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  • Our model shows how physics can boost development

A successful model for making more out of physics for development is ready to roll out to others, writes Dipali Bhatt-Chauhan.

In October this year, delegates gathered for the European Physical Society's (EPS) first conference on physics for development to swap experiences and theories on how developing nations can make the most of their physics research.

There were exciting stories from Europeans working in developing nations and from developing nations' own physicists.

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But to maximise our impact, I am convinced that now is the time for all the European partners — the 41 national societies that comprise EPS's membership — to agree on a shared programme of initiatives, a need also identified at the conference.

Having managed the physics for development programme at the UK's Institute of Physics (IOP) for more than eight years, I suggest we have a model that European societies could adopt to help spread the success that we have been enjoying.  

Fostering entrepreneurship

The model, funded by the IOP, has two main components. The first is a series of entrepreneurialism workshops that take place in developing countries around the world. We spread the gospel of commerce to academics and encourage them to use their inventiveness to help spur growth in their economies. The five-day workshops are run for free by people with business and finance backgrounds.

Workshops have taken place in Ethiopia, Jordan and the Philippines, and we have heard from participants about the commercial progress they have made from the business knowledge they gained.

Rosula Reyes, a physicist and entrepreneur from Cebu City, Philippines, says: "When three fellow academics and I decided to launch our own company, Blue Chip Designs, as a spin-off from our research group at the department of electronics, computer and communications engineering, Ateneo de Manila University, we knew little about starting or running a business."

Listing the range of skills covered during the workshop — from intellectual property negotiations to marketing, finance and strategic planning — Reyes says: "The hands-on development of a real business plan was invaluable — a real eye-opener."

The company started out as a hardware developer, but the workshop has helped it diversify into software development and mobile applications. The company has an expanding network of mostly foreign clients, mainly from the United States and Japan.

As inventors and problem-solvers, physicists have a propensity to invigorate markets with 'disruptive technologies', and it is this potential that the workshops aim to unleash.

Physics at school

The second component goes back to basics — school education. Nations without a strong physics tradition at school-level will not produce the physicists needed for commercial success.

We have established nine teacher training centres in Sub-Saharan Africa: in the Gambia, Ghana, Ethiopia, Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, South Africa and South Sudan. These trained more than 570 physics teachers in 2012, enhancing their knowledge and practical skills to help bring the subject to life in the deprived 'chalk, talk and recite' classrooms in these countries.  

In addition, we have set up resource centres to provide computing and experimental equipment to surrounding schools, with local staff building the equipment and managing the centres. For example, the Ada Centre in Ghana is linked to a school in a densely populated urban area and the coordinator also attracts teachers from other schools in the region.

In 2012, we estimate that at least 45,000 students will have received an enhanced education in physics from the newly trained teachers. Having cost IOP about £45,000, that is just £1 to transform the physics education of each student.

As Portia Nketia, a student from Ada Secondary High School in Ghana, says: "Physics used to be really hard for me. I couldn't see what a lot of the theory meant or how it worked. Now we do lots of experiments where we are allowed to find out things for ourselves. I really enjoy studying physics and when I leave school I want to use what I've learned."

One of the strengths of our work in Sub-Saharan Africa stems from our desire to complement, rather than duplicate, existing and often considerably larger efforts being undertaken elsewhere. Where, for example, the Millennium Development Goals have focused energies on improving primary education, we are working to advance secondary science education, which has been largely neglected.

This work at secondary school level has sought to create a sustainable model, using volunteers — often physics teachers from the United Kingdom who have chosen to devote their free time to improving physics education in Africa — and local knowledge to adapt training centres to meet local conditions.  

Call to join in

Looking at both the school and entrepreneurial projects, I think we have found the most effective ways for physics societies to engage with the developing world. With a greater level of coordination, we can join together to adopt best practice and save money. When we find projects that work — and we are confident that ours do — we should all work together on them to maximise impact.

Most physics societies are at an early stage with their own physics for development programmes, so we would like them to consider our successful model.

We have already formed a partnership with the American Physical Society to advance our programmes and I invite the European physical societies to unite their vision and methods before the next EPS conference on physics for development. By that time, we would like to be in a position where we can all formally agree which projects to progress cooperatively.

Dipali Bhatt-Chauhan is international relations manager at the UK's Institute of Physics. She can be contacted at dipali.bhatt-chauhan@iop.org.