Q: Please tell us about yourself and the path that led you to iNERDE.
Kante: This incredible journey began, for me, in 2003 when I came to the United States from Mali to pursue a university education. I had never heard the acronym STEM, the only career options I knew about were law, economics, politics and journalism. But given my competence in math courses the Dean told me I had the aptitude to be an Electrical Engineer. Electrical Engineering gave me the chance to work on life-changing projects such as iCRAFT, an eye-controlled robotic arm designed for people who need help feeding themselves. This project was featured on Engadget.com, PC magazine and CNN among many other media outlets. I also learned about educating for social change, volunteering for Upward Bound mentoring and STEM education programs such as Solar Cars apprenticeship and the DIGITS program. The success of iCRAFT and my volunteer activities helped me to realize that one doesn’t have to be a genius to change lives with technology, one needs knowledge, skills, and belief in oneself and in the future. So I thought about a way to share this success with my brothers and sisters in Africa who do not have the same chance I had to study in America. I knew that an effective solution could only come from Africans themselves, originating from their deep aspiration to make a better life for themselves and their communities. Americans can share knowledge and learning tools but Africans are the ones that will educate themselves and create opportunity. I realized that only a grassroots approach would be sufficiently deep and broad, sustaining, and transformative. This is why I founded iNERDE.
iNERDE stands for New Education for Radical Development. The goal of iNERDE in simple terms is to ignite creative thinking, to nurture invention, to encourage entrepreneurship, and to build integrity among young people. Why? So that they learn to identify the challenges in their communities, gather the resources available to solve those problems, and implement their own solutions. We decided that the most efficient way to do this and to effect long-term transformation was through a 5-week STEM summer camp. The summer camp aims to increase primary school students’ aptitude in, specifically STEM and, generally, in problem-solving, by engaging them in interactive, team-based science and engineering projects.
For iNERDE, success is when these children mature into technologically-aware adults with greater aptitude in Math and Science, gainfully employed, possibly directly in a STEM field, and, above all, willing to give back to their communities. iNERDE is creating a movement in education to channel the aspirations of Africans and set them up to have the same full range of professional options enjoyed today by the citizens of the technologically advanced nations. Another critical aspect of my vision for iNERDE was to create a “social enterprise”, an organization dedicated to social transformation open to all the ingredients that make American tech companies so dynamic. iNERDE aims to play a role in the longer term in helping to forge partnerships, based on mutual interest, between entrepreneurial Africans, “graduates of iNERDE”, and tech enterprises in the United States and the rest of the world. One in three children will be born in Africa by 2050 according to the UN Children’s Fund. Africa is the largest growth opportunity on the planet, an opportunity ready to be unlocked with knowledge that leads to societal transformation. iNERDE’s model is not “charity”, it is investment.
One of most wonderful things for me personally that has happened since I started iNERDE is to have been joined by so many people that feel inspired by the vision of iNERDE and have jumped in to help: volunteer staff, donors, and supporters. Without them none of this would be happening. We currently have a team of 20 in Mali and 6 in Senegal running the third installment of our iNERDE STEM summer camps and many more in the US, Canada and Spain supporting our team in the field and building a stronger iNERDE to expand our mission. This “start-up” effort would not have been possible without our far-seeing donors who made an angel investment with little more to go on than Mohamed’s elevator pitch. Today, iNERDE is taking off. Change one person, change the world. What might 100 inspired young people do? And this is just the beginning.
“Education is the most powerful weapon which we can use to change the world.” -Nelson Mandela.
Q: Tell us about iNERDE: its creation (who created it and why), its programs, initiatives and partner schools.
iNERDE - What & Who
iNERDE is a social enterprise committed to educational and economic change in Africa. It is a bridge between alternate universes - the high-tech world and the developing countries in Africa, to provide youth with the tools and inspiration to make a lasting impact in their communities through educational interventions and leadership development. The first fruits were observed in 2014 with a 7-week summer camp in Mali by engaging students in interactive, team-based science and engineering projects. Efforts greatly increased in 2015 with the introduction of computer labs and a second summer camp added in Senegal with 150 students from five different schools. Malian and Senegalese educators were also trained to bring the pedagogical techniques into their curriculum year-round. Activities for further expansion in 2016 include 2 supplementary weeks of programming bootcamp where students will be programming robots from Harvard’s Wyss Institute. iNERDE will continue to expand each year to become an active part of the social, educational, and economic upswing taking place in Africa today. Benjamin Franklin said, “All mankind is divided into three classes: those that are immovable, those that are movable, and those that move.” iNERDE is comprised of a team of experienced and aspiring scientists, engineers, social scientists, marketers, economists, and bankers from Mali, Togo, Canada, USA, Spain, India, and Burkina Faso who move, giving generously of their free time. Their efforts in turn create students who will move, and become future leaders and change agents in Africa.
