STEM education for young girls has been overlooked in many places around the world, but Uchenna Onwuamaegbu-Ugwu is working hard to change that. As the founder and CEO of Edufun Technik, she is providing STEM learning and resources to schools and students in eastern Nigeria.
Uchenna, a 2017 Mandela Washington Fellow, advocates for youth empowerment through hands-on learning, and she shares how she hopes to shape the next generation of changemakers in Africa:
“My hope is to get them inspired now. They take science classes, do science subjects, get trained, and the future, to be part of the science community. Not just to be a scientist, but I want to create a generation of scientists that will think of our own African problem, our own diseases, our own shortfall, economic down point, our own problem, and find a solution on how to solve it. It is about Africans solving our own problems.”
Creating a platform with such a positive impact is never easy, but Uchenna shares her journey transitioning from a background in psychology into STEM education. She also shares advice on starting with very little funding, using creative ways to raise money, and most importantly, staying dedicated to your mission and community: “With as little as $100, you can touch a girl’s life for three months. … Most people think it’s okay to give up on girls, but it’s not okay.”
Uchenna also shares her thoughts on the importance of creating partnerships for business sustainability and having a willingness to try new approaches to your work, by listening closely to your students’ and community’s needs.
To hear more about STEM learning, youth empowerment and girls’ education in Nigeria, listen to the full podcast or read the transcript below.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
YALI Voices Podcast: Uchenna Onwuamaegbu-Ugwu
UCHENNA ONWUAMAEGBU-UGWU: My name is Uchenna. I am from Nigeria. Welcome to YALI.
♪ Yes we can ♪ ♪ Sure we can ♪ ♪ Change the world ♪
VOICE OVER: Welcome to the YALI Voices podcast, your home for sharing the best stories from the Young African Leaders Initiative Network. Be sure to subscribe to the YALI Voices podcast on iTunes and Google Play. And visit yali.state.gov to stay up-to-date on all things YALI.
Uchenna Onwuamaegbu-Ugwu is the founder and chief executive officer of Edufun Technik, which focuses on bringing STEM education to students and teachers, to towns and villages in eastern Nigeria. Uchenna and Edufun Technik have reached over 800 students, mostly young girls in rural communities.
Uchenna is passionate about bringing STEM education to children in Africa and to ensure that they have the opportunities available to kids all around the world.
The daughter of a schoolteacher, she’s always known the importance of education, and she is determined to break down stereotypes about what women and girls can accomplish.
Without further ado, here is our conversation with Uchenna.
ONWUAMAEGBU-UGWU: I’m the first in the family of four, three girls and a boy, and my mom is a teacher, and back home then, teachers are the poorest, like, they earn the lowest salaries. There’s this joke that teachers measure the food they eat with rulers to make sure we don’t waste food. But I think I owe her a credit to my life, because she pushed me. I started cooking at the age of 8. I took care of my younger ones. I had a lot of entrepreneurial skills growing up, because you have to go outside and do some hawking to make food. These experiences have shaped me. I learned a lot from my mother. I went to the school, where I was the head girl in the school. I was not the brightest or smartest, but I was the problem solver of the school. So whatever thing you need, come and ask me, so they made me the head girl. I was also brilliant, but I’m not the number one.
ONWUAMAEGBU-UGWU: I started Edufun Technic in 2014 after having an encounter for the first time in my life with physical electronic components like robotics and sliding door at an educational fair at Dubai. So I got to meet a lot of talent, most have been wasted, because we don’t have access to this kind of learning materials, and I thought about my children and my community. So many talents that has been wasted. And I said to myself, “I’m bringing this down to my community, to give them the access to learn using STEM education.” So that is how it started. It’s a personal thing that I missed out, and I knew hundreds and millions of children are missing out and I have to take the lead to do something about it.
