International Program Fills Science Education Voids in Uganda


Article Highlights

KAMPALA, UGANDA – As students from Hilltop College, located on the outskirts of Kampala, the capital, gather for a Café Scientifique meeting at Colline Hotel, Betty Kituyi, the Uganda country coordinator for the growing program, explains its objective.

“Café Scientifique is an informal fora where people sit like we are doing and discuss science and technology – how it affects us and how best to interact with science,” she says.

The small conference room at the hotel is filled with students, teachers and a member of the parent-teacher association board. Smartly dressed in their purple shirts and deep blue skirts and trousers, the students listen attentively to Kituyi’s introduction to the workshop on genetically modified organisms.

The workshop features Dr. Arthur Makara, a consultant at the Science Foundation for Livelihoods and Development, a civil society organization that aims to promote the application of science and technology to improve livelihoods and better manage natural resources. It was a participatory discussion, as Kituyi encouraged students to answer questions and reminded them that there were no right or wrong responses.

Kituyi says the purpose of the cafés is to engage the students in conversations about topics within their environment that they are curious about. Each café features various speakers from academia, medical centers and research institutions. Cafés have covered topics such as health, climate change, robotics, space science, oil, the environment and tree planting.

Teachers in Uganda have initiated multiple strikes in recent months, as critics say the educational system here is lacking. Café Scientifique organizers say that their informal forums can fill that void by stimulating discussion of and passion for real-life science among students and communities. The cafés here have gained local and national recognition and have become a staple in some schools and a feature of National Science Week, which is being held this week in Uganda. Although there are numerous challenges to growth as Kituyi alone organizes the programs nationwide, she has drawn praise for establishing the most science cafés in any country outside the United Kingdom.

The first Café Scientifique took place in the United Kingdom in 1998. Kituyi says the cafés started here in 2007 in Entebbe, a city in central Uganda, where scientists from the Uganda Virus Research Institute updated local communities in the evenings on their HIV vaccine research. Patrice Mawa, of the Uganda Virus Research Institute, organized the initial meetings here, and Duncan Dallas, the director and founder of Café Scientifique in the United Kingdom, developed them.

From the communities, the cafés spread to schools with the intention of supplementing science classes, taking science out of the lab and into the community and increasing its popularity among students. Thanks to funding for a pilot program from 2009 to 2011 by Wellcome Trust, a U.K. foundation, there have been more than 100 cafés in Uganda so far. They have been held at 26 secondary schools around Kampala and in some rural towns.

Advocates of the cafes say they’re necessary to fill a void in the current educational system.

The government has established free primary and secondary education for students. But critics say that the current educational system relies too heavily on memorization to pass exams instead of fostering actual learning.

Teachers say they need higher salaries in order to offer quality instruction. In biting economic times, teachers have twice participated in national strikes recently, calling on the government to increase their salaries by 100 percent. The average income of a primary school teacher is 260,000 shillings UGX ($93 USD) per month, according to local press reports.

Teachers of the Uganda National Teachers Union initiated the first sit-down strike from late July to early August, when President Yoweri Museveni promised to look into their grievances. He decided to increase their salaries – but only by 30 percent and not until the next financial year, which starts in July 2012.

Dissatisfied, teachers began another sit-down strike on Sept. 5. But Museveni swiftly stamped out the strike by threatening to fire the teachers if they didn’t return to work to start the new school year.

The strike came in the wake of another strike by lecturers at Kampala’s Makerere University, who also want a pay raise. The strike is still ongoing.

A public donation of 835 million shillings UGX ($300,000 USD) by Museveni during a recent state visit to Rwanda to build a primary school there further angered the striking teachers after he had told them there was no money to raise salaries to their satisfaction. 

A high student-teacher ratio further strains teachers here, reducing the teaching quality and, therefore, the caliber of students entering university. Science programs are also weak because of a lack of laboratories, equipment and other resources.

For Kituyi, Café Scientifique’s lone worker in Uganda, the standard of science education can be elevated by holding the lectures and talks around the country. Through the cafés, she is trying to bring the love for science outside the Ugandan classrooms.

