Urbana-Champaign to Kenya
I’d like to take a break from the traditional Mechanics of Motion conference/travel/study abroad style post to talk about something that is very important to me, and that has occupied my spare time for most of this year: The Young Engineers Initiative in Kenya. Before I delve into what this is, I’ll give you some back story…
As a child, I was lucky enough to live in India, Kenya, and several places in the United States. Having attended ten schools on three different continents opened my eyes to the enormous diversity of this world, and also taught me that the fundamental divide between the “haves” and the “have nots” is opportunity. Equal and fair access to a good education can revolutionize lives and revitalize communities. This is a fact that I think about every single day, and a lesson I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
I am truly grateful for the education opportunities I have been given and want to ensure equal access for every child. As a result, I have focused most of my extracurricular activities in school on advancing the representation of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM. One of the best parts of my summer (every summer!) is volunteering with the MechSE GAMES camp: Girls Building Awesome Machines (GBAM). This is a summer camp for high school girls interested in learning more about mechanical engineering, and it includes small daily projects led by MechSE professors and a week-long challenging team project.
This year, the big team project focused on teaching girls to design and build their own 3D printers. Since this is my area of research expertise, I helped put together this project (along with the amazing GBAM team – Joe Muskin, Prof. Elif Ertekin, Prof. Matthew West, Ashley Armstrong, Aaron Anderson, and many other dedicated graduate students). Rather than pitching this project as a technological challenge, we chose to frame it as an opportunity for the students to use engineering as a force for social change. This is where the Young Engineers Initiative (YEI) in Kenya comes in.
Prof. Brian Lilly, from the Technology Entrepreneur Center (TEC) at Illinois, is a serial entrepreneur and one of the most unique, inspiring, and engaging educators I’ve had the privilege to meet. While traveling in Kenya for one of his businesses, MajiPump (a solar powered portable water pump), he visited several rural schools and found that the students were really enamored by the concept of drawing.
After returning to Illinois, he reached out to me and another student on campus (Nate Renner) and asked us to come up with an educational program centered on this concept. Over the course of several months, we put together some easy ways to teach technical 3D drawing (both on paper and on a computer using TinkerCAD software).
Drawing a connection between the work I was doing with YEI and GBAM, I decided to take this one step further and give the students in Kenya an opportunity to actually build the things they learned to draw. With this in mind, I pitched GBAM’s weeklong project as an opportunity for the girls to design and build a simple 3D printer that could be operated by the students in Kenya. In addition to making the GBAM girls realize that they could use engineering to tackle real-world problems head-on, I figured this would also be an incredibly realistic way to teach them how to design under stringent cost and material constraints – like true engineers!
GBAM was a huge success (you can read about it here), and armed with one of the 3D printers from the camp, our YEI group traveled to Kenya to test it out on the ground. For personal reasons, I was not able to travel to Kenya this year, so I shall now relinquish the blog to the true leader of YEI (and Prof. Lilly’s daughter), Grace…
~~~ Perspective from Grace Lilly below ~~~
Being someone who has grown up with very privileged educational opportunities, including being homeschooled for grade-school and attending mostly private schools after that (including college), technology and resources have always been readily available for me for learning. In Kenya, this is a huge difference. Electricity, let alone technology, is not always available, especially in schools.
The YEI program this year was held at a public primary school in a rural village called Igikiro. We (the other YEI leader, Stephan Guiton—a Kenyan citizen who studies industrial design at a university in the UK, and me—a psychology/neuroscience student at St. Olaf College) brought with us four computers and supplies to construct one 3D printer for the program. Our goal was to teach the students how to draw using TinkerCAD.
We realized very quickly that this would be nearly impossible with the computer experience these students have. The class we were working with included 28 students, almost all in 8th grade (originally we were told there would be 10 students). The majority had literally never touched a computer before, let alone used internet on one. Soon after trying to instruct them on how to open Chrome and go to TinkerCAD, we had to rethink our organized plan. The end result was that each student was able to open Notepad and type their name, favorite animal, and how many siblings they have.
This may not seem like a big accomplishment, but this still felt like a big step in introducing them to computers. The actual feat from this camp was not getting them to open Notepad though; instead, it was getting them extremely excited about drawing, and getting them thinking about technological advances that they could be involved with in the future.
At the beginning of the program, most of the students had not done much drawing, but by the last day they all were able to draw very realistic 3D objects and scenes, in both color and black and white. Their homework for the future is to do one detailed drawing, either observational or imaginary, each day.
Besides drawing, we also got the students excited about technological advances by showing them a real 3D printer in action, and some videos about how 3D printers are changing science today. We went through a PowerPoint presentation on how 3D printing works, and specifically how the light-activated one we brought worked. Each student was then able to watch the 3D printer demonstration and see how our PowerPoint projection was making our light-activated polymer solidify in layers to create an actual object. The videos we showed illustrated how 3D printing can be used today to create prosthetic hands and even ear cartilage, which really intrigued the students, based on how many questions they had about it afterwards!
We plan to come back in the winter or next summer to continue with the program and finalize a realistic schedule/plan so that we can implement it at other rural schools in Kenya and other countries in Africa in the future.
From this first experience with YEI we learned that there needs to be some prep work for the class to be a success once we get there. Because of this, we taught a teacher at the school in Igikiro basic internet skills including Gmail, Googledocs, and Googleslides. We left one computer with this teacher so that he can perfect his computer skills and then teach 10 students these same skills. This will allow us to stay in contact with the teacher on progress with drawing and learning the computer so that we can actually teach them how to draw using TinkerCAD next time we come.
This program was really fun to lead due to the excitement from the students, their attentiveness, and how grateful the teachers at the school were that we were there. The students are going to continue drawing and the school is going to implement a creative art class a couple times a week. During this art class the group of students we taught this summer can act as mentors for the other students at the school and teach them basic drawing skills such as shading and 3D development.
I’m very excited to go back and work again with some of the same students to see how far they’ve gotten with their drawings and their thinking as designers and engineers. Our major takeaway from this summer to improve future programs is to give more specific instructions ahead of time, take time to make sure the students understand our American accents, and most importantly—bring lots of candy to encourage questions and participation!
~~~ Return to Ritu’s Perspective ~~~
I really hope you enjoyed reading this longer-than-usual post about our outreach work in Kenya! Under Prof. Lilly’s mentorship and guidance, Grace, Nate, Stephan, and I helped make a small difference in the world, and we are very grateful for this opportunity. A special thank you to Joe Muskin, all the GBAM staffers, and GBAM student campers for their help in putting this amazing program together. We couldn’t have done this without support from both MechSE and TEC at Illinois.
For more information on how you can stay posted on the Young Engineers Initiative program, or get involved, please contact me at rraman9illinois [dot] edu.