Community

Seeking STEM museum inspiration, Kenyan scientist stops in Los Altos


Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier
Serah Waithera Kahiu, center, chats with Los Altos History Museum volunteers, including Nomi Trapnell, left, during a reception at the museum last week.

As a curious 5-year-old in Kenya, Serah Waithera Kahiu wondered why her shadow followed her during the day but not at night. To help her understand the science behind the phenomenon, Kahiu’s father placed a lamp in front of her hand to illustrate how illumination created a shadow on the wall behind her.

The lesson not only shed light on the subject, but also foreshadowed Kahiu’s career in and devotion to science.

Aiming to make science as visual and fun for Kenyan children as it had been for her 28 years ago, Kahiu is on a crusade to build the first interactive Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) museum in the African country.

Los Altos bound

With the goal of returning home with a business plan in hand, she traveled 9,500 miles from Juja, Kenya, to the Los Altos History Museum last week to begin a monthlong professional immersion through the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ TechWomen Emerging Leaders program. Kahiu is one of 78 women from 16 countries who arrived in Silicon Valley this month for mentorship from companies working in STEM fields.

“Everything I’ve ever needed is in Kenya, however, there is nowhere to go to have fun with science,” Kahiu said of the inspiration behind her TechWomen program proposal to leverage her experience to develop Africa’s first network of science museums. “As I demystify science, I want a place where I can take farmers. ... I really want to explain to people that there is opportunity in science.”

An early start

Learning science by doing was the household mantra for Kahiu growing up with her parents and three brothers in Banana Hill, a small community approximately 12 miles north of Kenya’s capital of Nairobi. From homemade toys to a telescope she built for the national Science Congress in high school, Kahiu’s parents – both primary school teachers – encouraged her to ask questions and create models to help her visualize science. By explaining scientific concepts to her classmates, she gained the confidence she needed to pursue science at the university level.

Kahiu was one of only four high school graduates in a class of 40 in her home village and became the first from her community to continue studies in college.

Her road to success was a bumpy one that started with a hard-fought campaign to gain admission to the biochemistry program at the University of Nairobi.

With a limit of 20 students per class, Kahiu was initially denied access – despite earning straight As in high school, one of the qualifications. After lobbying for two weeks, she convinced admissions counselors to accept not only her in the program, but also nine others.

As the vast resources of the Internet became available, Kahiu discovered that many of her college instructors lectured from outdated materials. To supplement her classroom experience, she spent countless hours at Internet cafes searching the Web for additional information on scientific subjects.

Her instructors didn’t always welcome her newfound knowledge. She recalls one lecturer giving her a failing grade because she contradicted the instructor’s notes, even though her research was more accurate.

Despite the obstacles, and the challenge of being one of only a few women in her degree program, Kahiu graduated, earned a master’s degree in biotechnology and became executive director of a nongovernmental organization focused on alleviating poverty through agribusiness and scientific intervention.

Since founding Kilele Community Development in 2013, Kahiu has helped more than 100 farmers grow tissue cultures for new varieties of bananas, develop grain preservation techniques and launch hydrophonic and aquaphonic businesses.

Making connections

Unlike the previous two emerging leaders Los Altos technology executive Julia Lovin mentored through the TechWomen program – each is assigned a professional and a cultural mentor – Kahiu’s vision merged science, culture and community.

Placing her in a traditional tech environment didn’t seem to be the right fit. Lovin contacted Los Altos History Museum Executive Director Laura Bajuk and asked the museum to host the young leader. Bajuk responded enthusiastically.

“What if this museum adopted her museum and took her town under our wing? ... And wouldn’t it be neat if she were able not only to make friends, but also partnerships through a STEM museum?” said Bajuk of hosting Kahiu at the museum for the month of October.

Even before Kahiu arrived in Los Altos – after her first airplane ride – Lovin and Bajuk contacted potential partners in the community who might provide guidance as Kahiu developed her museum business plan.

In addition to working hand-in-hand with staff and board members to learn about operating a community museum, Kahiu will spend time at the Exploratorium’s Helix Community Science Center in Los Altos, the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, Hidden Villa in Los Altos Hills and the Resource Area for Teachers in San Jose.

“I cannot stress enough how much the community of Los Altos has stepped up and offered expertise, service, help and support (to Kahiu),” Lovin said. “Los Altos is filled with global citizens.”

Promoting science organically

Living with the philosophy of never doing anything she doesn’t love, Kahiu is determined to get an interactive STEM museum off the ground in Kenya as soon as possible.

“Science and technology are the accelerators of development,” Kahiu said. “If we don’t embrace that to create jobs, we are not going to develop.”

When Kahiu began her search for science museums in Africa in 2006, her efforts came up empty. It spurred her interest in building the first one to bridge the information gap that exists in her country.

By integrating science-inspired fashion, artists and exhibits that are tactile and engaging for young people and the general public, she said the museum would aim to make science approachable.

Although Kenya’s Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology has yet to show much interest in her plan, Kahiu remains determined to make it happen.

During her visit to Los Altos, she wants to develop a business plan, connect with potential partners and learn as much as she can about operating a successful community museum.

Kahiu already has a location for the musuem – a five-bedroom house in Juja has been donated. She expects to start small and expand organically.

Kahiu envisions public/private partnerships to support the STEM museum network. One farmer and schoolchild at a time, Kahiu hopes to inspire a movement toward science.

“When they leave the museum, they can do something with that information,” she said. “They can start a company, make a decision to study engineering and make an informed decision.”

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