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Digital pilot program transforms learners’ lives in N.Uganda

A teacher conducts AirSpace lesson on Mega FM

A teacher conducts AirSpace lesson on Mega FM

As schools reopen for candidates and finalists, questions continue to linger among stakeholders how and when the rest of the students will resume school amidst the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic.

For Yiya Solutions, an education NGO whose AirScience pilot program recently won the MIT Solve 2020 Award (Learning for Girls and Women category), students don’t have to be rushed back into school just yet.

They are providing enough tools that can be scaled to teach most subjects on the most basic feature phone. Solve is an initiative of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) whose mission is to use technology and engineering to solve world challenges.

Yiya is using AirScience to teach STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) to underprivileged students in rural areas in northern Uganda. What started as a pilot project necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic has now turned out to be an effective teaching methodology in the country during the pandemic.

The AirScience project was conceptualized after schools were closed and over 15 million students were sent home by President Museveni in March following outbreak of Covid-19.

“When schools closed, international schools immediately switched to Zoom software within two to three days and learning continued because they already had these tools,” says Erin Fitzgerald, the Yiya Solutions co-founder and executive director.

Adds Samson Wambuzi, the Yiya Solutions co-founder and director of operations: “We said we need to do something. Even on radio, none of the lessons included science because of the lack of engagement and that is how we came with the idea of teaching STEM content virtually to students in rural areas to access lessons for free. What we are finding out now this concept will transcend the pandemic.” The ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation (MOSTI) is supportive of the initiative and has recorded adverts encouraging youth to engage in Yiya AirScience.

Launched in August this year, Yiya Solutions planned to pilot the AirScience programme for about three months targeting 10,000 learners mostly in Gulu and Lira districts. However, halfway through the pilot project, the program already has more than 20,000 registered users with over 10,000 of them active.

THE START

Before Covid-19 struck in March, Yiya had an in-school programme partnership with schools in northern Uganda where they had reached 1,000 students and trained 165 teachers in four years with a female representation of 61 per cent.

They took off one hour from the science/maths lessons to engage students and teachers in the engineering design process and the real-world application of science. Fitzgerald told The Observer that they are on a mission where they hope their students can use the learned science even from as lower classes such as senior two and senior three to solve local community problems.

Meanwhile, 47 per cent of the enrolees in the Yiya Solutions programme are out-of-school youth. To encourage engagement, students who answer 10 or more questions are given prizes.

HOW IT WORKS

Amazingly, all the teaching of STEM is done on radio, and until you actually see the backend dashboard online, it is hard to imagine that each question can have up to 5,000 responses from students in just about two days.

Students enrol by dialling *284*19# on their phones. Although they target 10-19 year-olds, the youngest enrolee is eight years and the oldest 65 years, according to Wambuzi.

For now the project is solely for northern Uganda but even students outside the defined demographics are registered hence the inactive users who are out of range of the participating radio stations.

There are three lessons during the week; Monday with three repeats on Tuesday at different times. The second lesson starts on Wednesday with repeats on Thursday and the third lesson starts on Friday with repeats on Saturday.

Fitzgerald has been residing in Uganda for the last eight years. She says despite the popular belief that radio and mobile phone penetration in the country is low, 87 per cent and 74 per cent of Ugandans have access to radio and mobile phones, respectively. Additionally, when you consider that these devices are usually shared, then the penetration has definitely become better, she says.

ON A MISSION

Wambuzi, who was once a secondary school physics teacher, is on a mission to train young people to be problem solvers, teach them to solve real-world problems by applying the engineering design processes.

“If you stopped at Senior 4, is there any way that you would use the science, chemistry that you learn in school to do anything? Probably not. I always ask the same question to teachers and the responses that they give me are as good as people who didn’t go to school at all,” he says. “And they would have wasted all that time and resources to go to school; so, for us, we exist to assist learners to apply the things in school to design technologies.”

Wambuzi adds that is painful to see that Africa, despite having over 1.3 billion people, only has three per cent home-grown technology in use. At Yiya, learners apply STEM to solve local area problems. Already, Yiya students had designed low-cost greenhouses and hand sanitizers even before the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We never knew that there would be a time as this when hand sanitizers are on demand. We have taught students to make bicycle phone chargers, we have done units on gravity powered lights and now a unit we are doing remotely is to teach students to make low-cost food driers so farmers can preserve and add value to their fruits and vegetables after harvest,” he says.

Wambuzi says with gravity lights that are meant to replace the unhealthy and fire-risk paraffin lamps (tadooba) used in village homesteads, their team was able to help students discover that they could up-cycle old printers’ motors and gears.

“The old printer motors can give out up to 12 volts, enough voltage to power even two 0.5watt solar bulbs, a double win for the environment and homesteads,” he says.

PARTNERS NEEDED

For now, Yiya is offering the AirScience programme free of charge to learners but Fitzgerald says they need more partners to come on board because it costs Shs 1,000 per learner per day, which includes the 30-minute daily radio airings, robocalls and SMS. She wants this cost to go down because Yiya is targeting 4 million users by end of 2021.

Already MIT Solve and MOSTI are onboard but they hope in future that the Ministry of Education and Sports will adopt the project which has proven that it is possible to reach the last mile of students using the available tools and even make the lesson interactive.

fkisakye@observer.ug

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