How Aga Khan Academy Mombasa nurtures young scientists, drives innovation

Aga Khan Academy Mombasa is driving innovation at a key stage in students’ learning, with its own Personal Projects Exhibition that has seen 16-year-olds design classroom holograms and home-made mosquito repellants this year.

The exhibition is a culminating experience in the Academy’s International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme where students are encouraged to provide solutions to social and economic problems.

(TOP: Aga Khan Academy, Mombasa students displaying awards they won at a Model United Nations international conference. Picture courtesy:

“These projects are anchored on specific global contexts such as scientific and technical innovation, globalization and sustainability, identities and relationships among others, and they provide opportunities for creative and truly personal demonstrations of learning for the students,” said David Ochieng’ Vice Principal of the Middle Years Programme.

Science and innovation have been proven to play a key role in Africa’s development agenda, yet these areas continue to suffer from acute skills gaps in Kenya, with the 2015 Global Innovation Index ranking Kenya at position 92 out of 141 countries.

Challenges in science education in Kenya have contributed to this skills shortage across many fields including engineering, medicine, food sciences and agricultural sciences.

In construction engineering for example, major construction contracts – such as the Standard Gauge Railway- are being awarded to foreign companies particularly from China. The skills gap looses Kenya billions of dollars that would have otherwise circulated in the Kenyan economy.

In 2014, engineer Gilbert Arasa of the Engineers Board of Kenya said the country has 6,100 engineers against a demand of more than 20,000.

The same is true in medicine, with only 9,100 registered doctors in the country, amounting to 0.21 doctors for every 1,000 people, compared with the World Health Organization recommendation of one doctor per 1,000 persons – indicating a five-fold shortfall in Kenya.

Against the backdrop of these shortages, the Aga Khan Academy Mombasa is creating an enabling environment to nurture sciences among its students, through participation in the annual Golden Climate International Environmental Project Olympiad, where students get various awards, including monetary awards and recognition for their work. The Olympiad is one of the largest science competitions that attract the participation of primary and secondary schools.

In 2015, Aga Khan Academy Mombasa won the top school title at the Olympiad, with four of its students receiving awards in the environment, agriculture, engineering, and environmental design categories.

Additionally, the Aga Khan Academy Mombasa, held its first Personal Project Exhibition for Year 10 students in 2011, encouraging students to apply classroom knowledge in addressing social problems. The young innovators get a period of seven to eight months – starting in June – to come up with an idea, conduct research and develop it into an outcome or a product with the guidance of a supervisor.

During this year’s Personal Project Exhibition by the Academy, Alimohammed Jaffer , 16, designed a scientific hologram to aid in presentations, and is currently in the process of coming up with a prototype.

The hologram is designed to aid in education by creating three-dimensional images, compared to a projector that creates two-dimensional images. Alimohammed hopes that the virtual images the hologram will create will help students understand concepts better through visualization.

“I wanted to come up with something that will help students better understand subjects that have a practical aspect to them where they do not have the resources of a fully furnished lab,” he said.

He sought the help of the International Hologram Manufacturers Association, which also produces holograms and it agreed to help him create the prototype, which cost £1,500 (Sh210,000).

Another student, Imaan Vaiani designed an eco-friendly and affordable mosquito repellant. The United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) states that six per cent of childhood deaths in Africa are due to malaria. The highest numbers are registered in poor communities that cannot afford preventive measures against mosquito bites like buying treated mosquito nets and repellants.

“The repellant will help locals in Mombasa stay away from an easily preventable disease. I want to educate them on how resources around them can be used to their benefit,” said Imaan.

She used affordable products like petroleum jelly and coconut oil to form bases for five different types of repellants. She then used neem oil, citronella, lemon grass, eucalyptus and rose ceranium to make the repellants.

Imaan has applied for certification from the Kenya Bureau of Standards, and plans on selling 50grams of her repellants for Sh55 compared to other repellants sold at Sh80 and higher.

The Golden Climate International Environmental Project Olympiad and the Personal Project Exhibition serve as great platforms to give students the opportunity to interact with other innovators and attain experiences that contribute to student learning, retention and overall school success.

“Students develop a host of skills that are increasingly important in the professional world. When properly structured, projects can reinforce skills that are relevant to both group and individual work, nurturing the ability to challenge assumptions and enabling each to develop stronger communication skills,” said David Otwama of the National Commission for Science Technology and Innovation.

The Aga Khan Academy, Mombasa (AKA, Mombasa) is part of a network of 18 planned academies to be established across Africa, South and central Asia, and the Middle East to provide a world-class education to exceptional students who possess strong leadership potential.

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