Today marks the 13th annual World Science Day for Peace and Development. The focus of this UN day is to renew scientific commitments to peace and development and to show citizens the extent to which science is relevant in our daily lives. It is an opportunity for international discussions and a venue for innovation, stressing “the responsible use of science for the benefit of society.” The theme for this year is ‘Quality Science Education: Ensuring a Sustainable Future for All’.
In the spirit of the day, it is fitting to place the spotlight on a project that is making science accessible to students in impoverished communities. The project will provide mini laboratory kits to boost science education for students in high schools and universities that have limited or no access to scientific resources and laboratories. This combination of science education and social entrepreneurship is the brainchild of a partnership between UNESCO and Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. The first prototype will be prepared by March 2015. After this point, the pilot phase will be in a country in the Mekong region, with subsequent distribution of thousands of kits throughout the rest of the countries in the region.
The mini laboratory kits are designed and created by engineering undergraduates, under the guidance of faculty and postgraduate students, and will be customized to correspond with different science disciplines. They will be built using 3D printers, which will allow for more intricacy than would be possible with conventional manufacturing, while enabling cheaper, faster production of complex parts. The kits will include a variety of tools and equipment, accompanied by dual-language booklets that detail possible experiments.
There are innumerable benefits to this project. It breaks down the cost barriers that prevent schools from going beyond a theoretical approach to science, as it is considerably more cost-effective than equipping schools with laboratories. By enabling hands-on scientific experience, it attracts students to science who previously saw it as an inaccessible career, or who have a more kinesthetic learning style. According to Professor Teoh Swee Hin, director of the engineering program, these micro-laboratory kits will help to “foster a culture of scientific research amongst youths and ignite their passion for learning and discovery”.
Potentially the most significant aspect of projects as such is that they facilitate a global approach to science. Education is power, and when developing countries acquire a higher standing in the scientific industry – an industry that is largely Western-centric – they will have more of an ability to direct resources, attention and research to issues that are not of a profitable concern in Western countries. As stated in the Declaration on Science and the Use of Scientific Knowledge, which proclaims the goals that this UN day is committed to achieving, “What distinguishes the poor (be it people or countries) from the rich is not only that they have fewer assets, but also that they are largely excluded from the creation and the benefits of scientific knowledge.” This project provides an opportunity to engage some of those who have been excluded, and extends to teachers a tool to motivate, develop skills and change perspectives.
While the project has limited long-term sustainability in its current form, there is much possibility for it to expand and become more integrated into the communities in which it is introduced. The program is designed to run for three years, during which guidelines will be developed to enable partner organizations to expand the project and distribute mini-lab kits to other regions. In addition, the production of the kits could be transferred to the local communities. This would provide opportunities for skill development and manufacturing, and would contribute to the local economy. Understandably there are limitations to the number and variety of experiments that one will be able to conduct with the equipment, but incorporating the project into the community would create a means through which the project and kits could be expanded and modified to correspond with demand.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently spoke at an event celebrating ’60 Years of Science for Peace.’ In his words, “Whether we are trying to address climate change, stop the Ebola virus, deal with cyber-security threats, or curb nuclear proliferation, we need scientists with a clear vision and a commitment to work together to find solutions.” Projects like these mini laboratory kits are part of what needs to be a sustained, global effort to expand the scientific community for the innovation and perspective that a sustainable world requires.