Building low-cost lab equipment in Zimbabwe

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education in Africa is often held back by shortages of laboratory equipment in teaching institutions. Even very basic pieces of equipment can be very expensive to buy, import, repair and maintain. As a result, many African laboratories in schools and universities are critically under-resourced and students are required to share single items between large groups. This makes it difficult for them to gain the hands-on experience they need to develop their skills.

Researchers at Oxford in the Department of Computer Science and Institute for Science, Innovation and Society have worked together to develop a novel approach to address resource scarcity in African laboratories. Our idea is to hold competitions in which students design and build the equipment themselves! These are LabHackathons – fun events in which multidisciplinary teams compete around design challenges to build low cost and reproducible laboratory equipment. The idea of the LabHackathon builds on the traditional hackathon competition, and the ethical hackathon format as developed by members of the Human Centred Computing theme at Oxford. It also draws on the emerging field of Open Hardware. This global movement includes a drive towards the free online dissemination of equipment plans and thereby offers alternatives to reliance on expensive, proprietary laboratory equipment.

Thanks to a Global Challenges Research Fund award from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), we held our first LabHackathon in Zimbabwe in June 2018. Teams of university students and hobbyists from across the country took part, signing up for challenges to design and build pieces of laboratory equipment such as magnetic stirrers, centrifuges and PCR machines. The teams worked on their designs ahead of the event; they were supplied with Arduino kits to help them and were also encouraged to make use of freely available Open Hardware resources.

The LabHackathon event itself took place at the Harare Institute of Technology from June 8th to 10th. The teams showed off their completed designs in presentations and demonstration sessions. The quality of work was very high and the ingenuity shown by the teams to build frugally was very impressive. The teams produced excellent working prototypes, often for less than $100 when commercial versions would typically cost thousands of dollars. A panel of judges awarded prizes for, amongst others, Best Prototype, Best Design Documentation and Most Frugal Design. Participants also had the opportunity to attend a variety of social events, and interactive, educational sessions run by the event organisers and local companies.

We were delighted with the outcomes of our first LabHackathon event. Our teams were highly motivated and enthusiastic, truly rising to the challenges we set them and displaying great skill and ingenuity as young innovators. Since the event, we have encouraged our teams to share their designs as part of the Open Hardware movement and have also showcased them at research and public engagement events. We are pursuing opportunities to run more LabHackathon competitions and to build up a network of events across Africa. We hope that the LabHackathon can become a platform through which students and educators can take matters into their own hands in order to design and build the equipment they need in their institutions.

The LabHackathon team were Marina Jirotka, Helena Webb, Jason R.C. Nurse (Computer Science) and Louise Bezuidenhout (Institute for Science, Innovation and Society). We were assisted in the organisation of our Zimbabwe event by Arianna Schuler Scott (Computer Science) and a number of local organisations – in particular the Harare Institute of Technology, the National Biotechnology Authority of Zimbabwe and the NEPAD Southern African Network of Biosciences.

(This post was originally published in Inspired Research)

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Written by Helena Webb
Senior Researcher
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