Samson Wambuzi and Erin Fitzgerald, co-founders of Yiya Engineering Solutions and its offline learning app, AirScience, discuss barriers to STEM education in rural Uganda and how they might be overcome.
Aisha Schnellmann: Do children in rural Uganda have many opportunities to access quality STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education?
Samson Wambuzi: Unfortunately, the state of STEM education in rural Uganda is poor. Lessons remain largely theoretical because teachers are not sufficiently trained or experienced in teaching practical subject matter. They also have limited access to the materials and equipment needed for science experiments. So, in rural villages, teachers teach about capacitors and resistors when most of them have never seen such components in their lives.
Erin Fitzgerald: In classes of 40 to 60 children, it is impossible for students to carry out science experiments safely and under proper supervision, further limiting their access to quality experiential STEM education.
SW: Moreover, because of financial and personal challenges only an estimated 35% of children in Uganda finish primary school, and as a result most children do not receive STEM education in the classroom.
AS: That is an alarmingly high dropout rate. In your experience, are out-of-school youth interested in STEM education?
SW: Our offline learning app, AirScience, provides experiential STEM education for youth in rural Uganda. It is delivered through a combination of SMS and radio, making it accessible even in the most remote locations. We have recently discovered that a significant proportion of out-of-school youth aged 14 to 24 are avid AirScience users. They are keen to access practical STEM education that has relevance in their communities and daily lives.
EF: This debunks the common misconception that students who drop out of school simply do not care about their education. Indeed, many have demonstrated that they are hungry for the opportunity to acquire the knowledge and skills they need.
It is important to understand that young people who have left school have encountered challenges that forced them to do so. Some were no longer able to afford school fees. Others had become young parents and were not allowed to return to school. We try to meet their educational needs, too.
“This debunks the common misconception that students who drop out of school simply do not care about their education.”
AS: In your opinion, what are the most important skills young people learn from an experiential STEM education?
EF: Firstly, data-driven decision-making: When they learn how to find solutions using research and data instead of relying on trial and error, they are able to solve problems faster and more effectively. Secondly, creative innovation: They learn how to recognize a solution or the opportunity that lies behind a challenge. Thirdly, resilience: To be honest, these young people are already incredibly resilient because of the tough conditions that they’ve had to survive growing up. However, it is important that they learn how to recognize their own resilience and have the strength and determination to push through challenges.
SW: Lastly, flexible problem-solving: They learn that there is more than one solution to a problem – not just one right answer.
EF: Nurturing these skills helps young people develop a strong sense of agency. They acquire the tools to have a meaningful impact in their own communities and contribute to solving big global challenges, such as climate change.
SW: They are the next generation of young innovators who will make the world a better place for all of us. Youth from underserved communities have a special need for high-quality STEM education, as it will enable them to solve problems in their local communities, break the poverty cycle, and reduce inequalities.
“Youth from underserved communities have a special need for high-quality STEM education, as it will enable them to solve problems in their local communities, break the poverty cycle, and reduce inequalities.”
AS: How do you design an experiential STEM curriculum for youth living in remote rural villages?
EF: Every unit in our curriculum builds towards a technology that solves a challenge in a young person’s community. That might be a bicycle-powered phone charger or a solar battery-operated washing machine. We regularly ask for student feedback as we move through each unit, to ensure that our lessons are effective and relevant. We ask questions like “What was challenging in making this prototype?”. We are constantly co-creating the curriculum with our students, tweaking lessons based on their feedback.
SW: We also make sure that the materials for each lesson are affordable and available in the students’ communities. Since the students lack access to science equipment and labs, we’ve had to be resourceful and flexible in designing the units.
AS: How has your organization’s work affected the communities you reach?
EF: Because we work with such a diverse group of learners, measuring our intervention’s impact, and understanding how to be more effective, requires more resources than we have available. We’ve partnered with a team at Carnegie Mellon University, led by Professor Amy Ogan, which is helping us to structure our measurement and evaluation processes so that we can gather higher-quality data to inform our work. With their help, we have completed a high-level analysis to determine how AirScience is helping students, whether we are reaching our target demographics, and whether young people are growing and learning from our program.
SW: The team recently completed an external evaluation of Yiya and our offline learning app, Air Science. Their report highlights positive student outcomes in problem-solving and resilience. It also shows that those who used the knowledge they’d acquired to start their own businesses had higher incomes.
Beyond the data, we’ve personally seen the program’s impact on individual students. I remember a girl named Rebecca, who was on the verge of dropping out of school before joining our program. Through AirScience she learned STEM skills and built technological devices, including a bicycle-powered phone charger. She eventually won a STEM competition and was flown with her family to Nairobi to showcase her project at a UN event. This experience changed her life. A girl from a remote community in Uganda who had never dreamed of leaving her village has now gone back to school and has bigger dreams for her future. That is the power of taking STEM to underserved rural communities.
“That is the power of taking STEM to underserved rural communities.”