Hunting for Africa’s Einstein with a science lab on wheels

A dozen other students look on as Umar Amadu uses a glass pipette to draw a solution from a conical flask as part of a chemistry experiment.

It could be a scene from any school laboratory around the world, but until two months ago Amadu and his fellow students had no access to any science equipment.

Science subjects at his rural secondary school outside the city of Katsina in northern Nigeria were taught using theory only.

But now they have all the kit they need to put theory into practice, thanks to a mobile science lab that tours selected state schools.

“It’s an exciting experience. We were being taught only the theoretical aspect of science subjects,” Amadu, who wants to be a doctor, told AFP.

“But with this project we now have a better understanding of what we are taught.”

Teacher shortage

The “Science on Wheels” project is the brainchild of international development charity Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) and is supported by the consumer goods company PZ Cussons.

A truck equipped with laboratory equipment tours the state, allowing 7,500 students and 15 schools to conduct practical lessons.

It also aims to haul Nigeria up the rankings for the quality of its science and math teaching, after a World Economic Forum study ranked the country a lowly 131st out of 139.

The Katsina state government pays for the driver and fuel to take the truck to each school twice a week.

Katsina — the home state of President Muhammadu Buhari — was the first in mainly Muslim northern Nigeria to introduce so-called Western subjects in education in the 1940s.

But since then the sector has suffered from years of neglect and under-investment. Now, it has a substantial share of the more than 10 million out-of-school children in the north.

About 16 billion naira ($45 million, 38 million euros) was allocated to education from Katsina’s 140.2-billion-naira budget this year.

According to state governor Aminu Bello Masari, the state has a deficit of 13,000 teachers, as there are currently just 5,200 for its 432 secondary schools.

Only 123 of those schools have science labs.

The state government has tried to address the teacher shortage by re-employing retired teachers and even deploying civil servants to classrooms to help out.

It has also tried to attract university graduates from the more educationally prosperous south, with postings to Katsina part of their mandatory one-year national service.

‘Drop in the ocean’

For the “Science on Wheels” project, VSO said it had to take on 60 science and math teachers to go to the 15 selected schools.

Amadu’s school, the Government Day Secondary School (GDSS) in Muduru, has 734 pupils but had only one teacher for its 157 science students.

School principal Sagir Ladan said the mobile science project has allowed it to take on three more and helped overcome lack of funding for infrastructure and laboratory supplies.

Poor funding is obvious from the classrooms at the school, most of which have no furniture, with students sitting on the floor or perching on broken window sills instead of desks.

VSO’s country director in Nigeria, Lucia Balonwu, said the charity’s project was a small step towards overall improvements.

“The challenges are enormous and our effort is like a drop in the ocean, which we hope will make an impact on the quality of education in Katsina state,” she added.

African Einstein?

Governor Masari said it would take at least three years to assess the impact of the mobile science lab project, based on exam results of participating students.

But GDSS Muduru chemistry teacher Oduigue Chidera said there was already “a marked improvement” in the students’ motivation and practical comprehension.

“Right now they have the confidence of conducting the practicals by themselves unlike before,” he said.

VSO is monitoring the Katsina scheme with a view to rolling it out across Africa, where many countries face similar challenges with basic facilities and equipment.

It wants to inspire young science students to be the “Albert Einsteins of tomorrow”, referring to the Nobel-winning physicist who developed the theory of relativity.

“This is the stepping stone for a pan-African science revolution,” Balonwu said as students busied themselves with practicals.

“Despite there being over 400 winners since 1901 of the Nobel Prize for physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, an indigenous Sub-Saharan African is yet to win a Nobel Prize in one of these scientific fields,” she said.

© Agence France-Presse

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Aminu Abubakar
Aminu Abubakar
Aminu Abubakar is a journalist based in the northern Nigerian city of Kano, where he grew up. He worked for local newspapers before joining Agence France-Presse (AFP) in 2000 as a freelance correspondent covering northern Nigeria.

ConCourt settles the law on the public protector and interim...

The Constitutional Court said it welcomed robust debate but criticised the populist rhetoric in the battle between Busisiwe Mkhwebane and Minister Pravin Gordhan

Where is the deputy president?

David Mabuza is hard at work — it’s just not taking place in the public eye. The rumblings and discussion in the ANC are about factions in the ruling party, succession and ousting him

Press Releases

Covid-19 and Back to School Webinar

If our educators can take care of themselves, they can take care of the children they teach

5G technology is the future

Besides a healthcare problem Covid-19 is also a data issue and 5G technology, with its lightning speed, can help to curb its spread

JTI off to court for tobacco ban: Government not listening to industry or consumers

The tobacco ban places 109 000 jobs and 179 000 wholesalers and retailers at risk — including the livelihood of emerging farmers

Holistic Financial Planning for Professionals Webinar

Our lives are constantly in flux, so it makes sense that your financial planning must be reviewed frequently — preferably on an annual basis

Undeterred by Covid-19 pandemic, China and Africa hold hands, building a community of a shared future for mankind

It is clear that building a community with a shared future for all mankind has become a more pressing task than ever before

Wills, Estate Administration and Succession Planning Webinar

Capital Legacy has had no slowdown in lockdown regarding turnaround with clients, in storing or retrieving wills and in answering their questions

Call for Expression of Interest: Training supply and needs assessment to support the energy transition in South Africa

GIZ invites eligible and professional companies with local presence in South Africa to participate in this tender to support the energy transition

Obituary: Mohammed Tikly

His legacy will live on in the vision he shared for a brighter more socially just future, in which racism and discrimination are things of the past

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday