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©VSO/ Onye Ubanatu

Science on wheels drives learning in Nigeria

VSO’s Mobile Science Lab is proving a fascinating experiment in how to deliver quality education to poor, rural areas in Nigeria, as Alexi Duggins reports.

Science students in northern Nigeria need an excellent imagination. A lack of government funding means that most schools don’t have a laboratory; of those that do, many are not fit for purpose – sinks are smashed, pipes are broken and roofs are missing. As a result, the only way for children to learn science is with some serious creativity.

“You go into schools and find students drawing pictures of science equipment instead of actually using it,” says Yahaya Labib, VSO’s project officer. “They’ve only ever seen things like test tubes in text books. The closest they come to doing a science experiment is describing the things they’ve read about.”

Nigeria Mobile Science Lab ©VSO/ Onye Ubanatu

VSO Nigeria is working with schools in rural Katsina province in the Mobile Science Lab programme.

This sorry situation prompted Labib to try to help. After a brain-storming session that discussed creating “labs on wheels” to send to teachers, a decision was made to create a mobile laboratory, operating from a van, to tour schools and bring a science department for a day at a time.

The Nigerian Ministry of Education (Katsina State) agreed to fund the fuel, provide a driver and a qualified lab technician or teacher trainer. Plans were also drawn up for the mobile science laboratory to travel to 15 schools in Katsina state, reaching around 7,500 pupils and 60 teachers. Thanks to supporter donations VSO has been able to provide vehicles, lab equipment and training.

Designing the mobile lab wasn’t as easy as Labib had hoped – “it was an unusual idea; it was very new”, he says. So, VSO drew up bespoke plans for the vehicle. First, VSO bought a mini lorry, then a separate container to fit to its rear. However, plans had to be revised when it became clear how tricky it is to take lab equipment on the road.

“All the bits of glass would have smashed as it moved around,” says Labib. “We had to redesign it so we had cabinets that would perfectly fit storage boxes, where we’d store breakables so that they couldn’t move around.”

Nigeria Mobile Science Lab ©VSO/ Onye Ubanatu

It's a mobile van with a set of lab resources and a qualified teacher trainer to rotate between 15 schools, reaching around 7,500 students and 60 teachers.

The results were well worth it. Given that many of Katsina State’s pupils had little or no access to science equipment, the effect of a laboratory full of high-tech equipment driving into school was dramatic.

“Wow, it was great,” recalls Labib. “The van’s first school visit was quite emotional. The students just started cheering – it was joyous!”

Even non-science students spent their day hanging around outside, hoping to glimpse the real-life experiments occurring inside the lab. And it wasn’t just the schoolchildren who were overwhelmed.

I’d never seen such an innovation.

Atosz Apollos, science teacher

“I’d never seen such an innovation,” says Atosz Apollos, a biology teacher at the first school to receive a visit from the mobile lab. “When you’re dealing with grossly inadequate facilities to transfer knowledge to your students it becomes a burden to your heart. So, when we can actually educate properly, it becomes so exciting.”

Nigeria Mobile Science Lab ©VSO/ Onye Ubanatu

Volunteer supervising students during an outdoor practical session.

Before the project began, a number of schools had stopped offering science subjects altogether. Alongside issues with facilities, another problem had been teachers demotivated by poor (and often late) pay and conditions, meaning that some teachers would not turn up. Those who did often wouldn’t have the knowledge to teach science properly.

However, alongside the Mobile Science Lab, VSO began sending science-literate volunteers into schools as support staff, as well as training teachers in how to offer good science education. As a result, two schools have reintroduced science to their curriculum.

The mobile lab has been so successful that it’s been the subject of numerous articles in the press as well as being the subject of BBC World News report. 

“We feel very famous now that we’ve been on the BBC,” laughs Labib. “But the best thing about it is that the Nigerian Ministry of Education is aware that there is a lot of attention and interest in this van. They know that in six months or a year people are going to want to know how it’s doing, so they have to honour their promise to resource it.”

Nigeria Mobile Science Lab ©VSO/ Onye Ubanatu

Happy Female Students discussing an experiment.

Media attention generated by the VSO’s Mobile Science Lab has prompted the Nigerian Ministry of Education to commit to resourcing the project. It has also made promises to fix broken laboratories across schools in Kasina state and fund the establishment of labs at schools that don’t have science facilities.

Labib is engaging Parent Teachers Associations to ensure the government keeps its word.

Now the project is out of its pilot phase the aim is to start expanding into other regions of the country. The project’s already proven so popular that four states have requested Mobile Science Lab visits.

VSO’s Mobile Science Lab project provides vehicles, lab equipment and training. VSO and PZ Cusson Foundation is implementing the project in partnership with Katsina State Government.

Find out more about the project from VSO's Chief Executive here

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