Students Write Grant Proposals to Outfit Ugandan School with Science Equipment

A shipment of science equipment and lesson plans arrived recently at a secondary school in Uganda. While it’s unusual for schools in this African nation to have the supplies to teach their students basic science skills, what may be more unique is how the equipment made it from suppliers in the U.S. to the school of 650 students. It’s a story that starts halfway around the world with students studying biomedical sciences at a high school in San Diego, Calif., and shows how connecting students to the real-world relevancy of their studies can make a tremendous difference in the lives of many.

Those real-world connections are part of what makes PLTW’s STEM education program successful in engaging students in the disciplines of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). It’s the everyday relevance of what they learn in class and the hands-on projects that brings STEM to life and involves students in subjects they typically don’t pursue beyond high school.

As Ellie Vandiver discovered, making this type of correlation with grant writing brought what could be considered a tedious process alive for her students.

Vandiver teaches courses from PLTW’s Biomedical Sciences (BMS) curriculum at University City High School (UCHS), a public school in San Diego. She is trained to teach all four PLTW courses; Principles of the Biomedical Sciences, Human Body Systems, Medical Interventions and Biomedical Innovation.

As part of the Principals of the Biomedical Sciences (PBS) course, students go through the grant writing process.

“A problem I faced in having the students write the grant proposal was that they couldn't make a real connection to what they were doing,” said Vandiver.

Vandiver was approached by Dr. Kathryn Ely, a structural biologist with more than 25 years of experience working in academia, who had recently developed Quench and Connect, a non-profit organization based in San Diego that supports schools in Uganda. Recognizing that health and good education are primary tools to lift a population out of poverty, Quench and Connect aims to provide clean, safe water to students and educational tools that will significantly increase the academic achievement of students. Dr. Ely has made several trips to Uganda and has witnessed first-hand the poor conditions of the country’s high schools and lack of science equipment in the classrooms.

In her conversations with principals in Uganda, Dr. Ely learned that schools can’t teach science because they don’t have basic equipment like microscopes, test tubes and beakers.

“One of the Ugandan Principals, Dr. Frank Kakinda, told me that his students perform very well on national exams, but not in science because his teachers do not have the tools to teach labs,” Ely said. “Without labs, students never catch the ‘flame’ that’s needed to choose science for their careers. The lack of science teaching also extends to the universities where only six of the top 27 universities in Uganda offer science degrees. Quench and Connect is trying to improve this situation so that Uganda can train the scientists, engineers and medical workers it needs to build a strong capable society.”

When Dr. Ely connected with Vandiver through a mutual colleague, a plan came together for San Diego students to develop grant proposals requesting science equipment to furnish Gayaza Cambridge College of St. Mbaaga. In Uganda, a secondary school is called a college. Now the PLTW students had their real-world relevancy to the grant writing assignment and they flourished with the task.

“Every day we worked on the grant proposal, I was so excited because I knew that what I was doing would change the lives of kids my own age, on the other side of the world” said Ben Mitchell, a ninth-grade student at UCHS.

The 70 students, divided into two classes, who take the PBS course at UCHS were broken up into three groups: Physics, Chemistry and Biology. Each group put together a grant proposal for its discipline that included background research, equipment, costs and lesson plans. The proposals also described the critical need for the supplies and the importance of science education for the future growth of Uganda.

“The grant proposal helped me appreciate the education that is available to us today and it's really rewarding to know that our work will help many students in Uganda,” said ninth-grader Prachi Anshu.

Dr. Ely, an accomplished grant writer, visited the classroom at least once a week, mentored the students and immediately connected with them.

“I was amazed at how these freshman students quickly caught the spirit of the project and how well they put together their proposals,” Ely said. “On the last day of class, they showed, by their excellent oral presentations, that they believed in the project and could ‘sell it’ to the review panel. These proposals, conceived and written by high school students, played a key role in convincing the science supply companies to donate the needed materials. In this way, the UCHS students were directly involved in the success of the project.”

The lesson plans were reviewed and critiqued by science teacher candidates at Clarke University in Dubuque, Iowa, under the supervision of Professor Lawrence R. Bice, Chair of the Education Department.

The students presented the proposals to community members including school administrators and doctors as well as Fisher Science Education (part of ThermoFisher Scientific) and VWR International.

“The grant writing campaign for UCHS students encompasses many goals we have for our students,” said UCHS Principal Jeff Olivero. “First and foremost, they learn to value what they have in life — the opportunity to gain a superior education. Second, the grant process allows them to become problem solvers of true international challenges. That is, how do we (young and old) gain and obtain necessary resources to help others seeking assistance. And third, they gain one of life's most important lessons; the fulfillment of knowing you have helped another person or group of people. We are grateful that we have such an inspiring teacher (Mrs. Vandiver) that manages to teach so many life-long experiences in school."

As a result of the student grant proposals, VWR Education agreed to donate and ship the majority of the requested equipment to Uganda using the cost lists from the student proposals. The school is currently working with ThermoFisher Science Education to provide the remaining items from the proposals.

“The students were engaged, excited and passionate about their grants because they had meaning to them,” said Vandiver. “I can't emphasize enough the level of engagement the students had for their work.”

The equipment and lesson plans will allow Gayaza Cambridge College to engage its students, two-thirds of whom are female, with hands-on science labs.

“Working on the grant, opened my eyes to how lucky we are to have such a great education,” said ninth-grader Kyle Underwood. “Just knowing that teens in Uganda will be getting a chance to improve their situation and opportunities, made it all worthwhile”

“Working on the grant proposal was stressful, but it was very rewarding. In the end, we knew we helped teens, like us, obtain a better education,” said ninth-grader Xiela Edusada.

There are opportunities for other schools with PLTW’s BMS program to get involved with Quench and Connect and provide their students with grant writing opportunities for the construction of water wells in Uganda.

The lack of clean water in Uganda and other developing nations is a major impediment to social and economic development. Dwindling water supplies coupled with increasing demands for water due to population growth and urbanization exacerbate the situation and make access to clean water a top concern for impoverished countries. Lack of clean water is linked to preventable problems such as dehydration, diarrhea, bacterial or parasitic infection, and a long list of other gastrointestinal disorders.

Communities that rely on contaminated water must live with wide-spread illnesses in the population that adversely affect school attendance of the children, markedly decrease productivity of the adults and contribute to increased mortality levels.

Since the 1990s, there has been a shift toward the construction of water wells in communities and villages that are already established. Philanthropic organizations have built wells and simple sanitation systems, and provided tutoring in basic hygiene for those who will access the new wells. These efforts have successfully improved the quality of life for the villages that receive the water wells.

Schools that wish to develop PLTW grant proposals for water wells in Uganda may contact Dr. Ely at [email protected]. Dr. Ely will assist the school and its students in writing the grant proposals and present the proposals to potential donors.