This Woman Is Getting Girls in Pakistan Excited About Science
“You guys: Science Fuse [is] changing the minds of some people who think that women are only for housework and marriage. Women and men are the same. #WomenPower #ScienceRocks”
This statement comes from a female student in Pakistan participating in Science Fuse — a program that fosters informal science learning engagements and environments for children ages 3 to 14 years old in Pakistan.
CircleAround caught up with Lalah Rukh, the founder of Science Fuse, to learn more about her amazing work with the program supported by the Malala Fund. Rukh is one of the newest additions to the Education Champion Network, a Malala Fund initiative that “supports the work of education champions in developing countries and speeds up progress towards girls’ secondary education around the world.” In addition to founding Science Fuse, Rukh had made science education more relatable and exciting for children by teaching in classrooms in three different countries, and at museums and multiple festivals.
CA: What experiences from your past shaped your current goals?
LR: In Pakistan, it’s common for children and young people to only interact with others from similar socio-economic backgrounds. When I was 17 years old, I got a chance to volunteer as a teacher at a charitable school run by the Aga Khan Foundation. This school was based in one of the largest slum areas in Karachi.
I spent an entire month interacting with the students and their families. That experience made me aware of the barriers that exist for girls from disadvantaged communities in Pakistan, especially the barriers they face in their pursuit of education. It also ignited a small spark of interest for teaching.
This passion has driven me to learn and unlearn, so that I can continue on the path of becoming a great science communicator, a teacher, and also a performer, both inside and outside classrooms. I have discovered that being in a classroom is the most fulfilling and rewarding experience for me.
CA: What is Science Fuse currently focused on, and how has it impacted the way children learn?
LR: Currently, a lot of our projects are focused on offering quality science education programs and engagements to girls from underprivileged communities. We hope they will develop and sustain a strong affinity towards science and critical thinking, right from an early age.
We have recently partnered up with three schools catering to almost 300 girls from underprivileged communities in Pakistan. These schools are based in Khuzdar, Lahore, and Karachi.
Through this pro bono partnership, our team is training teachers at these schools and providing informal weekly science learning resources for students. One of the major components of these learning resources is Science Stories, a content series about amazing female scientists from around the world, such as Marie Curie, Jane Goodall, and Catherine Johnson.
CA: How has COVID-19 changed the way your program works?
LR: Due to the ongoing pandemic, teachers and students from our partner schools are facing immense difficulties, from limited access to the Internet and smartphones, and social norms that prevent girls from participating.
We are amazed at the dedication and creativity shown by teachers and the administrative staff in ensuring that girls continue to learn during the pandemic. We have almost 50 female teachers on board for this project and each of them has become an enthusiastic learner; eager to create meaningful impact through education in the lives of their students even in these tough times.
CA: Are the students adapting to this new format?
LR: We have received a great response from the girls at these schools who are sharing their drawings, quizzes and questions with us through their teachers. This is perhaps the first time that they’re learning about the lives and works of women scientists like Jane Goodall and Marie Curie, who faced challenges of their own while making wonderful discoveries in the world of science.
Girls at these schools are drawing women as scientists and even imagining themselves as scientists. They are also becoming more curious about how these female scientists overcame gender-related social norms and barriers to achieve success. Over the next few months, we’re excited to learn more about how young girls in Pakistan perceive science and scientists, and how their engagement and participation in science can be increased right from an early age.
CA: What are the biggest challenges in your work with Science Fuse?
LR: One of the barriers to our work are the prevalent gender stereotypes pertaining to women’s engagement and participation in science. In a study conducted by the British Council Pakistan on women’s participation in science, 100 percent of [the 116 female participants out of a 127 person study] expressed concerns over their natural ability, suggesting that their male counterparts would be more naturally gifted at STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects.
These gender stereotypes are usually instilled from an early age and are extremely harmful for young girls. When girls and young women are made aware of the gender stereotypes that claim women to be less capable of doing science, then, even despite being good at [STEM], they start performing poorly.
To remove these barriers for girls, we at Science Fuse, are designing science engagements that don’t just enhance scientific literacy, but also help change girls’ perception of science and scientists. We’re working closely with schools, teachers, and parents to make them aware of how they can reduce these barriers for girls at home and in classrooms.
CA: What is on the horizon for Science Fuse?
LR: We are engaging with female teachers from Khuzdar, Balochistan, who are delivering our science learning resources to their female students. One of the teachers shared only today how their female students have started retelling our women scientist stories to others in their families and that girls are getting more curious each day about how these female scientists managed to do such incredible work. We’ll be sharing more stories from these projects on our social media platforms in the near future.