Carving a path for Pakistani children to pursue a scientific career

Lalah Rukh founded Science Fuse to inspire girls in Pakistan to pursue science education and careers.Credit: Phaseeh Shams

Lalah Rukh is a science communicator and founder of Science Fuse, a non-governmental organization in Lahore, Pakistan, which is working to promote access to high-quality education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Launched in 2016, Science Fuse designs and offers informal educational workshops, training and resources that build science literacy and children’s passion for STEM. It uses a variable-cost model to engage with schools serving children from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, including using donations to bring free science demonstrations to poorer communities. Rukh talks about her about her motivations for founding Science Fuse.

When did you first get interested in science and getting involved in science?

My interest in science started when I was 12, after reading an article on personalized medicine in a children’s magazine published by a major newspaper in Pakistan. I was fascinated by this idea, I cut out the article and glued it to my bedside so that I can see it every morning when I wake up.

In 2003 I returned to Norway, where I was born, and studied molecular biology and biotechnology at university. But I realized that I didn’t like doing science in the lab as much as I liked engaging people with science. So, I joined Forskerfabrikken, an Oslo-based non-profit organization that encourages children to engage with science. We have organized practical science programs for schoolchildren. I worked there for five years as a science communicator and learned about scientific engagement and social entrepreneurship. I discovered the key features that make small-scale school exhibits great and saw how the organization established revenue streams and structures to expand their team and expertise across Norway. And I realized that scientific communication is where my true passion lies.

Where did the idea for Science Fuse come from?

In the summer of 2013, when I was in Pakistan to get married, I visited a small charity school for children living in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Karachi. I did a 3 hour science seminar for kids with fun demonstrations: from making giant bubbles to making beads that change color in sunlight and chemical reactions that pop water. There were big smiles on the children’s faces and the experiments sparked their curiosity. For me it was more meaningful to do this kind of work in Pakistan. Since 2016, Science Fuse has reached more than 45,000 children, trained 650 teachers and nurtured a community of over 200 science communicators. We have worked closely with approximately 250 partner schools and organizations to deliver world-class science education across the country.

Why is it important to promote STEM education in Pakistan?

In Pakistan, 44% of children are out of school, one of the highest percentages in the world, and most of those who go to school attend low-income private or government schools. Many low-income families lack access to good quality STEM education.

This is a question of social justice. STEM skills are important to any job and children need them to excel. Science allows us to ask questions about life and the Universe. But in Pakistan, many people, especially children, and especially girls, are discouraged from asking questions at home and in schools due to cultural and religious beliefs. It is important to use STEM education to empower children.

Side by side composite of extraordinary women in STEM posters

Science Fuse creates posters featuring Pakistani women in science to break stereotypes and encourage children to follow their passion for science.Credit: Sana Nasir, Maria Riaz and Sana Kirmani / Science Fuse

What are some other barriers that stand in the way of girls wanting to study STEM subjects and pursue STEM careers?

There are many social prejudices, including cultural stereotypes, that keep girls away from STEM in Pakistan. Unfortunately, many parents and girls believe the stereotype that boys are better at science, because they view STEM as male-dominated. Parents also want their daughters to get married: they fear that if their daughters study science, they will end up not getting married. A 2016 study by the British Council, a London-based cultural and educational exchange organization, interviewed more than 2,000 girls in Pakistan and found that they believed their male counterparts were smarter and naturally gifted with science. So if a particular gender thinks they are not good enough to study STEM, it is difficult for them to pursue STEM careers.

We need to change the mindset of people, including girls, policy makers, parents and communities. We enlist the support of the Malala Fund, a Washington DC-based organization that lowers the barriers to girls’ education, founded by Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, to design science books and posters featuring female scientists. They feature Pakistani scientists such as Nergis Mavalvala, an astrophysicist who grew up in Karachi and was part of the team that first detected gravitational waves, and Tasneem Zehra Husain, the first Pakistani woman to earn a PhD in string theory. These posters are especially important to girls, because “if they can see it, they can be”. We want girls and boys in Pakistan to grow up reading stories of amazing scientists who changed the world with their hard work, wisdom and grit.

What do you find most interesting when you teach children science?

Curiosity! Whenever I perform science experiments with children, I see their eyes light up with a great sense of wonder and they ask amazing questions about how the Universe works and many other things. This gives me a lot of joy that I can’t describe. That’s what I love.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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