Mary Ngerechi first walked into a science lab in 2015. It was love at first experiment.
The 14-year-old was in Grade 9 at WE’s Kisaruni Group of Schools in the Maasai Mara, Kenya. She didn’t know what to expect from biology class. She had never seen a beaker or test tube before.
At the beginning of that class Mary remembers being tentative, afraid to touch anything in the lab for fear she might break the glass equipment. Her local primary school had not prepared her for this. Her current teacher’s approach was to show—rather than tell—students the mechanics of science.
The class started with an experiment: the benedicts test for reducing sugars. The teacher slowly demonstrated each step, placing samples in the test tubes before heating the solution to a boil. Magically, the colour in the tube started to change—from light blue to a greenish hue, then to yellow, further on to an off-orange, until finally it became a muddy red. After the transformation, students were asked to repeat the experiment.
Carefully, Mary repeated the steps and saw the colours come alive, this time understanding it was because of her actions. She was transfixed… and also very relieved nothing broke.
Flash forward three years, Mary is starting Grade 12 enthralled by science; as inquisitive as she was during that first day in the lab. Her passion is so that she can no longer even count the number of experiments she’s done. She says the number must be somewhere in the hundreds.
With each new experiment, Mary’s confidence and skill increases. Her dedication to the field has earned her the prestige of being one of Kisaruni’s top science students. She is often called upon by her teachers to lead class experiments, while other students vey to be her lab partner.
When asked what she loves most about science? Mary gives a practical answer (tellingly, she tends to excel at the empirical component within science tests). “It makes sense to me,” she says. “It is easy for me to comprehend the formulas and once I learn it, it’s hard for me to forget.”
Mary walks us through the experiment that first hooked her; she is concentrated. She adds a blue liquid—the benedict’s solution—to a glucose solution in a test tube and heats it. When it turns that final shade of red, she concludes there are reducing sugars present in the solution. As she explains, the solution’s elements were oxidized to carboxylic acids. “I understand why the color changed,” she beams. Technical terms like these, now fall easily off her tongue—common idioms in her vocabulary.
Mary loves science, but she recognizes a lack of role models in the field. She can’t help but think of other girls who might be just as keen in a lab, if given the chance. For her Kisaruni gave her the opportunity to find her passion—without the school, she never would have known this love.
Mentors for girls like Mary—women who are passionate about Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM)—are few and far between in the Maasai Mara. This is among the challenges when trying to get the region’s girls interested in STEM.
Still, mentors do exist.
At Kisaruni, educators believes mentorship and motivation is the way to bridge the STEM gap.
Philes Kebaso is one of those mentors—she welcomes her students into her biology class, eager to begin the lesson of the day. Mary is quick to point her out as a role model, while students like Mary motivate the teacher. She gushes, “It make me very happy knowing that I am making an impact on these learners.”
This mentor knows for girls to fully participate in STEM streams, they must first have access to a quality education. She credits educational resources, like Kisaruni’s fully equipped labs, for igniting students’ passion for science. “Most of these learners are the first in their families to not only go to high school but to access resources like these,” she notes. “We want them fully prepared to pursue careers in STEM. They are the generation that will become role models to other young girls.”
Outside of the classroom, Mary is part of the school’s science club, where students meet to explore science topics and further their knowledge through more experiments. Here, Mary is the mentor, guiding new club members and helping younger students with their homework.
Asked about the future, Mary confirms she will definitely be pursuing a career in the sciences after she graduates high school. She dreams of becoming a doctor. Her reason is simple: she has never seen any girl from her community pursue a medical course. “I want to be the first, so young girls from my community can see that it can be done.”