Inspiring Africa’s future scientists with science cafés

Uganda Kyankwanzi-Kiboga
Copyright: Flickr/Trees for the Future

Speed read

  • In Uganda, scientists can go to schools to talk about science to children
  • It is inspiring students to become scientists but its funding will end soon
  • An expert says it needs support from government and the private sector

Send to a friend

The details you provide on this page will not be used to send unsolicited email, and will not be sold to a 3rd party. See privacy policy.

Science cafés in African schools are impacting new knowledge, but require financial help, reports Esther Nakkazi.

Inidy Achom, a 15-year-old student at Gulu high school in northern Uganda, has always wanted to be a scientist, but she had not imagined that the path to her career of choice would lead her to agriculture, that is until she attended a scientific lecture at the Africa café scientific conference in Kampala, Uganda from 18-19 September.

Now Achom seems certain about what she wants to be in ten or so years — a plant breeder or a biotechnologist. Her resolve to pursue this ambition was motivated during a science café talk at her school titled 'Modern Biotechnology and GMOs: The Bad News for Uganda'.

There are different models of science cafés — where scientists lecture local people at places where they often gather. The Café Scientifique model, which Achom has followed in her school, is one example that enables scientists to go to schools and speak to students. The model also helps teachers learn how to teach science out of the classroom.

Achom drew inspiration from Geoffrey Arinaitwe, a plant geneticist and consultant with the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) who spoke at the Kampala science café.

The plant geneticist described how biotechnology can be used to make yoghurt, one of Achom's favourite drinks.

Arinaitwe’s research involves increasing vitamin A in bananas, a staple food in Uganda consumed by almost the entire population.

A student at the lecture was concerned about whether genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been adopted in Uganda.  "As far as I know we do not have GMOs in Uganda," he assured. "The big bananas you see are hybrids".

Impacts of science cafés

Duncan Dallas, the founder of Café Scientifique describes the role of science cafés: "Through Café Scientifique young people are brought into the future where they will be living. Science is changing faster than it ever did and it is affecting people's lives more practically these days".

He adds: "Café Scientifique promotes discussions which allow young people to question and not agree on all things in life but to think about an issue and do something about it ".

Teaching science worldwide is now a big problem with limited time for young learners who also have a waning interest in science subjects, yet science is key to development, says Dallas. In most instances, kids in Africa do not ask questions — they just read to pass examinations according to Dallas.

While science learning should be inquiry based, it should raise questions and encourage debate while seeking solutions and action, says Betty Kituyi Mukhalu, coordinator of Café Scientifique-Uganda.

She emphasises that the café model does not dilute science but gives students the opportunity to embrace the modern world and the future.
Nsamba Lyazi, Uganda's commissioner for Secondary School Education agrees: "This is a new concept and we shall promote it because we have been impressed by Café Scientifique in schools. Our students need to compete and excel in science. When young people see role models, they get inspired and that is what we are aiming at".

In 2009, the Ugandan government gave Café Scientifique clearance to have scientists engage young people in schools. Today, there are 35 schools and seventeen districts across the country participating in the programme. "It has become very popular. To change the mindset of a people in science, you have to engage the young ones because the future belongs to them," says Lyazi.

Complementing science education

The cafés are meant to address the bigger problem of science education in schools among young students who have even 'become busier than adults' and science is not a favourite subject. In Uganda, the cafés are complementing government efforts to promote science by motivating science teachers and bursaries for science education.

The Café Scientifique model is providing an alternative way of teaching science in schools by giving students a chance to be mentored in a different setting. Scientists go to schools and students interact with them, not just their teachers, which is exciting; according to Dallas. But that does not mean all students are enthusiastic about the model.

"Some students have failed to see the value in Café Scientifique maybe because we do not examine them on the topics," says Sarah Ojikot, a science teacher at Gulu high school who adds, "They just want science textbooks although they enjoy having classes outside the class setting and with other people, not just us."

Gerald Muhumuza, a science teacher at Bishop Cipriano senior secondary school says, "In Café Scientifique talks you do not need laboratories. Nature is our laboratory. It is an informal way of teaching science. If you break a test tube you don't replace it with a dozen new ones like some schools demand".

Science cafés with robots

Solomon Benge King is a specialist in amateur robotics. He founded Fundi Bots, which aims at promoting and exposing electronics and robots among youngsters. Fundi Bots relies on Café Scientifique to get to schools, and give talks to children six years old and beyond.

Experts from Fundi Bots try to bridge the gap between practicals and theory by encouraging students to bring ideas into the real world.

"Robots assist the students to understand what they learn in class. It allows us to explore solutions to the problems around us," says King. In one of the schools, King and his team asked students how they thought they would use robots.

One student suggested using a robot to herd livestock. He said at home they have a goat kraal, which he has to open very early in the morning before he gets to school and in the evening just after school. He sometimes gets late to school and he gets dirty in the process, but if he had a 'herding robot' he would be punctual and neat at school.

"I am a product of Café Scientifique. Since I was a child I have loved putting together electronics. We asked Mukhalu if robots have feelings and then she brought in a speaker from Fundi Bots," says Victor Kintu, a student who attended the Africa Café Science Conference in Kampala.

"With theory some things get complicated. I like it when I undertake practicals. I like the programming in robotics," adds Kintu.

Sustaining science cafés

Like most donor-funded projects in Africa, the funding by the Wellcome Trust to Café Scientifique in Uganda is coming to an end this year. Dallas thinks the government, schools and communities should support the initiative. He also calls on the private sector and notably the telecommunications providers to fund Café Scientifique.

"We do not have money but we have friends and we have students who are so passionate about Café Scientifique. We also have partnerships and structures for lobbying and networking," says Mukhalu.

It is only through these partnerships to sustain Café Scientifique that Achom and other students can achieve their ambitions of becoming plant breeders and top-notch scientists who can contribute to Africa's development.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Saharan Africa desk.