Commonwealth Alumnus Margaret Kamau collaborated with Our Lady Mercy Girls Secondary School in Makadara Sub County, Nairobi, Kenya to deliver a STEM mentorship camp. Margaret took a multi-activity approach to her ACEF activity, which included activities aimed at strengthening STEM education amongst both teachers and pupils at the school. The camp ended with a school-based science fair exhibition, funded through ACEF. Margaret is the Education Technical Lead in a Girls Education Challenge project with Education Development Trust.

Our Lady Mercy Girls Secondary School (OLM) was established in 1962 by the Sisters of Mercy as a public day secondary school to provide education to girls in the informal settlement of Mukuru slums in Makadara sub county. The school aims to offer quality education for girls in this area to prepare them for various professions, including those in a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) field.

The Kenya National Education Sector Strategic Plan 2018-2022 (NESSP) recommends a gender sensitive and effective learning environment as a priority for schools in urban informal settlements. It further recommends an enhancement of the quality of STEM teaching, with an emphasis on skills development and more activity- based learning that will attract more students to STEM fields. The plan further notes that ‘the development and application of science, technology and innovation is crucial to the success of national development policies and programmes’.

OLM has reported an underperformance in the science subjects and is therefore falling behind this national aspiration. In the twelve-point scale grading system of the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE), where 12 is the highest score, the science subject scores have dropped from 6.93 (grade C+ equivalent) in 2012 to 3.01 (grade D) in 2019. In 2020, only 38 out of the 161 pupils transitioned to university, with the vast majority locked out due to poor performance in science subjects and mathematics.

The school currently has an ambition to achieve between 3.3 and 5.0 in the various science subjects for the students sitting their high school examinations in March 2022. If the target scores are not achieved in these subjects, this could prevent students from transitioning to their desired courses, despite achieving higher scores in other subjects.

 Designing the STEM camp

Using the principles of ACEF, Margaret and the Principal of OLM co-developed and hosted a two-month long STEM mentorship camp for the school, designed to target students, teachers, parents, and the wider school community, ending in a school science fair exhibition. The overall aims of the camp were to support the school in achieving its ambition to raise STEM performance amongst students.

‘We are targeting a mean of 3.5 in mathematics. Last year, we had a mean of 2 point something and this was very ashaming after we had put in a lot of effort. We employed all sorts of strategies including individualised attention, group discussions, random tests, peer teaching by students, inter class support and classroom demonstration. We hope for better marks this year.’ OLM Deputy Principal

In designing the camp, Margaret conducted a pre-activity survey with students to assess their understanding of and engagement with STEM subjects and concepts. The survey revealed 47% of students would drop science subjects from their studies if they had a choice and only 15% explored scientific concepts beyond the classroom. Despite this, 43% indicated that they would be interested in pursuing science-based careers post-secondary school. This revealed a disparity between the current practices amongst pupils in studying science subjects and future career ambitions in the same field.

Margaret also conducted a pre-activity survey with the 13 STEM teachers at OLM. Survey responses revealed that most teachers were uncertain of their own ability to address the factors impeding learner engagement in STEM subjects. 58% reported that they did not believe their students were confident to deliver presentations on scientific topics, even when they understood them. Most teachers indicated that they did not feel their students would achieve their set targets in STEM and felt that there was a need to onboard parents in supporting pupils in their career choices and required subject grades.

Photo of student in front of science project
Photo of teacher adjudicating science projects

Establishing a multi-activity approach

Using the results from her surveys, Margaret recognised the need for a multi-activity approach to achieve her goals and navigate the complex interplay of various embedded environmental systems that influence science performance amongst girls, their engagement in project-based learning, and the long-term objective of preparing girls to participate in STEM vocational training and ultimately STEM careers. The key aims for the camp were:

  • To provide learners with an enhanced awareness of STEM career choices
  • To provide learners with enhanced STEM learning strategies
  • To enhance the role of parents and the community in supporting STEM learning
  • To provide teachers with improved strategies to deliver gender responsive and activity-based teaching

The camp consisted of five key activities: teacher training and mentorship; student training and mentorship; STEM career talk; parent and community engagement; and a school-based science fair exhibition.

The activities were designed to strengthen STEM teaching and attitudes towards STEM subjects amongst students, as well as prepare the students to take part in the first school-based science fair exhibition at OLM.

