak of the difficulty they had in balancing the project with their careers and personal lives. Fortunately, the women are up to the task. “It’s really been a delight to undertake this somewhat challenging thing, to build these lab kits that are low cost and are going to be relevant, especially to girls,” says Wenderott.

In its effort to inspire young girls, WS2 has also forged valuable international connections between its more senior scientist members, especially Elisadiki and Wenderott. The collaboration hopes that those partnerships persist and continue to build the community of women and allies supporting women in STEM.

“Having watched these international teams put these lab kits together, it’s clear to me that the diverse backgrounds and experiences of all the team members really led to more unique lab kits than you would get with groups from just one location,” Wenderott says. “Having a lot of perspectives at the table really made for a very rich product.”

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