Learning to iron is not a science lesson

Paula Strassle, 2nd year EPI MSPH student

Over this past summer, I had the unique opportunity to perform my own research in Malawi out of Mzuzu University, located in the northern region of the country. While my project focused on water quality and sanitation practices of a peri-urban village outside of the city, I was able to participate in a number of adventures and activities around the country. One of the cool ‘extracurricular’ activities I was able to do is run a Girl’s Science Day Camp out of the Centre I was working for.

My 'students' and I doing chemical testing on their household water sample.
My ‘students’ and I doing chemical testing on their household water sample.

June 29, 2013. After my animal-filled long day at Vwasa Marsh, I went to work on Saturday with Rochelle (my supervisor) and the two visiting researchers to help run the first Girls’ Science Day from the Center. Rochelle was inspired when a friend’s daughter explained to her that in science that week she had learned to wash and iron a shirt. Since this is clearly not okay as a science class, Rochelle decided to plan a day for girls 8-14 to come do real science and learn about water and sanitation. Since I have a background in teaching, she recruited me to help run it.

The whole day was very fun and incredibly rewarding. The weather was great, and we started things off by having me go through what water quality is and some of the science behind assessing water quality and how to determine if it was safe. In Malawi, school would not be described as ‘interactive’ so the girls seemed excited to answer and ask questions throughout the presentation. Plus in my PowerPoint I used pictures I took in Blantyre of children performing the tests and of my research so it was personalized to them.

After the lesson, we went outside and they tested water samples that they had brought from home. Hands-on activities are non-existent here in Malawi both due to the status quo of teaching (which is mostly rote memorization) and the inability to get supplies here easily. Incidentally, this part of the day is the same lesson I taught the 4th year Mzuni chemistry students on my first day.

These were the youngest girls in the group. Here they are helping each other plate their water samples.
These were the youngest girls in the group. Here they are helping each other plate their water samples.

The girls asked a ton of questions and were engaged, which made me more excited to tell them about laboratory work. I love lab work/science and encouraging other young girls who will have limited exposure to it to possible pursue, or at least enjoy it, was totally worth giving up my Saturday for.

After going over the test strips, the girls were able to test their water for bacterial contamination. I was impressed there was minimal laughing each time the word ‘poop’ was used.

Since my incubator is broken, we used petrifilms which can use body heat to incubate by sticking it in the waistband of leggings or pants. Plus the girls got to squirt water with a syringe which is always fun.

After the lab, we had lunch at Rochelle’s (beans and Mexican rice- yum!) and talked to the girls about science careers and our educational backgrounds. We had Chrissy, another employee of the Centre of Excellence in Water and Sanitation, stop by and talk about getting a degree and going to school in Malawi, which was fantastic. As the vast majority of people who attend college are men, it was important for them to see a Malawian woman who not only went to school, but got her degree in a science field.

Incubate that bacteria!
Incubate that bacteria!

We came back to campus and Rochelle gave the girls a tour of the SMART Centre, the application part of water quality and where we have samples of multiple pump and latrine types, and explained to them why we have different water technologies and different latrine designs.

Afterwards, the girls were given paper and colored pencils (a real rarity in Malawi) and were told to draw one pump and one latrine. The drawings came out great and are now hanging in the Center. It is nice to have so artwork up, as the buildings in Malawi can be quite drab.

Back at the Center, the token male of the day- Rob, gave a lesson on water quality and health, going over the diseases and illnesses that occur due to contaminated water, poor sanitation and bad hygiene practices. While he and got into a ‘heated’ debate over what constituted a waterborne illness, the lesson went over really well and the girls enjoyed seeing fluorescent photos of bacteria and viruses.

What was really satisfying was when we did our review game at the end of the day. We split the girls into two teams and took turns asking them questions. They remembered almost everything we taught them, and later I heard from parents that some of the girls were actually using better hygiene at home. Two sisters actually made their younger brothers wash their hands longer and better before dinner.

My favorite part of the day was during this time, when I asked a group to name a few of the physical indicators we use to assess water (taste, color, temperature…). As a bonus to the question, I then asked if anybody remembered the term used to describe the cloudiness of water. It appeared that I had stumped the group, when the youngest member (the little red-headed girl) jumped up and yelled with enthusiasm, “TURBI-DID-ITY!” (turbidity is the term I was looking for). It was a very ‘I got through to them’ moment.

The girls showing off their drawings of water pumps and latrines
The girls showing off their drawings of water pumps and latrines

Before the day even ended, Rochelle was talking to me about doing one of these every year, and perhaps turning it into a whole week camp with themed days when ‘I come back to Malawi’, so I can help out again.

All in all, it was a rewarding day and it is hard to think that my time here is almost half gone. I might just have to come back to do more research here in the future…


If you are interested in reading more about my adventures in Malawi, check out my blog: http://willtravelforwater.wordpress.com/

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