A home-grown sci­ence lab in a box

As a so­cial en­tre­pre­neur with a pas­sion for ed­u­ca­tion, Batha­bile Mpofu has come up with a low-cost, high-im­pact so­lu­tion for de­liv­er­ing sci­ence kits to un­der­served schools in SA.

Finweek English Edition - - THE WEEK - By Jon Pien­aar edi­to­rial@fin­week.co.za

coun­tri­esthat study ba­sic sci­ence en­joy faster eco­nomic growth, be­lieves Klaus Jaffe, co­or­di­na­tor of the Cen­tre for Strate­gic Stud­ies of Simón Bolí­var Univer­sity in Venezuela. In his study of World Bank GDP data and sci­en­tific pub­li­ca­tions in poor and middleincome coun­tries, Jaffe and his team as found that sci­en­tific pro­duc­tiv­ity in ba­sic sci­ence – in­clud­ing physics, chem­istry and ma­te­rial sciences – cor­re­lated strongly with coun­tries’ eco­nomic growth over the fol­low­ing five years.

But in South Africa, sci­ence ed­u­ca­tion is want­ing. The apartheid legacy left SA with an unequal two-tier school sys­tem. Re­search by the In­sti­tute of Race Re­la­tions’ Thuthukani Nde­bele shows that pri­vate schools and for­mer Model C schools are well funded and well equipped. But town­ship and ru­ral schools – of­ten run on a ‘no-fee’ ba­sis – typ­i­cally do not have money for ex­pen­sive equip­ment.

The vast ma­jor­ity of South African schools have no sci­ence lab­o­ra­to­ries, ac­cord­ing to statis­tics re­leased by the depart­ment of ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion in 2015. In num­ber terms, 86% of this coun­try’s 23 589 public or­di­nary schools do not have sci­ence labs.

In most ru­ral and town­ship schools, sci­ence – which begs for ex­pe­ri­en­tial learn­ing – is taught from a text­book. This Sman­gele Hlela (left), who as­sists in pack­ag­ing Nkamizulo’s sci­ence kits, with founder, Batha­bile Mpofu. means many young black learn­ers don’t get hands-on tu­ition in a sub­ject where learn­ing is far more ef­fec­tive when it is demon­strated and prac­tised. As a re­sult, many young first year stu­dents who en­ter a univer­sity to study sci­ence have never even been a lab.

“I re­mem­ber the first time I went into the lab, I thought: ‘What do I need to do here?’ It was quite an in­tense and nerve-racking ex­pe­ri­ence,” says Batha­bile Mpofu, the founder of Nkaz­imulo Ap­plied Sciences, a com­pany that de­vel­ops sci­ence labs in a box for un­der­served high schools. Af­ter her ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing taught sci­ence us­ing only a text­book at school in Mahla­bathini near Ulundi, the Dur­ban­based sci­en­tist-cum-so­cial en­tre­pre­neur de­cided to step into the breach. While study­ing for a BSc Chem­istry and Bi­ol­ogy in 1997, Mpofu dis­cov­ered she wasn’t the only per­son who didn’t have hands-on sci­ence ex­pe­ri­ence. “We had prac­ti­cals that started at 14:00, and ended at 17:30,” she re­calls. “Peo­ple who went to pri­vate or Model C schools were fin­ished with their projects by 15:00. At 16:30 I, and the other stu­dents like me, were still try­ing to fig­ure out what needed to be done. This re­ally knocks your self-es­teem and you ac­tu­ally start to think you’re stupid, even when you’re not,” she says.

Mpofu grad­u­ated and started work­ing in a com­mer­cial lab­o­ra­tory where she su­per­vised in­terns. She no­ticed that de­spite grad­u­at­ing from uni­ver­si­ties, the young black sci­en­tists were un­der-ex­pe­ri­enced when it came to ba­sic lab­o­ra­tory tasks. Founder of Nkaz­imulo Ap­plied Sciences In 2015, Mpofu and her hus­band de­cided to do some­thing about the sit­u­a­tion. “We bought chem­i­cals, glass­ware and other equip­ment,” Mpofu says about her first ef­forts to try and get ba­sic lab equip­ment into un­der­served schools in KwaZulu-Natal. “I’d pre­pare ev­ery­thing, put it in my boot, go to a school, and try and ex­plain ba­sic lab equip­ment and pro­cesses to stu­dents.”

This pet project was fi­nanced by Mpofu and her hus­band. Af­ter see­ing what a dif­fer­ence this made to stu­dents study­ing sci­ence, she knew she had to try make this project more im­pact­ful.

“The kids be­came en­thu­si­as­tic about sci­ence, but af­ter I left with the equip­ment, what then? We needed a sus­tain­able so­lu­tion.” That’s when Mpofu came up with the idea of mak­ing sci­ence kits for schools. She’d do the demos, but would leave a kit be­hind so the stu­dents could keep learn­ing.

The first ChemS­tart kits were de­vel­oped with the aid of seed fund­ing from the Univer­sity of Cape Town and the SAB Foun­da­tion. Later Mpofu ap­plied for fund­ing from Lifeco Un­lim­ited, which en­abled the kits to be tested in schools. Next she en­tered To­tal’s ‘Star­tup­per of the Year’ and won a prize of R600 000. This fund­ing gave Mpofu the ini­tia­tive she needed to quit her day job and start pro­duc­ing and mar­ket­ing the kit full time.

The kit comes with all the glass­ware (test­tubes, beakers and mea­sur­ing tubes) and chem­i­cals needed for a va­ri­ety of ex­per­i­ments, and there are even safety gog­gles for the learner who is han­dling the equip­ment. Ev­ery­thing is housed inside poly­styrene com­part­ments, which fit into a sturdy card­board case. A book­let is in­cluded that de­scribes the ex­per­i­ments, which are based on the school cur­ricu­lum. The idea is that there should be no more than five learn­ers per kit, to max­imise the hands-on ex­pe­ri­ence. It is cur­rently avail­able in 15 schools.

Mpofu be­lieves that sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy are crit­i­cal to build­ing the econ­omy, be­cause in­no­va­tion is founded on sci­en­tific dis­cov­ery and orig­i­nal think­ing, which in turn are founded on a good foun­da­tion in sci­ence ed­u­ca­tion. “If we can’t get that right,” she says, “then we’re go­ing to re­main the way that we are – al­ways de­pen­dent on some­one else, some other coun­try to cre­ate some­thing new, which we then buy.”

In most ru­ral and town­ship schools, sci­ence – which begs for ex­pe­ri­en­tial learn­ing – is taught from a text­book.

Batha­bile Mpofu

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