Digital Access To Knowledge Fiery explosions and a bottle rocket

The participants of “I Am Science”.
The participants of “I Am Science”. | Photo: Miora Rajaonary

The Goethe-Institut South Africa hopes to increase participation of women in science, and has launched the “I Am Science”-project, aimed at early high school girls in disadvantaged urban areas.

At a recent workshop for young project ambassadors in Johannesburg, project coordinator Victoria John pointed out that globally only 30 percent of people working in the science sector are women.

In South Africa, contributing further to this statistic is an education system faced by many challenges: Many state schools have inadequate facilities and resources for science education and a lot of science teachers are poorly trained. A report issued in June 2016 shows that nearly 82 percent of government schools do not have laboratory facilities. This means that many children have never even seen a science experiment let alone performed one themselves.

Two participants of “I Am Science” while conducting an experiment. Two participants of “I Am Science” while conducting an experiment. | Photo: Noemie Njangiru Bathabile Mpofu, one of the speakers at the workshop, is a scientist and entrepreneur. She started her own company, Nkazimulo Applied Sciences, which sells science kits containing the material needed to do 52 experiments at home. Speaking to the 30 girls, all between 13 and 15 years old, she said she could see herself in them.

Her school didn’t have a science lab, so she and her friends started doing their own experiments. One day they wanted to dissect a frog – so they caught a frog and asked their teacher for help.

Promoting curiosity, critical thinking and creative learning

According to John, the “I Am Science”-project started because the Goethe-Institut wants to play a part in reducing gender inequality and stimulating increased development of science and technology in Africa.

Noemie Njangiru, head of culture and development at the Goethe-Institut Johannesburg, explained: “We want to promote curiosity, critical thinking and creative learning among future generations in Sub Saharan Africa – a region with many of the world’s demographically youngest countries. For example, the Goethe-Institut runs initiatives that address the development of e-skills for women, or the training of teachers to use mobile devices for literacy improvement. But 'I Am Science' is our biggest endeavour so far.”

Victoria John, project coordinator of “I Am Science”. Victoria John, project coordinator of “I Am Science”. | Photo: Miora Rajaonary Speaking about the concept of the project, Njangiru added: “We did careful research into the South African context, which led us towards establishing very clear guidelines for our approach: the use of digital platforms, a focus on science, and a focus on girls. Collaboration and cooperation with stakeholders in the education and digital learning sectors were also important for us, in order to learn from experiences that others have made already.”

So what can be learnt from the past when it comes to educational projects incorporating digital platforms?

Victoria John explained that although much private and public funding had been directed to these initiatives, many mistakes had been made and a lot of money had been wasted:

“There have been so many projects, funded by various CSIs and governments with the best intentions, that involved dumping hundreds and even thousands of devices, including smartphones, tablets and e-readers [in schools]” she said.


Suspicion of technology

“Most of these devices were pre-loaded with incredibly valuable, high-quality educational content, but they failed because a lot of the time the members of the school community who would be using these the most i.e. teachers, were not trained properly in how to use them in the most relevant way for them.”

“Even if they were trained, many projects did not acknowledge just how pervasive teachers’ cynicism and suspicion of technology is, and how they viewed [the devices] as a direct threat to their jobs,” John added.

“We know this isn’t true, we know we need teachers in classrooms, but try tell this to a rural, over-worked teacher in an under-resourced, under-performing school who is watching millions being spent on shiny new devices.”

While the project’s ultimate aim is to develop more African women scientists, technicians and environmentalists, this is a long and complex process.

“We decided to enter that process at the point where kids either become curious in science and participate in it meaningfully, or buckle under conservative and outdated learning methods, as well as gender stereotypes, and walk away from it forever”, John said.

The project’s research showed that many girls felt that science was boring, inaccessible and irrelevant to their lives.

Science can be very exciting - this is what “I Am Science” is about. Science can be very exciting - this is what “I Am Science” is about. | Photo: Miora Rajaonary Noemie Njangiru speaks about how “I Am Science wants to address this: “While more and more people in South Africa are using digital media, it’s often the boys who first get to use devices and the girls take second place. We have to make sure that’s not the case in this project. That’s why we invited around 30 young girls to tell us what they would enjoy doing, to try out experiments, and to be trained as project ambassadors.”

A new digital platform to spark young girl’s interest in science

Enter Level Up, the mobile learning app that the project has decided to build on. “I Am Science” partnered with the creators of the app – The Reach Trust – in creating a video-sharing platform that offers step by step instructions for doing fun, safe and easy science activities at home, using basic household goods. The platform, which exists in the LevelUp app, encourages users to do these activities in groups, film them using their cellphones, and upload them onto the platform. The aim is for users to learn basic scientific concepts from doing the activities and watching their peer’s videos.

But video is the most data-heavy content and data is expensive in South Africa. Data is also most inaccessible for the target group of disadvantaged, black girls. “We have incentivised users’ participation. Girls will be rewarded for learning with data and airtime, and we are exploring other prizes, such as sanitary products”, explains Maru Fourie, a product manager at Reach Trust.
  • Foto: Miora Rajaonary Foto: Miora Rajaonary
  • Foto: Miora Rajaonary Foto: Miora Rajaonary
  • Foto: Miora Rajaonary Foto: Miora Rajaonary
  • Foto: Miora Rajaonary Foto: Miora Rajaonary
  • Foto: Miora Rajaonary Foto: Miora Rajaonary
  • Foto: Miora Rajaonary Foto: Miora Rajaonary
  • Foto: Miora Rajaonary Foto: Miora Rajaonary
  • Foto: Miora Rajaonary Foto: Miora Rajaonary

One of the highlights of the workshop at the Goethe-Institut was a demonstration by Sibongile Twala of the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre in Johannesburg, who spent most of her time setting various substances on fire and memorably propelling a bottle rocket into the air. The girls loved it.

“The best was when Sibongile made the rocket fly!” exclaimed fifteen years old Refiloe Seshoka. She was chosen to be one of the project ambassadors and described the Level Up app as “very good”. “It helps me, since I’m struggling with science. It has challenges that help me understand and when I struggle someone helps me. I’ve been doing experiments, which is so new to me, because usually at my school the teacher just does the experiments and we have to write down what we see.”

Seshoka doesn’t hold truck with gender stereotypes: “Where I come from, they think for example that boys don’t wear pink because pink is girly, and girls don’t do rough stuff. They separate us. And actually boys and girls aren’t different except for the body parts. We can choose for ourselves.”

Apart from watching demonstrations by Twala and Mpofu, the girls were also divided into groups and given experiments of their own to perform. Thirteen years old Alexina Ngwira said she had a lot of fun.

Deconstruction of Eurocentric, hyper-western spaces

“I’ve found it really interesting and really helpful. I’m planning on doing science so maybe the things I learn will help me improve my science marks. I want to be a pilot. I want to explore the world.”

Project coordinator Victoria John closed the workshop by saying: “The people working on this project take this project very personally: gender equality, deconstruction of Eurocentric, hyper-western spaces and unleashing female potential in Africa. We ache and agonise and feel alive about this project. We believe in it.”


By Louise Ferreira

About the author: Louise Ferreira is a freelance writer and journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Her work focuses on feminism, gender politics and social justice in general. She has a background in news reporting and English literature.