Komal is giving students tools to develop science literacy for an increasingly science-focused world. She works to give all students the opportunity to have lab-based science education by developing methods to use cell phones to mimic lab equipment, giving teachers resources to support them and help them to teach science with a focus on developing critical thinking and data analysis skills, and by encouraging municipalities to focus on allocating resources to science education.
The New Idea
Komal is democratizing science to give students of all backgrounds access to high-quality science education, and to change teachers’ and school districts’ mindsets to incorporate experimentation and laboratories into the classroom. Komal is changing school district’s relationship to science education, making it possible for all students to have access to an advanced level science education to prepare them for a world increasingly focused on STEM, and to prepare them for potential careers in science. She works with middle and high schools and municipalities in Chile, Mexico, and the USA to change the way science is taught. Her vision is for all students to have a science education that involves practical laboratories so that students can see the real-life implications of science, develop critical thinking and data analysis skills, and see their potential in the field.
Komal focuses on improving science education on three levels: working with companies to provide smartphones and tablets to schools, working with municipalities to restructure how science education is taught and working with teachers to provide training and create a peer support network, and by utilizing tools on smartphones to function as lab equipment to give all students access to science education resources. To do so she encourages municipalities to rethink their approach to teaching science, prioritizing resources to go to science education, and changing the way science is taught in schools. She conducts trainings for teachers, and advises school districts to avoid extensive unnecessary time in the classroom. Instead she focuses on encouraging quality time in the classroom that includes lab components to learning, making the class practical and engaging for all students. She also connects municipalities to companies to provide WiFi, cell phones, and tablets, if not already available.
Her work in schools, with both teachers and students, is primarily through her app Lab4Physics. The app is a part of the Lab4U project that supports inquiry-based learning and transforms a smartphone into a science instrument using its built-in sensors. Lab4Physics the first in the Lab4U series that will soon include chemistry and biology apps as well. Understanding the prevalence of of smartphone technology, Komal created an app that would provide a virtual version of lab equipment so that resource stricken schools could access affordable science education. Via the app’s teacher portal, she provides pedagogical tools and support to teachers, targeting those who are dedicated to their job but may not be fully knowledgeable of how to teach subjects foundational to science education, or who may be working to teach their students as best as they can but suffer from occupational burnout. For classrooms and for independent app users, she offers over twenty hands-on practical laboratories that require only the use of a smartphone or tablet for experimentation and data collection. None of the experiments themselves require WiFi and therefore can be executed anywhere. The app only requires WiFi when students choose to collaborate on experiments to share data for analysis.
Komal’s Lab4U product is in 40 schools in Chile, 30 schools in the United States, and instituted in a statewide pilot program in Sinaloa, Mexico. She is working to spread her innovation to more scientific subjects so that she not only better connects students with STEM-related opportunities but also gives them tools to better engage with science at critical moments in their educational careers.
According to the World Economic Forum, 65% of children entering primary schools now will grow up to have jobs that do not yet exist, most likely in STEM fields. Without the proper foundational skills and knowledge in the field of science, young people will be severely disadvantaged from a market that will only continue to grow.
In Chile, the lack of quality science education is evident in the number of researchers and developers in the country. According to the World Bank, there are 317 researchers for every million inhabitants, even lower than the Latin American average of 503 per million. For comparison, there are 4,670 researchers and developers per million people in the USA, 3,066 in Europe, 5,179 in Japan, and 6,173 in Singapore. As more jobs are developed in STEM fields focused on research and development, Chile is on track to fall even further behind in the global science field.
Latin American classrooms lag behind in science education. According to the Inter American Development Bank, over 80% of schools in Latin America do not have lab equipment. Without the lab component, science education is heavily theory based and much more difficult for students to engage with or understand. Chile has its own particular problems in teaching science, where teachers have to spend so much time in the classroom that they lack time to prepare lesson plans and labs.