iNERDE held its first STEM Summer Camp in Bamako, Mali, in the summer of 2014. In that first year we had 30 students from our first partner school, L’Ecole du Progrès, and an all-foreign teaching staff from Montreal, Canada. In the summer of 2015, iNERDE increased the size of its program to include 4 partner schools in Bamako, Mali and 1 partner school in Dakar, Senegal, offering our program to 150 kids in two different countries. We also hired and trained all-local teaching staff in each country, with 2 Master Teachers in Senegal and 4 Master Teachers in Mali and a total of 10 Empowerment Agents (Teaching Assistants) in both countries. We moved the Mali program to the Cité des Enfants (City of Children), a dedicated educational facility for children’s program in Bamako. We improved every aspect of our curriculum in 2015, including preparation of lesson planners and a video-based training program for the teachers and Empowerment Agents, in French. We added Computer Systems and Computer Programming to our curriculum and, thanks to a donation of 48 desktop computers from EMC Corporation, created a computer lab. We hired our first year-round, full-time staff member in Mali and are initiating a program of mentorship to support our local teachers as they adapt teaching materials and concepts learned in the summer program for their schools and a computer lab to continue to provide resources and inspiration to the Nerdy kids who participated in our programs in 2014 and 2015.
iNERDE has adapted the revolution around STEM education to a curriculum for an African context. Our activity-based, hands-on curriculum is used in 5-week summer camps in West Africa. The program aims to empower African youth and impart the self-confidence and critical thinking skills to transform their communities using knowledge, technology skills, and innovation. Founded by Mohamed Kante, a Malian Electrical Engineer, iNERDE develops African resources, partnering with local schools and pairing their teachers with STEM educators from highly developed countries. iNERDE's curriculum is inspired by public domain resources for activity-based STEM education developed by US-based educators. It includes 26 modules aligned to 4th & 5th grade-level standards comprising 100 hours of instruction. A gamut of topics drawn from STEM fields are covered, as well as themes around careers, social responsibility, and learning skills including writing and public speaking. Field trips and guest speakers allow the students to see how technology is used in their communities and to be exposed to various career fields. The modules presented each day have an overall theme involving discovery of a scientific concept, reinforced by a hands-on activity requiring problem understanding, conception and design of a solution, testing, and evaluation. The sources materials are adapted to present subjects and problems relevant in the students' communities. Furthermore, the curriculum is tailored in consideration of the availability of materials and integration with the existing curriculum of the students' schools.
Q: What challenges does iNERDE currently face, and how do you plan do overcome them?
Kante: It hasn't been easy, but here we are, just starting of our third summer STEM camp, in Bamako, Mali and in Dakar, Senegal. We've renamed our camps, our program is now called N'tomo Innovation Academy. This year we have all our partner schools enthusiastically returning and have added new partner schools - in Mali, public school Dianguina Coulibaly and a girl's school, Sainte Thérèse du Fleuve. Our biggest problem now at iNERDE is our success - all our schools want us to expand our program and we have a long list of schools that want to join. Our challenge for the next year is to figure out how to grow sustainably in measure to our resources. The good news is that iNERDE is having a huge impact and continued growth is nearly a certainty. We are introducing a new program this year, CodeNerde. All of our students, parents, and schools have asked us to develop follow-on programs for our graduates - CodeNerde is the first. It's a programming bootcamp using Affordable Education Robots developed at Harvard University and the MiniBloq language. Last year we added Computer Systems and Computer Programming to our standard program so our graduates have the base needed to do CodeNerde this year.
We also had to introduce an enrollment fee of $43 for our students to keep up the quality of our program and to meet our budget. We think, overall, that is a good thing that African parents pay for the educational benefits provided to their children. However, the current reality is that if we demanded that parents pay 100% of our costs none but a handful of ultra-elites would participate in our program. Our more reasonable goal is to meet 15% of costs through student fees. In effect, this isn't so different from the US where education and enrichment programs are also typically heavily subsidized. $43 isn't much for a 5-week program and we have had no problem reaching our enrollment targets - but - for the kids in our poorest schools, $43 is, in a country where half the population lives below the poverty line ($1.25/day), an enormous sum. We are therefore offering full scholarships to our kids from Badaloubougou and Dianguina Coulibaly (both public schools)—even though we don't have the funds to cover them.