Teacher training and mentorship

Through the teacher training and mentorship activity, teachers were exposed to discussions on gender responsive and project-based learning pedagogy in the STEM subjects. Three teachers also attended an online national training programme delivered by the Ministry of Education Kenya Science and Engineering Fair Committee in November 2021, which introduced concepts around science project initiation, development, adjudication, and documentation.

Following this, in December 2021, one teacher and the Principal of the school attended a national training course on careers, hosted by the Kenya Universities and Colleges Central Placement Service (KUCCPS). The training introduced teachers to ways to guide students in applying for tertiary courses using the KUCCP platform and the selection criteria for different programmes.

In January 2022, all science teachers and the principal attended a STEM training session led by facilitators Thuo Karanja and Beatrice Macharia from the Centre for Mathematics, Science and Technology Education in Africa (CEMASTEA). The aim of the session was to reflect on current STEM practices in schools and ways to introduce additional strategies at OLM, such as activity-based learning, to enable pupils to perform better in science subjects. The facilitators also addressed the emerging issues of teacher attitudes towards girls and STEM performance and the need to be positive about their own subjects and provide positive reinforcement.

Later in January, teachers participated in an in-person mentorship session with three teachers from St Thomas Girls School, the current winning school in the Young Scientist of Kenya (YSK). This meeting provided an opportunity for OLM teachers to learn how teachers at St Thomas prepared girls to design and present scientific ideas and innovations and the impact of such skills on their engagement in STEM.

Student training and mentorship

In January 2022, all 668 students at OLM participated in a one-day mentorship forum conducted by ten students, teachers and students from St Thomas Girls, the overall 2021 winner of the Young Scientist of Kenya competitions, and two officials from the Young Scientist of Kenya. The main emphasis of the session was on improving OLM’s students’ attitude towards science subjects, strategies to improve STEM performance, preparation for STEM innovations competitions, and an introduction to STEM careers.

St Thomas students gave a demonstration on how to prepare STEM projects and exhibited their winning science fair innovations. This activity enabled OLM students to understand the preparation required and encouraged them to start to think about their entries to the OLM school science fair exhibition.

These activities also provided an opportunity to showcase the impact of a successful school STEM culture. At this stage in the camp, Margaret was pleased to report that this activity became a key catalyst in changing engagement and teaching of STEM subjects amongst OLM’s students and teachers as well as girls’ general attitude towards sciences and their own ability to produce science innovations.

Inspiration through STEM careers

Following the success of the student training and mentorship session, in February 2022, 338 students representing forms 3 and 4 attended a STEM career talk at St Teresa’s Girls, delivered by Mr Robert, the school mentor. Margaret also delivered a career talk to 57 students from form 2.

Following the talks, 93% of form 4 students completed their KUCCP course selection. A comparison of course choices with the baseline data collected by Margaret at the start of the camp clearly showed there was an increased number of students selecting science-based courses. Additionally, the selections showed an increased awareness and selection of careers outside of the more traditional STEM careers, such as nursing and teaching.

‘In the past, students lacked information on careers. They picked courses for the sake of it. I believe the career talks gave the students an idea on what the courses entail and the work placement. Before that they could pick anything. Selection of science careers by 47% of students is not usual for our school. The students have responded positively to the science effort for the term. Even in the other classes, they have become active in the science areas. Giving them a chance to participate in a science project was an encouragement and they now see that science subjects are not as hard as they thought. The students took it seriously and further requested if they can discuss the career choices with their parents.’ Mrs E Omiyo, OLM careers teacher

Parent and community engagement

Building on the increasing success of the camp and engagement from students, Margaret held a parent engagement session for 43 parents of form 3 students. The session focused on STEM career choices and how to engage students in STEM at home. Margaret presented parents with the Howard Gardner theory of multiple intelligences approach and how parents could use this approach in the home.

‘What stood out for me was the types of intelligence. As parents, some of us keep telling children to keep quiet and maybe that is [their] nature. My daughter loves nature and music. From the talk, I am now able to understand the various aspects. I apply this by encouraging my daughter to nurture her talents and how to incorporate academics into the talents.’

To reach wider community members, in March 2022, Margaret and the OLM Principle presented on the Mukuru slum’s local radio station. Together, they discussed how to improve STEM amongst learners and how to improve parent engagement in both STEM performance and career choices.

On 11 February 2022, to mark International Day of Women and Girls in Science, Margaret was a discussant on national television where she shared the engagement she had initiated with OLM and the impact of her activities on STEM learning.

The science fair exhibition

All these activities were designed to support students and teachers in strengthening and improving STEM learning at OLM and to prepare them for the final activity: OLM’s first school-based science fair exhibition on 19 February 2022.