Despite extensive scientific astronomical research being conducted in Chile, few Chileans are involved. Rather, the science industry in Chile is dominated by foreign money and influence, and completely separate from the Chilean education system, creating a strict divide between advanced scientific research and students who are learning about science. According to the Nature International Journal of Science, less than .5% of Chile’s GDP is invested in science and technology, compared to about 1% in Brazil, and 2.8% in the USA. The lack of financial investment leads to a culture that is disinterested in science, and deepens the historic gap between Chilean scientists and businesses, which means that there are not many people in Chile developing new technologies to solve national and international problems.
Komal is democratizing science education to make science literacy, critical thinking, and laboratories essential parts of every science classroom. She is giving students the tools to learn about science and engage in education and experimentation in a sophisticated and fun way, both to inspire a new generation of scientists and to give students who will study and work in all job fields the skills necessary to live in a world and work in a job market that is increasingly focused on STEM. She works directly with science teachers and students through an app she has designed, Lab4Physics. The app provides students with hands-on activities and laboratories that don’t require expensive lab equipment and maintenance, and provides teachers with lesson plans, instructional videos, and forums to connect with other science instructors. She also works with municipalities to prioritize science education, and works with connecting them to companies to donate tools like WiFi and smartphones, if they lack them.
One facet of Komal’s strategy is working with students. In her experience working with schools in Chile, she found that there were not many hands-on components incorporated into the science curriculum, due to a lack of funding for expensive lab equipment and lack of teacher training and resources. Because of this, students were not able to experience science theory in the lab, discouraging them from connecting further with science. Thus, Komal developed Lab4Physics to fill the equipment gap and engage with students. The app uses tools already present in a smartphone, such as sensors, camera, and GPS to mimic lab equipment so that students can experiment with concepts such as pendulum motion, uniform motion, magnetism, and free fall. The app does not require WiFi, so students can experiment in schools, public places, or at home. To ensure that the usability of the app was popular with young people, Komal modeled the user interface after gaming apps, so that students could have fun and feel inspired while they experiment with science. Moreover, the app’s labs and lessons align with the national science curriculum in Chile, and cover 40% of the Next Generation Science Standards of the United States, new nationally recognized education standards that go beyond Common Core. Komal also made sure to diversify the characters who lead students through experiments, so students from all backgrounds can see people who look like them as scientists, making it inclusive and encouraging for all students. She also ensures that all labs pertain to real-life situations so that students can connect to and be motivated by what they are learning.
The second level of Komal’s strategy is working with teachers. Another problem that Komal observed in her experience working with schools was that teachers were not often well trained in their area of instruction, and had nowhere to turn to ask for help. Many of the classrooms that Komal observed did not have an emphasis on project-based learning and inquiry-based learning, both essential to learning and engaging with science. After talking to many teachers she discerned that they could not manage these types of classrooms because of lacked training and support. Through the teacher portal of Lab4Physics, Komal gives teachers lesson plans, instructional videos, and lab reports, to help them structure lessons that incorporate labs without putting an extra burden on the teachers themselves. Moreover, she has created a space for teachers to connect and discuss their teaching experiences, creating a peer support network across Chile. As a result, forums and new pedagogical resources are now filling the gaps in resources. The teacher portal also allows instructors to organize and distribute handouts, quizzes, and exams. Students can also turn in material through the platform, and teachers are able to review students’ data and the quality of execution of their experiments. This keeps teacher’s information all in one place to keep them organized, and is a much more affordable alternative to similar services.
The third level of Komal’s strategy is working with municipalities and companies. When working with a school, Komal always starts with an analysis assessment for schools to see what resources they do or do not have. She looks at factors like access to WiFi and access to cell phones to be able to tailor her program to each individual school. When schools don’t have WiFi, she solicits the municipality or another company to donate WiFi and discusses with the school prioritizing WiFi access for science students so that they can work on labs in a collaborative setting. Additionally, she is making partnerships with Samsung to donate cell phones and tablets to schools for students who don’t have access to them. When working with municipalities or school districts, Komal will conduct trainings with all of the science teachers to change their approach to teaching science in the classroom. She trains them in creating a environment based on curiosity and inquiry-based learning, and in conducting experiments and creating a project-based classroom despite minimal to no access to resources.
