Did you know that 88% of schools in Latin America do not have a science laboratory? Under such conditions, how can teachers hope to go beyond the textbook and demonstrate the laws of thermodynamics or the states of matter – let alone inspire a new generation of scientists?

Now there’s an app for that.

Enter Lab4U, an educational startup whose product essentially transforms a smartphone into a pocket-sized lab. Founded in 2013 by Chilean biochemist Komal Dadlani and Colombian engineer Álvaro Peralta, the company developed Lab4Physics, an app designed to help teach physics concepts to students in primary and secondary school. 

The app uses four sensors that are found in standard smartphones to execute more than 25 practical lab experiments. By using their mobile devices and basic objects such as plastic spheres or elastics, students can quickly demonstrate forces and phenomena. Other iterations of the app, Lab4Chemistry and Lab4Biology, will be available in late 2019 and 2020.

A smartphone transforms into a pocket-sized lab

In developing and sharing the technology, Dadlani and Peralta seek to solve four problems that often interfere with teaching science: the lack of infrastructure, the high cost of equipping a laboratory, the lack of training for teachers and, above all, students’ apathy.

“We have to have a paradigm shift,” says Dadlani. “If we can change the mentality of our educational communities, from ministers to teachers, only then will we be able to change the way we teach and leave behind that Prussian model from last century.” 

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The Mexican experiment

To study the efficacy and value of the Lab4U approach, the IDB supported a pilot project in which the app was used in 46 public schools in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, a state where only 12% of schools have a lab. 

“We think Sinaloa represents an average state in Mexico, and if an intervention like that works there, it could work in other states. At the same time, it has particular socioeconomic indicators that make it applicable to other contexts in the region,” says Nathan Marks, a member of the Lab4U startup.

schoola Sinaola

Beginning in the spring of 2017, the project involved teacher-training and the participation of nearly 5,000 students over 15 months. 

“The educational systems of Latin America and Mexico are still in the last century,” says Miguel Székely, director of the Center for Educational and Social Studies of Mexico, which worked with the IDB on the study. “Many times, even if teachers want to adapt to the needs of the 21st century … they do not have the right conditions.”

The cost? Two dollars per student, per month – a significantly more affordable price tag than what is needed to build, equip and maintain a lab. “In fact, the app does not require all students to have a phone,” says Marks. “The app is designed to run experiments with a ratio of three students per cell phone.”

Lab4U startup
For many, Lab4U was the first opportunity to practically experience a theory learned in class. 

The study produced three main findings: students improved their attitude and readiness to learn physics; they improved their academic performance; and the number of students interested in pursuing a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields increased.

For many, Lab4U was the first opportunity to practically experience a theory learned in class. 

“What I like is that we go out. We did not spend our time locked in a room with a book … We work together as a team and we learn in a more fun way,” said Jocelyn, a student from the town of Altata.

“If education gets abreast of what is happening in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we can reach more students and those students can learn better,” says Cristina Pombo, Social Sector adviser at the IDB.