Bringing Science to the Public in Nairobi

Science is an incredible tool for education, empowerment, and understanding the world around us. Unfortunately, individual access to science can be limited by factors, such as gender, race, and geographic location. A challenge for scientists, physicists, and the broader IOP community is: How can we put science in the hands of more people and democratise the institution of research? Our collaboration, funded by the IOP Virdee Grant, gave us some interesting insights into this question, and we look forward to continuing this work to create more equal access to science and research across the globe.

This January, a team of physicists from NUI Galway visited the Mawazo Institute in Nairobi, with funding from the Institute of Physics Virdee Grant. The Mawazo Institute is a non-profit research institute whose Mawazo Fellows program helps women launch their research careers by providing research funding, mentorship, and assistance in achieving public recognition for their work. The NUI Galway team, consisting of Dr Claudia Fracchiolla and Dr Jessamyn Fairfield, brought expertise in public engagement, informal science programs, and evaluation and assessment which we hoped to share with Mawazo. But also, as best practices in public engagement are highly dependent on local factors, we hoped to learn about science and scientific outreach in Kenya, and improve our own approaches too. The Mawazo team in Nairobi was comprised of Dr Rose Mutiso, a graduate school classmate of Jessamyn’s, alongside Elaine Mungai and Rachel Strohm.

Public engagement is at the core of Mawazo’s mission to support a new generation of female thought leaders who can bring their expertise to bear on issues of public interest, and whose work is informed by two-way engagement with the public. Far too many reports and studies languish in university libraries and offices of development organisations, yet the challenges facing Africa require a strong research base that is produced by public-minded scholars. They also require policymakers and a general public that is equipped to make informed decisions. Thus, this opportunity to collaborate with the NUIG team to further develop Mawazo’s public engagement strategy and kick-off our first programming in this area was invaluable.

Our time together in Nairobi ended up being not only interesting and informative, but also a lot of fun. Together, we:

  • Ran the first ever Nairobi Ideas Night, an event bringing research to the public in an informal pub environment featuring scientists, social science, music, and comedy. The NUI Galway team conducted speaker training and collaborated with Mawazo on event production, for a great evening that will be the first of many.
  • Visited the University of Nairobi Department of Physics to give seminars, discuss public engagement and issues around gender in science, and share ideas for the future.
  • Developed and delivered an assessment workshop for informal science programs, with local practitioners from across Kenya. Using design-based implementation research, NUI Galway and Mawazo worked with people from a range of backgrounds to create strategies and resources for designing locally-realized informal science programs.

Accomplishing all this in a week in Nairobi was no small feat, either for our NUI Galway team who prepared content or the Mawazo team who arranged logistics and recruited additional local partners. But we were delighted with how each and every event went, as well as the time we spent outside of the programme. Our full Virdee grant team included Kenyans, Americans, and Venezuelans, people from science and social science and education backgrounds, as well as academics alongside independent researchers. We learned a lot from each other, across boundaries of discipline as well as national identity. We would strongly encourage others who have an interest in education, public engagement, and building bridges to consider applying for the Virdee Grant which we received or similar programmes, and we are grateful to the IOP for enabling what was hopefully the first of many collaborations.

Jessamyn Fairfield, Claudia Fracchiolla and Rose Mutiso

Dr. Jessamyn Fairfield is a lecturer in physics at the National University of Ireland Galway. Dr. Claudia Fracchiolla is a Marie Curie Fellow in physics education research at University College Dublin. Dr. Rose Mutiso is a materials scientist by training, and CEO of the Mawazo Institute in Nairobi, Kenya.

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