Lorraine Ololia is 10. She lives in Kampala, Uganda. And she recently came up with a new career goal.
A TV show about science, produced by teachers from her junior high school, has inspired her. She’s watched an episode on computer programming, another where two young explorers visit her country’s Lake Victoria to talk about wetlands and learned how to make a model of a digestive tract at home using bowls, crackers, water, food coloring, bananas and oranges.
She’s even appeared on the show, making and launching a rocket with her friend Samantha.
And now she wants to pursue a career in science.
“It’s boys who do all the fun stuff and sometimes a girl like me gets a little left out,” she says. “But girls can be scientists and go to the moon.”
The show is called N*Gen (pronounced “engine), or Next Generation Television.
N*Gen first aired on Ugandan TV in September — and since then, the show, which features a dozen 35-minute episodes, has been picked up by TV networks in more than half a dozen African countries.
On Feb. 6, it will debut in North America and the Caribbean on The Africa Channel, airing every Saturday and Sunday at 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. ET.
N*Gen is the brainchild of six teachers from Clarke Junior School in Kampala and East African nonprofit Peripheral Vision International, which funds and produces it.
“Choosing a science focus for N*Gen is an absolute necessity because not only is it a neglected area, it is considered one of the hard subjects [for many students],” says Joy Kiano, a teacher who has a Ph.D. in both biochemistry and molecular biology and is a consultant with Peripheral Vision International.
The show, targeting children ages 8 to 12, looks at science through an African lens. Weekly episodes are filmed in a studio in Kampala and sometimes on location (visiting a chocolate factory for an episode about food, for example).
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Kiano says it was important to feature African women in science. Some male teachers appear but guest scientists are mainly female. And the two main presenters, Irene Nyangoma Mugadu and Annah Komushana, are women as well: Ugandan teachers from Clarke Junior School in Kampala.
“Society expects little from girls and women,” says Mugadu. “Girls need to be empowered to reach their full potential academically and explore disciplines that are mainly pursued by boys.”
A team of teachers and producers in Uganda as well as Nigeria and Kenya – where some segments are also filmed – brainstorm ideas for episodes. For many of them, it was their first time working in TV.
The goal is to “tackle topics which are all around us” but may be unfamiliar to the audience, says Komushana. “It has also given them a chance to explore and carry out different experiments.”
Episode subjects range from astrophysics to biology to the natural sciences. Presenters give short lessons on topics such as bees, robots, sounds, water and paleontology. They conduct science experiments – how to make a model of an X-ray of their hand using paper and flour, for example. The instructions: Sprinkle flour over the hand on a black piece of paper to create an outline, then place 27 sticks on the paper to represent the 27 bones in the hand.
For a segment called “The Africa Teacher Challenge,” teachers send in video clips of their science lessons. In one, a teacher from Tanzania gives a lesson on eating insects as a delicacy across Africa. “You may think it’s strange to eat worms, but worms and insects in general are a staple for many people and they are very nutritious,” says Seamê Rampling Ongala from Dar es Salaam. “They contain more protein than meat and a rich source of minerals such as iron and calcium.”
Educators have praised the show for prominently featuring women. Christine Kathurima, principal of Nova Pioneer Schools, an independent school network spanning preschool to secondary grades in Kenya and South Africa, describes N*Gen as “absolutely ground-breaking in the quality and the African female presenters.” She is not affiliated with the show.
“I absolutely love seeing women presenters,” she adds. “When I watched the show I realized that many of the educational videos that we use do not intentionally seek female hosts. Kids’ singing shows and storytelling shows have a good amount of representation across the board, however when it comes to science this is a first for me.”
The show’s focus on African perspectives, locations and scientific discoveries has also impressed broadcasters, who say it’s unlike any other science show that’s appeared on African TV.
“Most often we broadcast foreign content from Western countries. However, we hope more African productions will be made for African broadcasters,” says Kalumbu Lumpa, a content acquisition manager from Zambian TV network ZNBC.
Jeff Schon, CEO and co-founder of Akili Kids!, a children’s learning channel based in Kenya, said the network had been screening programs such as U.S. program SciGirls, which showcases STEM-related content.
“[It is] a lovely program, but it’s certainly not shot here,” he says. “It is in some cases dealing with subjects that are not going to resonate here.” SciGirls, he says, had a segment on shoes designed for safely walking on Minnesota’s icy winter streets, for example.
N*Gen, on the other hand, puts the spotlight on Africa. “I enjoyed a recent episode we broadcast, titled ‘Bones,’ that had a segment on [the fossil] Turkana Boy whose bones are housed at the Kenya National Museum,” he says. “The segment featured a paleontologist from the museum and the program did a great job of presenting him as a role model and inspiration for future generations of scientists.”
Schon is proud to share that in Kenya, where it’s been broadcast twice on weekends since Oct. 10, each episode is watched on average by 658,000 children under 14 and 642,000 adults.
The cast and producers began scripting a second N*Gen series in January with a focus on climate change-related issues. And they plan to keep filming even if the pandemic keeps kids out of the classroom.
Freelance journalist Amy Fallon has reported from Africa, Asia, Australia and the United Kingdom. She is on Twitter @amyfallon