By Sonya Rehman
For over three years, 34-year-old Lalah Rukh has been on a mission to make science fun again through her brainchild, Science Fuse, a social enterprise that hosts classes and workshops at public and private educational institutions across Pakistan.
Born and bred in Oslo, Norway, with roots in Karachi, Lalah Rukh studied molecular biology and biotechnology at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, after which she worked as a science instructor at Forskerfabrikken (a social enterprise in Norway), before moving to the United Kingdom where she joined the well-known Science Museum in London as a science communicator.
Having founded Science Fuse in 2015 with the aim of putting forth an interactive and engaging STEM (an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics) curriculum for students on home turf, Lalah Rukh’s dream has been to “change how science is perceived and communicated to Pakistani children, both inside and outside the classroom.”
Since its inception, Science Fuse has worked with approximately 20,000 students, a majority of whom are enrolled in public schools, and has taken its STEM workshops to Swat, Hyderabad, Lyari, Thar, and more, apart from Pakistan’s main cities.
Part of the cohort of Acumen Fellows this year, Lalah Rukh speaks to TFT about her experiences in the classroom, why STEM hasn’t become as popular as it should have in the local educational landscape, and the future of STEM education in Pakistan.
What inspired you to launch Science Fuse?
Surprisingly even as a teenager my aspirations always revolved around creating social impact. I remember, as an eighth-grader in Karachi, how a small community school located next to my sprawling school building intrigued me greatly, and often wondered how similar or different their learning experiences were from mine. A few years later, I began volunteering at a charity school run by the Agha Khan Foundation while I was doing my A Levels. I enjoyed that experience immensely and it nourished my growing aspirations towards reforming learning experiences for children in Pakistan.
In 2014, just a week before my wedding, I conducted my first hands-on science workshop in Pakistan, at The Garage School (TGS) in Karachi. TGS is a charitable school run by Shabina Mustafa and is attended mostly by children residing in the surrounding slum area of Neelum Colony. The Norwegian social enterprise I worked for sponsored some aspects of the workshop and also agreed to pilot two summer camps in Karachi the next year. However, they didn’t find it feasible to continue working in Pakistan. I remember being very disheartened by these turn of events, but my husband encouraged me to move forward despite the challenges.
The late Shan Ul Haq, from the Haque Academy, was also instrumental in encouraging me by offering his school as a platform for our work; hence began my journey of running a social enterprise in Pakistan.
How important is STEM education in Pakistan today?
In Pakistan, the vast majority of children are enrolled in public or low-cost private schools where the state of science and mathematics education is far worse than in private schools. Moreover, most children enrolled in public schools hail from underprivileged families who can’t afford to invest in informal learning experiences as these often come with a high price tag. In addition, there are few a government or publicly funded institutions where children from disadvantaged backgrounds can consistently engage in informal STEM learning experiences. This leads to long-standing patterns regarding who engages with science and pursues formal STEM education and careers in Pakistan. In STEM higher education and careers, women in particular and in general students from underprivileged backgrounds are highly underrepresented.
There are many reasons for increasing and broadening participation in science. For governments, a key issue is the importance of STEM to national economic competitiveness, especially given a predicted future skills shortage. Being a social enterprise, our interest in improving student engagement and participation in science is driven in addition by a social justice rationale, founded on the belief that science can provide a route to social mobility, so more efforts should be made to include under-represented communities. Also, scientific advances mean that people will need to be increasingly STEM-literate if they are to be active citizens who can have a say in society.
Do you think educational institutions in Pakistan have truly realized the importance of integrating STEM into their syllabus?
It’s important to understand that apart from formal science education, it’s critical that our children and young people engage with STEM informally and that too right from an early age. It’s important for schools to understand what it takes for children to get interested in STEM subjects and how we can sustain their interest to bridge the STEM skills gap in our country.
Recent research shows a clear relationship between a student’s level of science capital and their future aspirations in STEM subjects. Science capital is determined by an individual’s science-related qualifications, their understanding, perception and knowledge about science and knowing someone who works in a science-related job. The higher an individual’s science capital, the higher the likelihood they will pursue a STEM career.
Girls and those with low cultural capital are particularly likely to be over-represented among those students with low science capital. To enhance children and young people’s science capital, schools must change how STEM is communicated to children in schools. Moreover, they should be open to working with organisations working within the informal STEM education sector to see how we can work together to not just develop children’s scientific literacy, but to also nurture their sense of wonder, their interest towards STEM and their ability to question and think critically.
What issues did you face while setting up Science Fuse? Also, moving back to a country that you left when you were only 18 must not have been easy…
Initially, I didn’t have the confidence that I’d be able to launch Science Fuse on my own. Having left Pakistan at the age of 18, I had no connections here when I moved back. It was familiar of course, but it was also alien in so many ways. The other challenge is a personal one; I left my job to come back while my husband still lives in England.
Apart from that, the biggest challenge is that there’s very little awareness about the part STEM plays in developing a child’s interest in science and nurturing his/her sense of wonder. STEM isn’t just meant for children to go on to become scientists; it’s for everyone because our kids will grow up in a world that requires scientific literacy no matter what they’re doing when they grow up.
In the last few years though, the informal STEM education industry is growing but a lot of the work is superficial; they don’t dig deep and learn about what’s happening in STEM around the world. The lack of an ecosystem is a really big issue, because it gets that much harder to work in an environment where people don’t recognize the value of creating opportunities where children can engage with science informally. For instance, I recently visited the science museum in Lahore and found it to be such a dismal, sad place. It’s the only science museum in Pakistan that’s run by the government, but it was dull and dingy with outdated exhibits. If our government or stakeholders are not willing to invest in creating these opportunities for children outside of school, then that’s quite a pity.
What have been some of your most moving experiences working with children?
I’ve been inside a classroom on a daily basis for almost seven years now: from schools in Oslo, to school groups visiting the museum in London where I was working, and then of course in Pakistan where we’ve been to a range of government and private schools.
However, one of the most moving experiences was when we went to a school in Korangi, Karachi. It was a privately funded school which catered to children from Korangi, who came from disadvantaged families. When we walked into the school, we noticed broken chairs and children in filthy uniforms; some didn’t even have shoes. But that experience stood out because it made me realize that no matter what these children were experiencing in their lives, they still had a sense of awe and passion for education. As an educator, when you see potential rather than despair, it becomes a very powerful opportunity to change lives in whatever way you can.
What is the future of STEM in Pakistan? Or, on the other hand, where would you like to see it in the near future?
STEM education has become a bit of a fad in Pakistan because a majority hasn’t grasped what it truly means. The sense of wonder and enquiry isn’t nurtured; that love for science isn’t created because of formal education’s limitations.
With Science Fuse, I’m not creating my own science, it’s universal! The science I’m teaching here to a 7-year-old is being taught everywhere else in the world. But it’s how you communicate and teach it! The communication part is where we need to work on to enhance a child’s interest in science and give children engaging science literacy. Unfortunately, because there’s no government backing, there are no great science museums, no big science festivals. Also, STEM isn’t exclusive; it should be an inclusive experience for children from any and every background. It cannot be revolutionary if it doesn’t include the marginalized.
The Friday Times