She says one focus of the cafés is technology.

“While the country is faced with challenges of diseases, climate change, economic crises, it is also experiencing rapid technological growth,” Kituyi says. “This presents opportunities but also challenges typical of every new technology. The mobile phone is now becoming a basic need for every individual both rural and urban. Therefore, Café Scientifique has proved to be an effective forum in the Ugandan community, where adults and students in schools meet experts to freely discuss new insights or challenges of science and technology.”

Dallas says the cafés aim to urge students to take ownership of what they’re learning.

“The impact of Café Scientifique in Uganda is to make science more accessible and informal to pupils, to promote the idea that sciences can be discussed and questioned – not just taught – and to encourage self-confidence in pupils through respectful discussion,” he says.

After starting small in Entebbe, Café Scientifique is now recognized at the national level in Uganda. The National Council for Science and Technology, the lead government body on research, in conjunction with the African Technology Policy Studies Network, an organization that deals with science-related policy, included a Café Scientifique conference as one activity during National Science Week last year. Twenty schools and more than 200 students attended the conference.

Café Scientifique will again hold a conference during this year’s National Science Week, which is being held this week. The theme for this year is “Science, Technology, Innovation and You.” The Café Scientifique conference is scheduled for tomorrow for secondary school students in Kampala.

Beyond National Science Week, a number of schools have even made the cafés a regular part of their curricula.

“One school, Bishop Cipriano Kihangire, holds cafés every week and integrates the Café Scientifique concept in watching and discussing science documentaries and movies with their teacher,” Kituyi says.

Gerald Muhumuza, a teacher at Bishop Cipriano Khangire School, says the cafés spark passion for science in students.

“Café Scientifique is truly a forum for students to express their views, thinking, passion, inquisitiveness and dreams about science,” he says. “It also enables them to discover their career path in science as they interact and discuss with scientists from all walks of life.”

Otim George, a former student at Bishop Cipriano Kihangire School, says one Café Scientifique program held at his school influenced his career choice.

“After attending the Café Scientifique on the science of aeroplanes at my school, I was inspired to apply to the East African Flying School in Soroti,” he says.

Kituyi says that Geroge was unable to attend the school because he couldn’t afford the fees.

Kituyi says that Café Scientifique has garnered even national recognition.

“Mr. Robinson Nsumba-Lyazi, the commissioner for secondary school education in the Ministry of Education and Sports, having heard about the cafés from several people, called and commended me on the good work of the cafés,” she says. “His interest is an indication that the ministry officials are aware of the alternative sources of education being given to students in a bid to improve their critical thinking skills.”

The café has also formed strategic partnerships with the British Council in Uganda, a U.K. charity that helped in the initial introduction of the cafés to schools; the Uganda National Academy of Sciences, an autonomous service organization that promotes science; and the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications, which works with partners to support global research communication.

But, like any new, underfunded initiative, Café Scientifique also runs into challenges. As the only paid staff member for Café Scientifique in Uganda and with no volunteers, Kituyi has to arrange all the logistics on her own, from organizing the cafés to making sure the speakers get to the different venues. Speakers talk at these cafés on a voluntary basis, so sometimes it’s also hard to book them.

Many schools are located in remote areas, which are difficult to access, so most cafés have been limited to the capital. Sometimes, getting schools to hold the cafés is a challenge, too, as the school day is already tightly packed with other academic courses or teachers don’t see the benefit of them.

But Dallas emphasizes the success of the cafés so far in Uganda and credits Kituyi for her leadership.

“Betty Kituyi has been working for two and a half years, starting with no cafés in schools,” he says. “She has done a magnificent job in creating new cafés, working with science institutions, finding speakers in universities and arranging the schools conference in Science Week. Uganda has more cafés than any other country in the world, except the [United Kingdom].”

Kituyi says she is passionate about her work because it encourages free thinking among young people.

“Seeing young people asking questions and being part of this process is very inspiring for me,” she says. “It is just lovely to sit back at the end of the day with the students and spontaneously chatter about the science in our lives!”