Getting youth engaged in STEM education and Africa’s future

Tense and excited, the participants in the Pan-African Robotics Competition (PARC) in Senegal really got into it. In late May, 200 secondary school students attended a four-day workshop, during which they learned how to build robots. They then presented their inventions to a jury: a technological solution to “power agriculture,” the theme of the 2016 competition.

Students driving remote controlled car (Courtesy of PARC)
PARC contest participants remotely control the robots they built. (Courtesy photo)

“You had a wide range of projects,” PARC organizer Sidy Ndao says. “For example, a team created sensors that can be installed around fields to prevent birds from eating the crops. Another team converted biomass and solar energy into electricity to meet basic electrical needs on the farm.”

These types of concrete solutions are exactly what Ndao is trying to promote. The Senegalese moved to the U.S. when he was 16 and ended up graduating with a doctorate in engineering. He created the SenÉcole organization in order to develop STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education in Africa.

Teachers and students gathering around laptop (Courtesy of PARC)
PARC contest organizer Sidy Ndao encourages young people, especially girls, to study STEM to address some of Africa’s problems, including the lack of infrastructure. (Courtesy photo)

“In African countries, we learn math, physics and science, without putting them into context. Also, the way we teach STEM is very passive. And we lack state-of-the-art equipment to be able to teach students so that they can compete in the 21st century,” he noted. “Through this competition, we want to show students the relation between what they learn in the classroom and real-world problems.”

Now a professor at University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Ndao has launched several initiatives to encourage young Africans, especially girls, to engage in STEM education. And his efforts, such as the PARC competition, seem to bear fruit.

“It made me more interested in the problems facing my country, and it has encouraged me to to try to fix them through science,” said Fatim Thiam, a senior at La Maison de l’Éducation Mariama Bâ de Gorée in Dakar, who participated in the contest. “It is through this competition that I understood that women can access trades like mechatronics, information technology and general engineering,” she adds.

Girls sitting at a table building small machine (Courtesy of PARC)
Fatim Thiam (left) says she “learned a lot” during the PARC competition, “including practical concepts of mechanics, programming, teamwork, and the spirit of solidarity and listening.” (Courtesy photo)

The U.S. government also is focusing on STEM education to meet the challenges of the future. “Science is very important for the progress of our nation,” President Obama said at an awards ceremony for national scientific achievement. “Science, math, engineering is what is going to carry America’s spirit of innovation through the 21st century and beyond.”

As an example of this commitment to science, the president hosts the brightest young innovators at the White House every year. His recent budget proposal seeks $3 billion in educational programs focusing on STEM subjects and $4 billion in computer education for all students.

Children sitting around a table testing wheeled machine (Courtesy of PARC)
Girls can succeed as well as boys in the STEM fields. (Courtesy photo)

For Ndao, developing STEM education in Africa has become a personal matter. At 33, he is married, has a family and possesses a promising career in the United States, but this is not enough. “I cannot speak of success when people around me do not have a minimum standard of living,” he says. “I feel that success really means to have an impact on people how you use your success to benefit them.”

Fatim also is hoping she will be successful and contribute to the success of her country. “I want to become a geomatics engineer,” she says, and “apply my studies to agriculture and to the economy in order to develop my continent as a whole, and my country in particular.”