Changing the Narrative: Creating Inclusive and Accessible STEM Education in Malawi through Milab App
March 16, 2023
ducation is one of the key drivers of progress and development in any society. However, in many developing countries, access to quality education is limited, and students often face a myriad of challenges that inhibit their academic progress and limit their future opportunities. Malawi is no exception to this challenge, with the country facing numerous obstacles in its efforts to improve education outcomes for its citizens. From a lack of resources and inadequate infrastructure to teacher shortages and low levels of student engagement, these challenges often make it difficult for students to succeed in their studies.
Amidst these systemic challenges, COVID 19 exacerbated the situation with extended school closures and loss of learning.
In responding to the effects of COVID, and understanding COVID as an emerging challenge, UNDP Malawi’s Accelerator Lab embarked on a year and a half learning journey to establish needs, gaps and locally developed solutions to address the identified challenge.
This learning birthed a virtual game-based application, MiLab (my lab): a technology that is available at a student’s fingertips allowing students to conduct unlimited virtual experimentation in physics and chemistry.
Milab was developed by ICT undergraduates at Mzuzu University, one of the public universities in the country. Milab works online and offline on tablets, smartphones, smart TVs, and desktops. The Accelerator Lab partnered with these young developers by providing financial and technical support to move Milab from a proof of concept to a scalable product.
Throughout the 4 stages of Acclab's learning cycle (sense, explore, test, grow), we worked closely with the student developers as well as the Department of Science, Technology, and Innovation (DSTI) in the Ministry of Education as key stakeholders. In addition to providing financial and technical support, Acclab brokered the relationship between DSTI and Mzuzu University, ensuring that the Ministry of Education was involved from the onset throughout the app development period.
Today, Milab has fully been adopted by the Ministry of Education and plans to roll-out the app nationwide are underway with the government mobilizing resources for the procurement of tablets and desktops to facilitate the use of Milab in schools.
Our year long journey working on Milab has taught us several invaluable lessons that are not only specific to upscaling innovative solutions but also relevant across UNDP programming:
- Sometimes a hunch and keeping an eye on weak signals is all we need to intervene in the system: As complicated as a system is, one wouldn’t know where to start from, and indeed oftentimes we do find it challenging to know what to prioritize in a complex system. With Milab, it was a hunch at first, then we started paying attention to anecdotal information posted on social media, public complaints on loss of learning and calls for solutions to facilitate continued education in the wake of COVID 19. Milab is not a magic bullet to the challenges in the education system, but a needed intervention in a period when government strategic priorities include education digitalization. It provides the building block of digital interventions to ensure promotion and empowerment of STEM education among women and girls. It can be a potential solution for low-cost teaching and learning of sciences, particularly in schools without traditional laboratories, and evident challenges of accessing laboratory materials for experiments. With the App, schools would be able to conduct experiments in subjects such as nuclear physics which were not possible in existing traditional laboratories.
Our solutions mapping activities have seen very limited involvement of girls/women in grassroot technology innovations (or innovations in general) and this inadvertently points to low interest of girls in STEM while in school, usually associated to low self-esteem, societal norms, and the fear of failure, even when laboratory materials are available. Milab now provides girls with the opportunity to engage with STEM subjects independently, building their confidence through endless virtual experiments enabling them to perform effectively during lab tests
- When the stars align: Our Milab intervention directly feeds into the country’s development blueprint, that advocates for digitization and virtualization of education materials. The government highlights expansion of virtual science laboratories for STEM simulations and analytical science as key intervention in the first 10-year implementation period of the Malawi 2063. This policy priority made it easier for the government to marshal support for Milab inclusion in schools’ curricula as well as budget for Milab adoption and use in schools.
- It’s easier when there are champions: At the onset, we prioritized building relationships with DSTI in the Ministry of Education. As a department championing innovation in the ministry, DSTI engaged with Milab development at all levels of the learning cycle. DSTI also provided technical support to the developers, providing strategic guidance in terms of prioritization of experiments to include in Milab, mobilization of teachers to validate Milab, engagement of other key departments in the Ministry to ensure uptake of Milab, and quality assurance of the final product. DSTI is at the nucleus of engagement with the treasury for government funds allocation as well as advocating Milab for donor support.
- A domino effect is possible: When we started out with Milab our main goal was to bridge the digital divide in the learning of science, to ensure no student was marginalized in accessing STEM education. Today, we are seeing this ambitious goal anchored on endless possibilities for enhancing learning outcomes as well as partnerships goals. UNHCR was the first organization to support the use of Milab in its school for the community of refugees, with other learning institutions expressing interest in adopting Milab.
Milab app present us with an opportunity to sail in the waters an endless potential to revolutionaries STEM education in Malawi, and we are excited to get involved. Interestingly, Milab has been selected as a flagship innovation for the ministry of education to be showcased at the 67th Session of the Commission of Status in New York. Join us in celebrating Milab app and help us spread the word!
“UNDP is one of the leading agencies collaborating with different players in government, private sector, and the innovation ecosystem to promote emerging and innovative youths, who are key to Malawi’s economic growth. The successful replication of MiLab will not only benefit the education sector, but it will also benefit the emerging innovation ecosystem particularly in highlighting the pathways for innovation uptake”UNDP Deputy Resident Representative, Challa Getachew
“MiLab has the potential to complete traditional laboratories and science kits and make teaching and science technology engineering and mathematics subjects more interactive, enjoyable and interesting and I hope that majority of our students will subscribe to this”.Mrs Chikondano Mussa, Secretary for Education, Ministry of Education, Science and Technology
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