Students from forms 1-4 were invited to develop a science fair concept individually or as part of a group in the subjects: biology, chemistry, mathematics, physics, and computing. A total of 41 projects were exhibited and judged by a panel comprised of the science teachers, adjudicators from YSK, and Margaret. During the exhibition, students and judges assessed the presentations and engaged with each other to learn more about the concepts presented.

Margaret noted that many of the projects addressed environmental and climate change challenges. This highlighted that students were aware of climate change and the need to invest in environmental management, renewable energy sources, recycling, and conservation, and the role of STEM in combatting climate change. Students were also cognisant of their own needs which influenced some projects, such as the development of a menstruation watch.

Students were engaged and enthusiastic throughout the fair. Feedback gathered from students included:

‘I look forward to another science fun day and I will also be participating in either the projects or activities or even both. I know I can make science to be fun and not boring.’

‘I had some few days before said that I will not do the STEM subjects because I was not performing well. …That event made me realise that I had a talent and becoming a doctor was possible if I just sit down, read, love the subject and be positive.’

‘What impressed me was the [project] making charcoals from pulp paper. I really don’t know what to say, like it was Wow! At least I have saved my mother from buying kerosene. Fifty shillings twice a day and I can make charcoal for her.’

 

Students dissecting a rabbit

Changing perspectives

Following the camp and science fair exhibition, further feedback was gathered from students on their experiences and how these may have changed their perspectives of STEM learning.

Margaret is pleased to report that significant positive changes have been achieved in the short term. Over 60% of students have outlined strategies and commitments to improve in STEM subjects and over 75% have a list of potential career choices which included STEM based knowledge and skills. Regarding teacher practice, students reported that new teaching methods, including the use of projects and practical sessions, and increased support from teachers have made a positive difference in learning and experiencing science in school.

STEM teachers at OLM also reported positive changes, with 100% now feeling confident in addressing prohibitive factors in the school that prevent learners from engaging with STEM subjects. This was a major shift increase from the 17% reporting to feel confident in January 2022. They also reported that in the days following the fair, students requested to hold symposiums and projects across classes, indicating a heightened interest in the new activity-based learning approach.

This was captured in the feedback from one teacher who shared:

‘In the classes I teach, I stopped teaching and now facilitate learning. I give activities that involve learners such as peer teaching, presentations, group discussions and students doing drawings and models. Teaching and learning is now interesting. For biology, it is really working. I wonder why we did not do this any earlier.’

Feedback also indicated that the activities had successfully addressed gender and science potential, with students noting that gender should not be a barrier to STEM learning and careers. When asked about the most important lesson they learned from the science fair, two students shared:

‘That anyone can become creative and innovative if they want, including girls, and I felt really motivated. I learned technology and actually STEM subjects is the best way to go.’

‘That girls can also do science and come up with inventions.’

New horizons: OLM and beyond

Margaret and the school Principal are committed to ongoing improvement and monitoring of science performance within the school.

School teachers are now knowledgeable in delivering future science fairs to encourage ongoing practical engagement with STEM subjects and some of the projects from the ACEF-funded science fair have been submitted to YSK for this year’s competition. The school has agreed to deliver the science fair annually, showing the transition from a school struggling with science engagement amongst students to one that is actively  encouraging creativity, competition, and learning in this area.

From May 2022, secondary schools in Kenya will begin transitioning to a competence-based curriculum. The science fair provided an introduction to teachers and learners on competence-based approaches to learning.

Regarding the external contacts Margaret introduced to the school, OLM is now liaising with St Thomas and St Teresa’s on benchmarking practices and STEM mentorship for students and teachers. St Thomas’ has also now committed to provide mentoring on entrepreneurship to support STEM innovations. CEMASTEA have also indicated they would be interested in delivering follow-up activities with the school, including teacher training, mentorship, and training of Board of Management. This will benefit the school by mainstreaming it with other STEM improvement programs in the country.

In May 2022, Margaret will also be participating in the drafting of STEM policy by the Ministry of Education. She will draw on her experiences and lessons learned to incorporate this into the new policy. Her emphasis will include project-based learning, career talks, and gender responsive pedagogy. She hopes that through her work with OLM, these activities can be replicated in high schools across Kenya.

For the students, the science fair has set a new tradition and learning opportunity, as captured by one participant:

‘A record was set on that day. Students were given an opportunity to show their creative and innovative minds. Project[s] were plenty and very innovative. We as a school were very happy to be given such a chance.’