Q: Please tell us about yourself, educational background and the career path that led you to Working to Advance Science and Technology Education for African Women (WAAW) Foundation.
Okorafor: I am Dr. Unoma Okorafor, wife and mother of 3 beautiful children. Born and raised in Nigeria, where I received my undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Lagos in 1998. I received M.Sc. degree in electrical and computer engineering department from Rice University, Houston, TX, in 2001, and Ph.D. degree in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, Texas A & M University, College Station in August 2008. I am a 2009 graduate of INSEAD’s Social Entrepreneurship program and a graduate of Stanford Business School’s Executive education in Social Entrepreneurship in 2010.
My industry experience includes senior software developer at the Education Technology Division at Texas Instruments, Dallas Texas, Intel, HP and IBM research labs. I am a member of IEEE, ACM, SWE, NSBE and SPIE and have been the recipient of the Schlumberger's Faculty for the Future Fellowship, Sloan Foundation Fellowship, the AAUW Engineering Dissertation Fellowship and the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Fellowship for promoting STEM education in middle schools. I am also a visiting professor at the African University of Science and Technology, Nigeria where I occasionally teach short courses at the Computer Science department.
I am a passionate about entrepreneurship and empowering African women in Technology. Q: Tell us about WAAW Foundation: its creation (who created it and why) and its programs: elaborating on (1) WAAW’s STEM camp, and (2) your STEM-in-a-handbag kit. Please also include a few words about WAWA’s 2025 Target.
Okorafor: WAAW (Working to Advance Science and Technology Education for African Women) foundation is a non-profit tax-exempt 501(c)3 organization whose mission is to increase the pipeline of African women entering into Science and Technology fields and ensure they are engaged in Technology innovation to benefit Africa. In January 2007, while working to obtain my Ph.D. in Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Texas A & M University, I was moved by passion, a personal awareness of the huge technological and digital divide between Africa and many developed nations, and the recognition that female education as well as technology innovation play a crucial role in economic development and poverty alleviation of any nation, founded WAAW foundation. I have a burning desire to see more women of African descent like myself be empowered through globally relevant educated and inspired to participate in leadership and community building. As a lonely African female in Technology, I understand the challenges faced by many girls in Africa.
WAAW Foundation is dedicated to creating sustainable, long-lasting initiatives that support and educate African women in technology innovation. WAAW Foundation provides opportunities to engage under-privileged girls in Africa to quality STEM programming as a means to close the economic, innovation and achievement gap for African women in the 21st century global economy.
WAAW Foundation achieves its mission through STEM programs and initiatives centered on promoting female education & engagement in Africa, with a focus on girls between the ages of 11 to 30 years. We provide the following programs:
(a) STEM Robotics programming and Renewable Energy residential summer camps for African girls in public or government secondary schools (Age focus is 12-17 years). Our STEM camp is an annual one week initiative to promote interest in STEM disciplines. Participants are African girls in public/government secondary schools, fed by low-income families, who otherwise would not have the opportunity to learn about or be exposed to possible STEM careers. The overall goals of our camp include increasing African girls’ interest and confidence in STEM, promote inquiry based hands on learning for Secondary school girls in STEM focused modules, provide an introduction to University experience, provide girls with Female role models and eliminate the misconceptions about STEM and its careers, and emphasizing using computer science and technology to solve real life problems in their communities by employing locally available resources. Our aim is to empower girls by inculcating the sense that they can contribute to problem solving, entrepreneurship and economic development in their communities. The camp use hands on activities, lectures, tutorials, experiments, games and field activities, led and presented by female role models, as an avenue to engage girls and develop their interest in STEM fields and careers. Emphasis are made on using locally available resources to build technology solutions.
The importance of our out of-classroom environment with exclusively female participants is based on the observation that girls become insecure about their STEM skills and thus, underperform when mixed with boys, supporting the stereotype that boys, not girls, are good at math and the sciences. Placing girls with their peers helps them realize there are others like themselves who are excelling at STEM, thus boosting their self-confidence.
(b) Need-based scholarship awards to African female college students studying STEM disciplines in Colleges in Africa (Age focus is 18 -32 years). We provide $500 to female undergraduates or underprivileged students such as orphans, girls impacted by HIV etc, studying a STEM related degree course in any African University or College who demonstrated financial needs. Scholars are mentored to become leaders and agents of change, using technology innovation to solve problems in their communities.
