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Engaging the youth as malaria ambassadors in Kenya


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Engaging the youth as malaria ambassadors in Kenya

Trizah Milugo is a biochemist at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe) and a Community and Public Engagement (CPE) grantee based in Kenya. In science and health research, CPE refers to two-way interactions between scientists and non-scientist/non-specialist publics about science, research and innovation; intended to provide opportunities for mutual learning and benefit. The CPE programme is implemented through the AESA Platform. AESA (The Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa) is a funding, agenda-setting, programme management initiative of the African Academy of Sciences (AAS), the African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD), founding and funding global partners, and through a resolution of the summit of African Union Heads of Governments. DELTAS Africa is supported by Wellcome and the United Kingdom Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO formerly DFID).


Current and future community engagement should aim to promote proper malaria prevention practices among the youth.


Whereas science has progressed considerably over the past decade, science literacy, a core component of the scientific process, continues to lag. To achieve greater science literacy, a discipline-specific information literacy approach can be adopted. In this case study, we describe one researcher’s attempt to educate high school students about malaria through the arts and science.

Malaria is a life-threatening disease caused by the Plasmodium parasite and transmitted from human to human by the bite of female Anopheles mosquitoes that carry Plasmodia. The disease continues to be a leading health burden worldwide, despite concerted efforts to control it. Recent data show a global decline in new infections; however, in Africa, where the most infections and mortalities are reported, the decline is marginal, and compared to the rest of the world, current rates are persistently high. Consequently, most governments in malaria-endemic countries have embraced malaria elimination goals in their national strategic plans to fight malaria.

In Kenya, about 70% of the country’s 46 million people are at risk of malaria. In fact, the country reports over a million cases and thousands of malaria deaths each year. Significantly, the malaria burden is distributed disproportionately within the country, with those living in western Kenya most at risk. Malaria is also a leading cause of school absenteeism. Thus students, if empowered, can play a key role in control and prevention of malaria to help reduce transmission in the wider community. Specifically, high school students provide an optimal population because they can be powerful contributors to the community information cycle.

The main goal of the Science-based Conversation, Knowledge and Skill Transfer (Sciback-skit) programme is to transform students into malaria ambassadors in their immediate and broader communities. Implementation of Sciback-skit includes mentorship, science contests, science-in-action demonstrations and science-based conversation through debates, creative writing, drawing, song, dance, poetry and drama. The interest of students in science and perception of malaria prevention- and control-related activities was assessed by questionnaires and interviews. This made it possible to make connections between students interested in science and scientific literacy about malaria.

Description of study

Sciback-skit was implemented in three high schools in western Kenya. The schools were intentionally selected to ensure spatial and structural variation: Hilario Secondary School, Trans Nzoia county, Wamalwa Kijana Secondary School, Bungoma county and Gendia high school, Homabay county. Hilario is a mixed day school while Wamalwa Kijana is a mixed day and boarding school. Gendia is a boys’ boarding school. The project is aimed at promoting science literacy among high school students in Kenya using multiple approaches: 

A learner-centred engagement approach: This involves use of different tools such as one-on-one mentorship, career talks and administering questionnaires to reveal student interest in science and to gauge their knowledge of malaria. Questions consist of multiple choice, rank order and open-ended questions. The questions were designed to elicit responses about malaria symptoms and treatment, knowledge of vector characteristics, malaria control and preventive measures.  

Science-based demonstrations: This approach is both an active and observational learning method that can enhance science literacy in students. It uses a two-tier approach through which students participate in hands-on activities and poster sessions. Activities include identification of mosquito species, understanding the mosquito life cycle and extraction of bioactive components of medicinal plants using organic solvents.

Student research competition: This category involves use of creative writing, drawing, drama, poems and song. The aim was to educate students about malaria and then challenge them to communicate their level of understanding of malaria prevention and control strategies via an art and science contest. This approach is important as it can reveal the influence of individual experiences, the actions of others, and environmental factors on an individual behavior.


A career mentorship project was launched in November 2019 to support students as they develop their career competencies.  The students were taken through career exploration, high school subject choices, managing career changes and other career-related issues. 

The second phase of the project sought to challenge the students to communicate the information they had learned during career counselling. The quality of scientific and artistic output was used as a metric for capacity building. The purpose of the science contest was to encourage those with an interest in science to explore and showcase their projects. The performance arts segment featured an array of poems, spoken word presentations, traditional dances, modern dances, mimes, painting, puzzles, drawing, plays and narratives. Students were equipped with everything they needed for the projects and contests. Artistic expression was used to lay the groundwork for communicating scientific information on malaria through television, plays, and other forms of creative expression that provide opportunities to reach different audiences and to integrate malarial science more richly into the broader Kenyan culture.  


Some of the key findings of this high school engagement project are:

  1. There is a great need for career mentorship and counselling for high school students in rural areas.
  2. There is need to cover malaria information gaps in high school students in malaria-endemic regions, because this demographic is a powerful player in the community information cycle.  One of the participants, Wyclife Akaga from Ngendia High School, exemplified this perspective: “We have been given knowledge on malaria prevalence and prevention and about sciences in general; how to go about them and how to pass them.”
  3. Kenyan high school students are talented and need a platform that enables them to apply knowledge and skills to life situations in their settings. Figure 1a illustrates this in a drawing from one of the students, demonstrating the need to use a public address system to educate the public on malaria.
school children art


A total of 402 students from three schools participated in the project. Interviews revealed that a majority of the students intended to pursue science-based courses at tertiary levels. Many of those who had shied away from participating were nonetheless willing to enroll in follow-up meetings. 

In Hilario Secondary School, the programme T-shirt was officially incorporated into the school uniform, to be worn on Wednesdays during club activities. At the end of the assessment, both students and teachers in all participating schools felt that they were mentored, inspired and equipped for a paradigm shift to focus more on sciences. Further, most of the students are now more informed about basic preventive and control measures for malaria, e.g., use of insecticide-treated mosquito nets, proper drainage to reduce stagnant water, slashing of grasses and thickets and the need to seek medical advice whenever one shows malaria symptoms. This information is captured in some of the drawings by students as depicted in image above. 

Overall, this CPE project provided a great learning opportunity for both the researcher and the participants.  We anticipate that it will contribute immensely towards public science literacy.