Since Komal started Lab4U, she has worked with Enseña Chile, an organization in the Teach for All network, to work with vulnerable, low income schools. She conducted pre-tests and post-tests before and after using Lab4Physics, and found that students’ grades improved on average by 40%. Her app has been downloaded more than 128,000 times, and is being used in 40 schools in Chile and 30 schools in the USA. In addition, she is also working with the State of Sinaloa in Mexico on a pilot program, currently serving over 10,000 students. The impact report from Sinaloa, which will formally be released in September, stated that the students who conducted at least 6 experiments with Lab4U over the course of the academic cycle considered themselves more knowledgeable, were more interested in a career in science, and performed much better than the control group.
Komal is addressing the issues that face science education today, and has already made a significant improvement in the understanding of science in public schools. Although she’s still in the early stages of her work, Komal’s project draws a wide range of supporters. Currently she partners with the Inter American Development Bank, the Smithsonian, and the American Association of Physics Teachers. In Chile, she partners with the professor Pablo Valenzuela, famous for developing the first Hepatitis vaccine and discovering Hepatitis C. As Lab4U has grown, Komal has also received support from major players in both the technology and education industries, including Socialab, CORFO, Samsung, Intel, Microsoft BizSpark, and Fundación Ciencia y Vida (Science and Life Foundation).
She is already working on developing the chemistry course, and has a US patent on discerning the algorithm of concentration of a solution based on color with a smartphone camera. She is focused on getting all of the hard science courses digitized with labs and resources available for teachers so that she can offer all of those tools to any school that needs them. As her project expands, she continues to work on scaling her business model. Today, Komal is already working with over 100 schools and has impacted over 60,000 students and 11,000 teachers worldwide. In 5 years, she aims to have impacted the lives of a million students.
In high school, Komal was bothered by the way students would treat their teachers, often without respect or consideration for them. Her alarm at her peers’ irresponsible behavior in school and toward their teachers is what inspires her to provide tools for teachers today. While attending the Universidad de Chile, Komal joined the university’s chapter of the National Association of Biochemistry Students in Chile. She became the President of the local chapter, and as a second-year student became the President for the national association. As President, she traveled to many high schools and universities around the country to encourage interest in science. She mostly visited schools in lower income areas, experiencing first-hand the problems that teachers faced when trying to inspire students to pursue careers in the sciences. Her agenda as President was focused on inspiring careers in the sciences, and the final event she coordinated was bringing chemistry Nobel Laureate Ada Yonath to speak at her university, so her peers could see the real people behind the field, and see themselves in those people.
Early in 2013, Komal saw a poster at Universidad de Chile from Startup Chile that advertised learning how to change the world in 54 hours. Komal recruited a few friends, and decided to go. While there, they had to pitch ideas about their world-changing project, and Komal’s was about making lab equipment more accessible; even at Universidad de Chile they lacked sufficient lab equipment. When the Startup Chile program required them to validate if there were interested clients or users, Komal pitched her app in those schools she had visited while working with the National Association of Biochemistry Students. Komal and her team, in which she met Lab4U’s cofounder, Álvaro Peralta, won third prize in the conference, and were encouraged to pursue the idea beyond the weekend. After applying for and receiving a grant from Startup Chile, this project became Lab4U.
Throughout her career in working with teachers, Komal has always been asked by teachers for help because they weren’t familiar with the subject they were teaching or the equipment that they were supposed to be using. When Komal was working with teachers in Palo Alto, California, a region with one of the best school districts in the USA, she discovered that even teachers in schools with high amounts of educational investment struggled to teach science literacy to students. A teacher in a Palo Alto high school showed Komal their science equipment, but told her that they never used it. When Komal asked why that was, the teacher told her that she never received training and did not know how to use the equipment. Komal realized that the problem wasn’t just access to equipment — which is costly to purchase and requires expensive maintenance — but also that teachers need more support to be able to give their students the tools to develop their own science literacy and critical thinking abilities.