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Starting them off early

A social enterprise works to make science fun and engaging for Pakistani children.
by Mahrukh Sarwar

Using dry ice to learn about gases and how substances change when heated or cooled

Excited chatter fills the air as more than 25 children pour into the room at Olomopolo Media theater. A team of volunteers seats the children in groups around small tables. The first agenda of the day is to create soap bubbles. Soon the room is a scene of ordered chaos as milky-white bubbles bob up and down while children race around trying to catch them. The youngsters are given instructions to dip their fingers in water so they are able to catch the bubbles containing trapped carbon dioxide with their wet hands.

This activity is meant not just to be fun and engaging, but also educational. “There is so much science (physics and chemistry) behind soap bubbles,” says Lala Rukh Malik. “We are able to teach children about the different types of molecules the bubbles are made up of.”

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Meet Science Fuse — an organization dedicated to popularizing science among children. Malik, founder of Science Fuse, and her team of ‘science communicators’ want to let children have real-life experience of scientific concepts they have only read about in textbooks. “Some concepts are very abstract so now children get to feel and touch them with their hands and see them in real life,” explains Malik.

“They should be able to recreate these experiments by themselves at home. The point is to make them curious so that after they leave, they might decide to learn more about this from a book,” she adds.

Figuring out a binary number magic trick

Science is all around us. Life in our natural world requires knowledge of science and as children grow up in an increasingly advanced world, they need to be scientifically literate to succeed and thrive. Science Fuse aims to teach children how to ask questions and investigate properly —  similar to how scientists work in real-life. When making bubbles, children are asked to come up with recipes for different bubble mixes which they then test out themselves. Children are guided how to investigate questions using the scientific method where they make a hypothesis, plan an experiment, and then observe and record the results.

Blowing giant soap bubbles to learn about fair testing and the chemistry of bubbles.

“This entire process is very important when you make children go through an experiment. It is designed in a way that it’s not just telling kids about science (that this is soapy water and its made up of molecules) but it’s also making them go through the ‘how’ of it, which is the process of scientific inquiry,” says Malik. Maintaining a balance of fun with the educational aspect, the team ends the activity by putting a kid inside a giant soap bubble to loud, excited squeals from other young participants of the two-day workshop.

Eight-year-old Mikael, who will be heading off to fourth grade soon, says, “I was able to learn about surface tension from the workshop and I also helped explain it to my friends who didn’t understand it — though the bubbles were still my favorite part.”

In another experiment, the Science Fuse team helps the youngsters make slime. They show them that one of its basic ingredients has to have long thread-like molecules. When another ingredient like borax is added, it just fuses the thread-like molecules together and turns the liquid into a semi-solid goop aka slime. However, the star of the show is the ‘dry’ ice or — as the team tells everyone —  solid carbon dioxide. When soapy water is poured over it, it foams and smokes producing a ‘witches brew’ effect and fascinates the young audience. Through that, they are able to compare water with carbon dioxide and learn how both change states. Heat ice and it will melt into a liquid but solid carbon dioxide sublimes —  heat it and it  changes directly into a gas without converting into a liquid first. Easy enough to understand — unless you are an audience of rambunctious seven-to-eight year olds.

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Getting ready to conduct another scientific investigation.

However, Malik is undeterred. She has spent the last seven years working as a science communicator. “Growing up in Pakistan, I didn’t know what science communication was. I didn’t grow up hearing that word and I had never experienced science in that way. I had never gone to a science museum and I certainly didn’t know there were things such as science festivals,” she admits. She ended up attending university in Norway where she studied molecular biology and biotechnology and discovered a social enterprise that was working to make science more popular with children. Malik ended up working in the organization for five years.

In 2013, while visiting Pakistan, she convinced the organization to pilot an event here. The first workshop they held was at The Garage School (TGS) in Karachi, a charitable venture catering to education needs of children from two slum settlements. The reaction of the children after the three-hour workshop convinced her to continue doing this. And that’s how Science Fuse was born.

In an email correspondence with MIT Technology Review Pakistan, Shabina Mustafa, who runs TGS, recalls that the workshop was a thoroughly enjoyable learning experience for her students. She says the experiments enabled the children to understand scientific concepts. “We believe teaching science at an early age is necessary as everything around us is based on science. Everything that is taught practically leaves an impact on students,” she adds.

Learning how to make lava lamps with a few simple ingrediants.

To make its workshops inclusive, Science Fuse reaches out to public as well as private schools. When it hosts workshops at public or charitable schools, it is done either pro bono or at substantially subsidized rates. Children from private schools are asked to pay the full registration fee, and that’s how the organization claims to make its work sustainable. “We don’t rely on donations or funds from the government,” says Malik. Science Fuse is a social enterprise —  it focuses on making its work sustainable and trusts that the work is creating social impact.

Lala Rukh Malik, founder of Science Fuse

The organization carries out workshops throughout the year and has worked with over 50 different schools. It have held science shows and theater at science melas all over the country. At the Children’s Literature Festival held this year, a Science Fuse team performed a show about Isaac Newton and the world of forces. Malik says, “Newton had three laws of motion which children read in textbooks growing up. Those laws seem very complicated and most children just memorize them. We rewrote the laws in a very simple and engaging manner and presented the underlying science to the children with real life analogies so they see that science is relevant and its all around us —  it’s not something alien.”

A survey by Alif Ailaan, a campaign for education reform, revealed that students in Pakistan consistently score the least in Math and Science subjects. It also showed that very few children want to study science and even fewer want to go on to become scientists. A brighter outlook on science seems to be the need of the hour, and social enterprises like Science Fuse may be just the thing to help provide it.

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