By international standards, our students are already behind in subjects which are critical for economic opportunity in the modern world. In our global world, those international standards will determine their access to opportunity. For our 4th and 5th graders it is not too late, but it will be hard work to catch up. It becomes obvious, after only a very brief introduction to our computer programming curriculum that many of our students don’t have much background in this area, with some exceptions, much less than in the United States. That is not surprising, of course – that is part of the reason iNERDE is here. We have adapted our material to each class, to find the right starting point for each of them and to give them as much as they can absorb but not frustrate them by giving them more than they can master in the short time we have to work with them. We want every student to leave the STEM Summer Camp feeling empowered, having learned something new about computers and successfully put it into practice. For those students that already have a high level or can go fast we have more advanced material. We have students that have shown very high ability, one in Senegal grasped sophisticated concepts in Computer Science with ease. That young person could be a Professor of Computer Science at MIT or start the next Google one day. It therefore becomes necessary to point out that if there are few people from Africa in such positions today it is not because there is any lack of talent there. iNERDE is here to help give as many kids as possible a shot, and we are working with their teachers to give them an idea of what their kids will need. It will also be hard work for the teachers but they understand what is at stake and all of them have expressed their determination to do everything they can.
Q: What is the impact of iNERDE and how do you measure it?
It is often said in Africa that it takes a village to raise a child. At iNERDE, we believe that it takes a child to empower a village, a community, or a country, which is why our efforts in Africa are focused on children’s education, especially in STEM. Educating young African children, even if it is just a single child, has the long term impact of educating a whole village. We believe that Africa will be as tech savvy and advanced as the rest of the world if we can create awareness of STEM fields in children at an early age. Our dream at iNERDE is to see an Africa that shifts from being a consumer to a producer, and able to compete on the world stage when it comes to STEM.
INERDE has a strong commitment to opportunity for children from all walks of life. However, our primary mission is not to directly address economic inequality in the countries we operate in, it is to contribute an educational approach and curriculum that will enable Africans to fully participate in the world economy and to solve problems requiring innovative thinking and technology in their countries. While we want to enable individual opportunity and empowerment for as many kids as possible, we also want to help get some number of kids to the level where they can compete at the highest international standard – with, one day, South Korea, Germany, the United States, or China. We may be crazy – but we aren’t – we don’t accept a world divided into rich countries, countries of opportunity, and poor countries, countries devoid of opportunity. We don’t see any immutable reason for a world like that. We certainly don’t see a shortage of talent, energy, intelligence and creativity in Africa. It may be, in the beginning, that iNERDE will have the most society-wide impact working with kids that have access to resources that will allow them to build on what they learn in the STEM Summer Camp. We aren’t making any assumptions about what adequate resources are; we already have kids from families with very little that have demonstrated very strong perseverance. We need very strong commitment from the partner schools and from the parents, even if material resources are lacking, for the kids to be able to apply that perseverance. Badalabougou, our public school in Mali, demonstrated that commitment, as did all the Badalabougou parents that sent their kids to the STEM Summer Camp. We are working hard to bring other public schools, with the same commitment, on board each year.
Through our STEM summer camps, we have witnessed how the community, starting with students’ parents, and expanding to include partner schools, local teachers, and volunteers were critical to the success of our program. Parents dropped and picked their children up every day, encouraging them to come to the camp. We saw children in tears because they were not able to enroll the camp this year, having completed the camp last year. We created classes mixing kids from advantaged backgrounds with kids from economically challenged environments and were delighted by the effort our local teachers and volunteers made to work with all the children to make the integration successful. We had come to inspire them but they inspired us and strengthened our belief in our partnership of shared values. We saw children abandon their social status to play, learn and work as a team. The financial support that the community volunteered was beyond anything we had anticipated. In Mali, about $2000 in donated food items was contributed from parents and members of the educational community – not wealthy people by any standard – that were used to make lunch for the children throughout the camp. In Senegal, when we found the cost of starting a program in a new country exceeded our projections and our budget, the teaching staff volunteered to take a reduction to an already modest salary because they believed so strongly in the importance of bringing iNERDE to their country. Simply put, one does not need to be as rich as Bill Gates to make a contribution or have a positive impact within his or her community. People of very modest means in Mali and Senegal contributed all they could. We could not have done what we did without their help. Showing that Africans can lift themselves up and provide for themselves - provide an outlet for children to envision a brighter future.
