African School of Fundamental Physics To Build Capacity In Physics

African School of Fundamental Physics and Applications is a continental school that started to build capacity in physics in Africa; it is held in a different African country every two years.

African School of Fundamental Physics To Build Capacity In Physics

Speaking at the 2022 edition of the African School of Fundamental Physics and Applications (ASP2022) held at Nelson Mandela University in Gqeberha, Eastern Cape, from 28 November to 9 December, Malu said: “In 2011 when I visited Kinshasa to present the maths education book that I had authored to teachers, I realised it was more important to work in the DRC than in Belgium, and I returned home to promote Stem among young people, teachers and all citizens.”

“Science is fun, join us!” This is Dr Raïssa Malu’s call to all learners, students and educators throughout Africa. A physicist and international Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) educational consultant from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Malu was educated in Belgium at the Catholic University of Louvain.

She then worked as a computer scientist in the banking sector, a research assistant in the nuclear sector and a lecturer in higher education, before she returned home eight years ago. Over 100 of Africa’s top final-year and postgraduate physics, maths, engineering and computer science students, including 60 from South Africa, attended ASP2022, and a further 100 African students throughout the continent participated online.

The students were selected from hundreds of applicants and spent two weeks doing intensive hands-on training and participating in lectures from about 40 international experts. The African School of Fundamental Physics and Applications is a continental school that started in 2010 to build capacity in physics in Africa; it is held in a different African country every two years.

“My whole goal is that I don’t want maths and science to be barriers to our students. I want these subjects to be fun, and I want students from throughout Africa to know what wonderful careers they can pursue in subjects like physics,” said Malu, who has authored books on physics and published one on chemistry education.

In 2013, she founded a non-profit in Kinshasa called Investing in People, which organises the annual Science and Technology Week in DRC to promote Stem among youth and citizens throughout the country. “Working together with the ministry of education, we are reforming the teaching of maths, science, technology and innovation at schools and universities,” said Malu, who has been selected as the Next Einstein Forum ambassador for her country.

The DRC has 92 million people, of whom 54% are under the age of 18. There are 6.8 million learners in high school and 564 000 undergraduate students at the country’s 272 higher education institutions. “As with all countries, some of these are of a very high standard; others are not, and we are working on improving the general standard in all parts of the country,” said Malu.

The 2022 edition of Science and Technology Week in Kinshasa was sponsored by DRC’s first lady’s foundation, the Fondation Denise Nyakeru Tshisekedi. “Science and Technology Week is all about developing a scientific and technological culture on the continent and promoting African scientists,” Malu explained. “We need far more young men and women to pursue Stem careers and we do this by bringing science alive and sparking interest in these subjects.”

Malu’s personal physics journey was inspired by her mother, Mariette Thienza, and her late father, Professor Félix Malu wa Kalenga, an internationally accomplished engineer and nuclear physicist in the DRC, who was head of the country’s nuclear centre. He was also a proponent of new sources of renewable energy, producing one of the first studies about the energy demand required for the development of Africa.

The single richest deposit of uranium in the world was discovered in 1915 in Shinkolobwe, in the south of the country (at the time it was the Belgian Congo). “We were the first on the continent to have a nuclear reactor and to build a second generation nuclear reactor,” said Malu.

“My father was all about the love of science and about the need for discipline and impact to make a difference to your country. He had many opportunities to work abroad, but he taught us the importance of staying in the DRC and helping our country and continent. From my mom I learnt to keep my mind and heart open.” She said that her father and Ghana’s foremost professor of mathematical physics, the late Professor Francis Kofi Ampenyin Allotey, were the only black scientists in big science (science with large-scale instruments, facilities and teams) in the second half of the past century.

“Today that has changed, but we still want to see far more big science contributors from the continent, and we’re working on this,” said Malu. She said that over the past decade there had been a considerable increase of students in the DRC who want to study Stem subjects, including far more women students.

Following her presentation at African School of Fundamental Physics and Applications  2022, three students from the National University of Lesotho asked Malu if they could be part of her Stem development initiative in Lesotho. She immediately said they could: “We are happy to share what we’ve learnt and to have online sessions.”

Mosa Masupha from the National University of Lesotho said: “As a young female physics student, ASP2022 has been an eye-opener to the different fields in physics. In Lesotho, one can only branch into science education. Being at ASP has also made me aware of the impact and results of the scientific research and projects done in different African countries.

“Working with Dr Malu will help us to continue her work in our country. Her advice will guide us in establishing a scientific community that is central for our country’s scientific needs. At the moment in Lesotho, the budget is lacking for science research and development, so I would love to see the government funding this. The teaching of Stem subjects is also generally outdated in our country, with theories and experiments that put most students light years behind their international peers. As physics students, we would like to help to change this.”

Mathai Ramahlele from the National University of Lesotho said: “As an engineering student, ASP2022 has granted me the opportunity to meet, and receive lectures from, some of the best professors in the field. It inspires and motivates me to be as great as them.

“I would love to do online sessions with someone like Dr Malu who is impactful and creative in the ways she shares science knowledge, which inspires young people to want to explore science. It’s an opportunity that should be accessible to every child.

“What I would like to see in science and technology in Lesotho is more Stem programmes being introduced in our education system and our labs updated as many are decades old, and the equipment and references used are outdated. Additionally, I would like to see career guidance in our country improved, as high school students are not aware of the diverse fields and careers in science that can be pursued.”

Vuyela Bob from the National University of Lesotho said: “As a physics and geography student, African School of Fundamental Physics and Applications  2022 has played a significant role in my realisation of the various phenomena in physics and granted me an amazing experience in learning and interacting with professionals from different fields of physics.

“Hosting online sessions with someone as knowledgeable and effective as Dr Malu will be of great significance to us in Lesotho, and assist us with the right tools to be as impactful as she is in our own country. “I would love to see scientists getting the recognition they deserve from our government in Lesotho so that young children can be inspired to venture into the scientific realm, as many of Africa’s and the world’s problems can be solved through scientific methods, especially physics.

“I would love to see associations and programmes established in Lesotho for all physics students at all academic levels so that we can take part in the science for development initiatives on our African continent.”

Originally published at Mail & Guardian