First of all, I think that girls are very smart, but they are limited to what they think about themselves. Starting from a very young age, didn’t believe in themselves, and the society don’t believe in them. So it’s important for girls to start early, from a very young age, to start experimenting with sciences, with nature, and this is going to build their trust in the long run. I have some girls that come up to me and say, “I want to be an engineer. I want to be this,” and the mom would say, “No. You’re a woman. This is for boys.” I also have a personal encounter where someone told my 5-years-old girl that she cannot be a pilot, because she said she wanted to be a pilot. And I don’t know how they think at the age of 5, her friend, to know that girls can’t be pilots. So I think girl is very important for us to take the lead, to let girls know, inspire them, encourage them, that they can do this because they are smart. They can do it.
I come to class. I have an encounter with a girl. I know that they want to do it. They don’t just feel like it’s my thing. Then I give them the chance. Try and do it. Look at it. After one or two days, you find out that they really want to do this. I think parents play a lot of roles in deciding this. If they get home and get encouraged by the parents, they come back. If they don’t, I try to talk to the parents, because the girls are not the problem at that age, but the parents. So if they get a lot of encouragement, they come back. I look at it in different aspects, the girl and the parents. So while I encourage the girls, I also go back to the home and encourage the parents to give them the opportunity to do this.
They say they just think that it’s not a girls’ thing, that it’s for men, that girls can’t do this. That this is what men should do, so they don’t get encouraged.
When I started this business in 2014, I can’t have access to children, because they go to school and school is the only place you’ll find kids and youths, because they’re in school, and teenagers. So I go to school. I talk to them about STEM education, how I can work with the science teachers to implement this. How they can use my curriculum, because I’ve tried to use the local content to develop STEM activities for schools. The schools in the beginning, they are not accepting, because they feel like you are coming and this is not part of the subject. It’s not part of the curriculum, so we don’t need to put an effort in this. So it becomes hard to access the school, but I didn’t stop. I tried. I persevered and I got some schools’ attention to do this, because when I did some pro bono services for them, they saw the interest of the students. They were happy and after one year of pro bono service, because I really want it to happen, they would now give me access to work with the school.
What I do in school is — because in school you have different grades, so I look at the science subject. I look at what they are doing, and try to bring it hands-on, hands-on experience to whatever they are teaching in class, so the kids don’t feel that everything is about theory. So you see, you do, you explore. You do projects on it. That’s how I work with schools.
You have the biology curriculum in the classroom. In biology, they teach like, the skeletal body on the blackboard. So they get to draw it. So to bring in STEM in this, I make the kids make their own skeleton, give them the opportunity to design it. It becomes when you are talking about the joints, you see it. You know where it is. We also have already made that we bring to class to help them, like the real skeletons. So we bring it to class to help them see how it works. Then I also have facilitators in mathematics who brings in design materials, things that they can build, and they talk about maths with it. Then in physics, we have materials that they use as well for physics.
So if you are going to talk about momentum, or if you are going to talk about motion, you see motion live and how it works. If in technology, if you are going to talk about gear transmission or different gear issues, you don’t draw gears on the blackboard. So we use real gears to teach that. We also teach you how to make a gear and the gear ratios. That’s how we do it in the classroom.
Then in computer, most schools, they teach computer on the blackboard. They draw the computer on the board, and that’s it. The mouse and the keyboard is on the board, so they don’t actually see what the computer really looks like. So we bring it to life to the classroom.
ONWUAMAEGBU-UGWU: I was able to go to university. In the first place, I passed my exams after sitting that would take me to the university. I didn’t have a lot of money, so I need to seek help with one of my uncles. So I called him on the phone. He didn’t know me at that time, but he was kind enough to give me some money. But if I paid my school fees with this money, I wouldn’t be able to pay the next one. So I started thinking of what do I do to keep this money coming, and not going back to ask him. In the first year, I went to the school management and asked them to give me some time to get some money while I use that money I have, and I bought a machine that makes popcorn. So I bought this machine, went to a faculty where there is no popcorn in that place, and I started making popcorn. I employed someone. In the daytime, in the morning, I would be in the class, then in the afternoon, I would go to my popcorn stand and I was making money, and people didn’t know I was making money.