Our goal of introducing a new way of teaching into the African educational system and new curriculum was well received. We worked with local teachers, who now are our ambassadors within our partners schools, so that they can make use of the new methods and materials they learned throughout the academic year. The children were empowered as they saw how they were part of something bigger than themselves. These children are amongst the first cohort of African children exposed to a rigorous, hands-on, project-oriented science curriculum.
Q: Finally, tell us about the importance of STEM education as it relates to Africa.
Given the numerous challenges Africa faces such as climate change and infectious diseases, African youth are in urgent need of access to high quality Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education to combat these issues and prepare for 21st century jobs nationally and globally. Currently in Africa, most STEM jobs are performed by or outsourced to multinationals from China, India, and the US. This is evidence that African youth today are being left behind by failed education systems which do not appropriately equip them for the STEM fields.
There are several challenges to science education in developing nations: policy formulation, political will, funding, infrastructure, low enrolment in schools due to poverty, war, economic stability, outdated curricula, inexperienced teachers, lack of learning resources, and the list goes on… It is a well-known fact that different nations have embraced science and technology on different levels. Moreover, the development and advancement of any society is directly proportional to the amount of investments and advancements it is making in science and technology. Therefore, the quality of science education has a great impact on the growth of a nation’s economy, which in turn directly impacts the quality of life experienced by a particular nation. We might also say that the amount of direct capital investments that a nation puts into science education will relate to the technological and scientific advancements it will make on a larger scale. The impact of science and technology in any nation has a ripple effect in larger society. Countries with a high technological level will ultimately enjoy more prosperity and a higher standard of living, as they are better able to produce solutions to the issues faced by various sectors of their economy. At a stage of attaining full competency, such knowledge and technologies can be exported abroad with huge profits being made on it. It is also a well-known fact that technologically advanced nations tend to produce and export, which in turn generates consistent cash flow and finances for them, while technologically deficient nations tend to be consumers and expend a lot of finance and foreign exchange importing technologies, products and solutions which they do not have the technical skills or know-how to produce. This, in turn, ultimately leads to the technological and financial imbalance we experience in today’s world.
The issue of science education starts from an early age, when an individual is gradually introduced to the concepts of science and technology. When a child’s curiosity is stirred, the appeal of technology and an interest in science grows. I wonder at this stage, how many geniuses developing nations have failed to identify, or maybe even have lost completely, due to the mere fact that an enabling environment was not available to nurture such an interest and groom such youths into today’s science gurus and problem solvers. Many of them have drifted far away into other professions, their talents never harnessed and put to use. We believe that the educational system in developing nations needs to be evaluated critically, and that a national science and technology framework be put in place and protected by adequate laws and policies. Furthermore, science and technology must be introduced and prioritized starting in elementary school. This introduces the concept of globalization into the minds of students at an early age, as they are able to learn about the technological advancements taking place in other parts of the world. By looking at their own countries, they will gradually ask more and more questions, identify areas for improvement, and bring about lasting changes in their own nations. There also needs to be a “Train the Teachers” campaign in which science and technology instructors undergo constant and regular training in order to keep their knowledge and skills up to date, ensuring that they pass on relevant information to their students. Strong funding and capital investments by government and private sectors must also be implemented. The quality of science education made available to learners will then undergo a ripple effect. Fully functional and equipped science laboratories must be built across all levels of learning, from elementary to university. Science subjects must be prioritized and not brushed aside. There are creative ways in which science education can be fun, exciting, and appealing to learners in order to ignite their interest and increase their participation.
In summary, developing nations have not fared badly, but we still have a long way to go. The world economy has gone from being based in agriculture to industry, and from there to technologically and knowledge-based economy. Any nation that is to succeed in today’s ever-changing and dynamic world must pay attention to knowledge and information acquisition. Looking at the disparity between developing and developed nations, I believe that with the right policies, willpower, singleness of purpose, and funding, developing nations around the world will be better-able to make significant contributions to in the realm of technological and scientific innovation, as well as become active producers and exporters of science, technology, and information.