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November 5, 2018

Homemade Microscopes are Changing Ethiopian Classrooms

Yoshihisa Matsushita should feel out of place. He is 10,000kms from his home in Wakayama Prefecture in Japan; living and working in Mekelle city, in Ethiopia. On any given day he can be found in a classroom, his white lab coat a stark contrast in the sea of 50-60 students in their school uniforms, clamoring for his attention. They all speak in Tigirina, the local language of the region, which he has been learning for the past year. He has mastered enough of the language to control the classroom and to also go as far as explaining cell structures to his Grade 7 students.

Assigned as a science education teacher, Matsushita is one of 42 Japanese volunteers currently working in Ethiopia through the volunteer program run by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Upon arriving at Atse Yohannes Primary School in January 2017, he was surprised to find classrooms overcrowded with students while the shelves in the science labs had few materials. During experiments, especially those that required the use of the school's only microscope, everyone crowded around one table and strained to see what he was doing. Most days the bell rang before everyone had a chance to look inside the microscope.

"Understanding the cell is the hallmark of biology, we are all, humans, animals and plants, made up of cells," says Matsushita. He knew that his students needed to have a solid foundation to build on, and for that they needed to see and understand the basics of cell structure for themselves. Ten seconds of peering into a microscope would not be sufficient to carefully observe the structure of cells. So, he decided to fix the problem.

With a PhD in integrated medical science and a fellowship at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Matsushita was no stranger to thinking outside of the box and developing solutions to problems. His personal commitment to contributing to disadvantaged communities also drove him to work hard towards his goals. In 2007, a visit to the Philippines as a volunteer re-shaped his worldview. In a span of 10 days he witnessed children and women living on the street, at dumpster sites and orphanages in unbearable conditions, but he also saw the hope in their eyes and their warmth and kindness. That is when he vowed to one day spend time volunteering in developing countries, giving children the tools to succeed in life.

Conscious of the limited resources of schools in Mekelle, Matsushita decided to build enough microscopes for each student in his class. Borrowing the 350-year old idea from Dutch scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, he set to work, to build 60 simple microscopes from used plastic bottles. A modernized version of a microscope can be made within 15 minutes from materials that are readily available in the community at a very low cost.

After using the microscopes in his classroom for a few weeks, the student's comprehension of cell structures dramatically improved. Motivated by the results, Matsushita put forward a proposal to Mekelle City Education Office to visit every single public school in Mekelle and teach Grade 7 students the cell structure of onions.

To have a widespread impact on students and the school system, Matsushita is going one-step further and has now begun training physics, chemistry and biology teachers how to make the microscopes. The relationship and the trust that he established with teachers by visiting their classrooms has opened the door for him to introduce new teaching methods.

"I am happy that I can learn from him. Learning how to make the microscopes has been eye-opening for me and I am thinking of ways that I can impact my students in a similar way and to have them do hands-on experiments" said Akebom Redae, a teacher at Debre Primary School, 10kms from Mekelle.

"Since the first day that he came and showed the microscopes to my class, I have wanted to ask him to teach me how to make them. I am glad that he has come back to teach me so that I too can make microscopes for my students," echoed Zimam Adhanom, a biology teacher at Adishumduhun Primary School in Mekelle.

Thus far, Matsushita has introduced his homemade microscopes to 13 schools out of 24 in Mekelle. His hope is that the teachers and local education offices will adopt the microscopes as cost-effective alternatives to standardized microscopes.

Although one would expect him to feel like a fish out of water in this foreign land, Matsushita has ingratiated himself with his students and the community in Mekelle and has made a home in the most unlikeliest of places.

PhotoShowing students a diagram the structure of a cell

PhotoStudents using the homemade microscopes to identify the components of cell

PhotoStudent sketching the cell structure that he has observed

PhotoShowing other teachers how to make the microscopes


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