Youth month activities kicked off in Zimbabwe last week at the inaugural LabHack in partnership with the National Biotech Authority (NBA), AU/NEPAD-Southern African Network of Biosciences (NEPAD-SANBio).
Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education in Zimbabwe is challenged by shortages of laboratory equipment in teaching institutions. Large numbers of students often have to share single items of equipment, making it difficult for them to gain the hands-on experience necessary for effective STEM education. All laboratories in the region import reagents and equipment from Europe and a minimum of 60% of the R&D funding in the life sciences goes towards reagents. Moreover, the lack of local manufacturing means there is no capacity to maintain equipment and most SADC countries apart from South Africa, rely on external expertise. It is imperative that African countries develop capacity to design, manufacture and maintain scientific equipment to support Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) development.
LabHack challenges budding innovators to take matters in to their own hands and build the equipment they need to learn while also encouraging them to use the Open Hardware resources available online to design equipment using hardware available in a local Zimbabwean context.
Inspired by researchers, Louise Bezuidenhout and Helena Webb from the University of Oxford, LabHack was funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund. The 3 day event was hosted by the Harare Institute of Technology and local coordinator, Robert Shoniwa attracted teams of students from the Harare Institute of Technology, University of Zimbabwe, National University of Science and Technology and University of Chinhoyi along with local laboratory and Hellenic Academy high school.
Divided into 11 teams, the students designed three types of laboratory equipment built from locally available hardware that are used daily in laboratories all over Zimbabwe, these included a magnetic stirrer, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machine and a centrifuge.
There was also an open challenge where the teams were supplied with an Arduino starter kit from local company, Netro which involved showing an impressive range of innovative thinking and displaying of highly inventive prototypes within all four categories.
During the course of the weekend, teams also participated in a range of workshops hosted by local tech companies including Elevate Trust, 3D guys, 3D Kings, TechVillage and Netro.
LabHack concluded with local hobbyist, Team Smevy taking the winning prize for best prototype which was an ingenious centrifuge whose casing was predominantly designed out of plywood and cardboard. The prototype was fully functional and produced at a cost that was a fraction of any commercially-available models. While the prize for best documentation and design plans was won by Team Elite (Nust) who designed both a PCR machine as well as a centrifuge which relied on a motor taken from a toy car.
Students are encouraged to start putting on their creative hats; dates for LabHack 2.0 Zimbabwe are loading.