Written by Joe Sheppard
I’d be extremely curious right now to see how popular science is in secondary schools. In my time at secondary school during the early days of social media, science was still considered an old fashioned subject, and with good reason as the majority of chemistry and physics classes focused on scientific contributions made hundreds of years ago, thus leading a lot of students to become disillusioned with the scientific process. Recently however there has been a significant increase in the publishing and transparency of modern scientific journals and methods, to make science more accessible for the public. This is achieved through journals such as JoVE (journal of visualised experiments) where you can watch video tutorials of highly specialised scientific methods, as well as a huge increase in science publicity via social media, with websites like I f*cking love science achieving over 24m subscribers clearly there is an interest in science outside of academia. Anyone wishing to act on this information and to really develop an interest in science would find it pretty hard though since people need to get hands on with the subject, which in my school at least – constituted a short trip to go and look at some pond life, and little else. So as a neuroscientist it is still common for me when talking about my work to be met with an impressed but moderately apprehensive expression, and this is because what people are taught in school can discourage them from science, and in any case what they chose to read online these days is a million miles away from the Bunsen burner centered classroom. Ultimately what people are taught and what people have access to are two completely different things in science.
In order to reduce the disparity between those within science and those who are interested, science needs to change its tactics, particularly the secondary institutions and adopt a more hands on approach, but this is exactly the reason science field trips got to be so boring, cool science requires lasers and 2-Photon microscopes and other exciting sounding, ridiculously expensive lab equipment. But this might not necessarily always be the way, thanks to two things, the open-source movement, which we’ll come back to, and a non-profit organisation called Teaching and Research in Natural sciences for Development in African (or TReND). You see, all of these concerns originate from an educational disparity between what’s possible in the classroom and what is possible in the laboratory. But what if these two places need not be separate, certainly it isn’t for late stage PhD candidates.
The real issue is that this disparity is all over the world, and astronomically higher in less developed countries where the problem is complicated by an economic divide that strengthens this separation. This we must accept for now, as some developing countries have more immediate concerns than education, be it political instability or environmental loss, but significant progress is being made, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa , toward reducing both world hunger and controlling the spread of diseases, with some countries even exceeding the millennial developmental goals set for food supply and sanitation, making the time right for the development of education in Nigeria or south Africa for example.
TReND aims to do just that through the organisation of large scale hands on science classes, hosted at or nearby higher educational institutions where aspiring science students are taught the essential bench-based skills of the modern cell biologist or neurogeneticist, like transfection or the polymerase chain reaction. TReND also foot a large sum of the bill themselves to make the classes as inclusive as possible. Classes aren’t just for students either with TReND offering training for graduates and teaching staff so that they may pass on what they’ve learnt and so improve the quality of higher education in Africa, as a step toward helping African universities catch up to the European standard. Because right now Africa lacks self-sufficiency, and the development that paves the way to self-sufficiency is expensive. As a result vital infrastructure gets supplied by foreign investment often in exchange for natural resources or labour. Meaning, somebody builds a network of roads, or housing, or invests in a university, but the complication remains that there are few native African engineers to build the road themselves and the cost of equipping a neuroscience lab, at least to European standards, basically slams the door on many African hopefuls. This is why the continent of Africa has only 620 accredited universities, while wider Europe alone has 4000 universities. Europe is tiny compared to Africa, and so this creates an environment where those that can afford education or have been educated to a level where they can make a difference are drawn to higher education or industry in the West.
To end this cycle of the brightest African students choosing more established European universities TReND aims to encourage elite universities in Africa. Technology itself can be the solution to the prohibitive price of modern science and so TReNDs founder, Tom Baden, proposes that advances in 3D printing technologies can be used to print lab equipment on location, wherever it may be. This is a fairly novel idea, given the complexity and sophistication of even low end lab equipment, especially when you consider that even these advanced machines are calibrated against higher standards, how could you validate the precision of a 3D printed pipette, when it’s the only pipette you have? Fortunately we can be fairly sure that this is only a short term problem as a huge number of ready to be printed 3D software models from Frisbees to phone cases are available for free online, for anyone with a 3D printer to download and get printing. This is the open-hardware movement, a named coined from the open-source movement that drives innovation in software design, and what it means is that anyone can download, tinker with and upload a design to fix and develop it. Think of it like crowd innovation where users are directly invested in the final product. This has massive advantages for TReND because in the future it would circumvent the need for shipping lab equipment and obliterate the previous costs. And, by providing 3D printers and classes in coding and computer science, allow students to print what they need for themselves, without relying on pre-fabricated models.
This approach worked well during the rise of some of the most widely used software in the world –FireFox and Linux and Android, to name a few—as software developers were the first to harness the potential of open-source. Their idea was to spread understanding of coding, with the added benefit of users being able to customise a product exactly to their needs. Why not apply this to science as well? With the lowering cost of 3D printers and the incredible convenience of the system, some people suspect we may be entering a new industrial era, it is just waiting for more precise 3D printers and printable materials beyond the standard plastics. If this is achieved it could bypass the lack of industry in Africa by enabling them to print-manufacture for themselves. Open-source lab equipment is already here, and Tom Baden among others is working towards a 3D printed laboratory toolkit that so far includes a pipette accurate to 1ml and a fluorescent microscope capable of supporting simultaneous optogenetic stimulation, that was made for less than $100. For some perspective a new upright light microscope with no extras from Zeiss will set you back the princely sum of €17,177.65, which means you could lose of break your printable microscope one hundred and seventy times, and by its 170th iteration, who knows what else it could do?
The open-hardware initiative therefore offers an opportunity to address problems with science in both Africa and in Europe, by opening science to the public and giving people a better understanding of the groundworks of the scientific process as well as a deeper familiarity with the equipment that makes it happen. While TReNDs goal of empowering aspiring and existing scientists to innovate for themselves could act as a starting point for a profound shift in the distribution of scientific activity. Even those who could not code for themselves could attain multiples fluorescent microscopes for the classroom, and finally do away with the far-to-literal field trips we’ve all be subjected to. What’s more coding languages are now being taught in many primary schools as well, so hopefully the next generation of scientists will thank us for giving open-hardware a fair shot.
Joe Sheppard is a Masters student at the GTC in the Cellular Molecular program and he is currently working in the lab of Olga Garaschuck for his Masters thesis.
Image credit Joris Laarman lab at MX3D
Baden, T. et al., 2015. Open Labware: 3-D Printing Your Own Lab Equipment. PLoS Biology, 13(3), pp.1–12.