Alun Davies: Engaging schools with health research
KWTRP Schools Engagement Programme, active for 10 years, invites students from 50 schools in Kilifi and Nairobi to interact with science and scientists. Strengthening science education allows us to explain why and how students can participate in research. It also inspires young people, raising their interest in science-related careers to conduct future health research.
My name is Alun Davis, and I’m the lead of the Schools Engagement Programme at the KEMRI Wellcome Trust Research Programme here in Kilifi, in Kenya.
Over the past 10 years, me and my team have been establishing a set of activities which bring local school students and students from Nairobi into contact with health researchers. The objectives of those activities are to raise awareness about health research amongst school students, also to raise an interest in science and science-related careers amongst students, and thirdly to raise awareness of community issues and perspectives amongst researchers.
It started off from the community actually. When we had meetings with community representatives, chiefs for example, they would tell us: what are you doing to raise awareness of possible careers in science amongst our schools? We initially responded modestly to that challenge with 3 schools, and a decade later, that has now expanded to activities in about 50 schools, both in Kilifi and Nairobi.
We have a range of different activities. We have an attachment scheme for very talented students in which we invite 9 students to come and stay here with us to experience different aspects of research. We also have school’s activities, for example we have between 500 and 1000 students every year coming to the laboratories to learn about research, learn about science and talk to researchers.
What we were keen on, as a fairly wealthy research institution based in a resource-poor setting like Kilifi, we were keen on drawing from the research centre’s resources available for research towards strengthening science education in the area. We felt at the time that with science being our core business, that we were well placed to possibly inspire young people in science. We set about through talking to teachers and taking advice from the local education office and teachers on how best we could do this with the resources that we had. That involved a participatory action research approach to design engagement activities with researchers and schools.
Another aspect of the school engagement work that we take seriously is the evaluation of our activities. This is done via mixed methods. We’ve had quantitative component surveys across 15 schools, some controls and some intervention arms, and a comparison between those two. We’ve had qualitative interviews and focused groups discussions with parents, teachers, students and participating researchers. We’ve worked in participatory video, where we hand over the camera to students and ask them to make films about their experiences. We’ve found that it is a particularly powerful way of enabling students to have a voice in the engagement process.
There are several reasons for engaging school students. Children will be the parents in the future, and we depend on their participation in research in the future. There is also a growing need for research amongst adolescents and children, and it is important that we tap into some of these unique insights that they have, and work with that information in order to inform the research that we do. Engaging schools offers a platform to draw from those unique insights to feed into how the way research is being implemented.
There are several reasons why we should invest in engaging school students. The first one is that in the future we will need scientists to conduct our health research, so it makes sense to start early with young people, to inspire talented people to go into research. We’ve shown this in the past in Kilifi, that you are able to identify very talented people and nurture them through from school leaver’s age through a career to become scientists, who fully understand the context here in Kilifi and so are able to design research studies that fit well into the context.
Secondly, children will be the future research participants, the future parents who will make decisions on whether they want their children to participate in research or not. Engaging school students at an early age gives them an opportunity to understand the research process in a better way, which will give them more of a chance to make more informed decisions on whether they want their children to participate in research in the future.
This interview was recorded in May 2019