(c) STEM secondary-to-college outreach and mentoring cells, which bridge the secondary to college continuum. (Age focus is secondary girls 12 - 18, and female college fellows 18 - 32 years). The STEM cell outreach and mentoring program establishes cells in Universities across Africa consisting of about 10 – 15 African undergraduates who are trained and supported to perform monthly STEM outreach to secondary schools in their communities. WAAW provides training and teaching resources such as the Renewable energy kit and the STEM-in-a-box kits for each Cell to implement hands-on renewable energy training (Solar & Wind energy), computer science, mechatronics, and robotics programming in their local communities. The STEM-in-a-box kits include Raspberry Pi Computers for Blockly CS and Mechatronics kits for Arduino Robotics. The STEM camp program aims to influence secondary school career selection toward STEM and trains African female undergraduates to develop an avocation for leadership and community development by contributing to secondary education.
To date, we have provided 17 college scholarships, launched 17 STEM college-to-secondary outreach cells in 10 African countries (Ghana, Nigeria (5), Kenya (2), South Africa (2) , Malawi, Uganda, Cameroon (2), Togo, Ethiopia and Tanzania) impacting over 10,000 secondary students, and organized four STEM Robotics Camps in Nigeria and Kenya for over 150 secondary school girls.
We believe that Female education provides best return on Investment and Technology innovation is a huge tool to facilitate economic growth. Our 2025 target is to increase the number of African women in STEM from by 10%, and build female technology innovators who create 10,000 jobs to impact their communities. Also, we want to ensure that 90% of our camp participants and students that benefit from our College to secondary school outreach and mentoring program enter and continue in STEM fields.
Q: What challenges does WAAW Foundation currently face and how do plan to overcome them? What opportunities do see in the future for WAAW foundation?
Here are some of the challenges that we face:
• Prevalent low self-esteem with girls in Africa when we promote STEM education. The concept that they are not capable of understanding or creating technology or that math or science is difficult.
• Dealing with pre-conceived ideas that girls should be engaged in studies like home economics, etc and not with Technology of STEM related courses if they are to be married or become home makers, and not considered "too open-eyed". Breaking cultural barriers to reach girls in Africa with quality education.
• Lack of support from family, schools and community. Need to provide campaigns to educate and enlighten the community on the benefits of Female education and STEM involvement.
• Poverty for the families we serve leading to early marriage, economic or sexual exploitation for the girls we serve. Discussing issues that break the cycle of poverty.
• Lack of role models to showcase the work of successful and professional African women in Technology. Lack of peer support communities.
• Governmental red tape and bureaucracy in gaining access to girls in Public schools.
Opportunities in the future for WAAW foundation:
WAAW Foundations future opportunities lies in the area of helping to solve the unemployment (and un-employability) problem in Africa by establishing an African Women Engineering and Leadership Institute that will provide leadership and Engineering/Computer Science training as well as human capital development to post-college girls, and connects them with global technology companies seeking to engage talent in Africa.
If the statement “genius is everywhere but opportunity is not” is true (as it is), WAAW Foundation’s mission extends to helping unlock the vastly untapped potential in African girls, ultimately contributing to poverty eradication in my continent. With 200 million people aged between 15 and 24, Africa has the worlds’ youngest, fastest-growing and most unemployed population. Yet, there are 5 job openings for every software developer in the USA. By unlocking new global technology talent pipelines in Africa’s girls, WAAW will work to provide a scalable platform to bridge the high-tech skills gap while empowering the world’s most marginalized group: African Girls!
Q: In your opinion, what are the top 3 reasons for the low STEM participation of African girls and women?
• Lack of female role models in STEM fields
• Gender and cultural Stereotype: There is an unconscious bias that science and math are typically “male” fields while humanities and arts are primarily “female” fields, and these stereotypes inhibit girls’ likelihood of cultivating an interest in math and science.
• Obsolete Teaching methods and irrelevant imported curriculum in STEM courses that emphasize rote memorization rather than localized, hands-on, fun, interactive and project based learning that connect STEM to real world problems women in Africa are facing.
Q: How can we increase the number of African girls and women in STEM?
• Exposing young girls to real-life technologies, tools and resources that can enhance Math and Science education
• Building peer networks that will provide professional and mentoring support for girls
• Provide African girls with opportunities for career counseling in STEM fields.
• Emphasize STEM skills in early education, K-12, and higher education
• Expose girls to female role models in STEM