So I made money. I was saving money. I saved a lot. I did that for two and a half years, so I had money to pay school fees through that. It wasn’t cool, because in school, people would just dress fine, do their thing. It wasn’t cool. It was a shameful thing. If you bought from me, I really don’t mind, because I need to be in school. I need to graduate from school. So I did that for two years, saved some money. Then I started a bigger business crossing the borders to other countries to buy clothes and to sell them. Throughout my school years, I’ve been in business. Anything that will give me profit, I will do it. That’s how I finished school. I didn’t depend on anyone. I also was not ready to make my mom feel so sad that she cannot take care of us, so I had to work to go to school.
My background, it’s psychology. How did I transition from psychology to STEM? I transitioned because of my encounter on that fateful day where I saw these kids doing amazing things, and I knew if I had that opportunity, if I had the opportunity or the platform to grow, I would have done that. So I transitioned. And I learned from that. I persevered. So I did a lot of training. I worked with some educators. I told them my ideas. I learned from it. However, I did sciences in school. My mom is a teacher. She forced me to do sciences, because she saw what I saw now, how many years ago. But because she didn’t have access to things that could make me get interested, so I thought it’s difficult, because everything is in theory. So I went back and I remembered everything she told me, and I knew that it’s okay to tell a child or a girl to do sciences, but it’s not enough. They need to see something that will interest them.
Bringing in things physically, hands-on for them, gets a child interested fast. So to transition was easy for me, because I was passionate about it. I was looking to the future. I was looking at seeing the next generation of scientists being born from my program. So that is what I was looking for and it wasn’t bad for me. Now I can code. I can program. I am into robotics. I am into design. I am into curriculum design for STEM, so it was fun for me, because I was looking into the future.
ONWUAMAEGBU-UGWU: My hope for the program and the girls is that from now — I have short term and the long term. The short term is to get them inspired to love sciences and arts. No matter what you are doing today, you can’t run away from technology. You can’t run away from science. You just have to be a part of what is happening in the world. My hope is to get them inspired now. They take science classes, do science subjects, get trained, and the future, to be part of the science community. Not just to be a scientist, but I want to create a generation of scientists that will think of our own African problem, our own diseases, our own shortfall, economic down point, our own problem, and find a solution on how to solve it. It is about Africans solving our own problems. Sometimes we know our problem more than any other person. I also want to create a generation of engineers that will actually build our roads. That will actually solve the problem of electricity. So I look forward to that and it starts now.
Most times, people think it’s okay to give up on the girls, but it’s not okay to give up on them. They are coming from somewhere, so sensitization with the parents matters, and seeing you as a woman and as a girl that has gone similar to this problem, they understand and believe that, yes, that their child can do a lot better.
ONWUAMAEGBU-UGWU: Funding for my program has not been something we’ve received from anybody at all. The challenges I have is, to start STEM program is expensive. If you want to wait for funding to come, that means you will never start. So I started with the little I have. If at the moment we are not breaking even, we are trying to maintain a little bit of sustainability, then we also sustain our business from other source of business outside STEM education. The way I fund working with the kids is from other business that I’ve been doing outside the STEM education, because you cannot wait to get funded. So I’m looking forward to having funding. If I don’t have it now, I will continue doing the little I can to reach out to these communities.
They are very talented, they just need a platform, continuous work on them. With as little as $100, you can touch a girls’ life for three months. And they can do a lot of things with that. We give them constant tutoring. This particular group of girls I’m working with are girls that cannot get access to this kind of education if you don’t bring it to them. They don’t have the hopes on getting them. But working with them, I’ve discovered that they are very talented and smart. They just need a platform.
VOICE OVER: Thank you, Uchenna. If you’d like to know more about Edufun Technik, visit them on Facebook at facebook.com/edufuntechniknig. That’s e-d-u-f-u-n-t-e-c-h-n-i-k-n-i-g.
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