Founder - STEM Impact Center Kenya
WiredUp had a Q & A session with Alex Magu
Who is Alex Magu? What is your background?
Alex Magu is the Founder and Executive Director of STEM Impact Center Kenya. This is a non-profit organisation based in Kenya that works to advance science, technology, engineering and mathematics education and learning, with the goal of increasing the number of students, especially women and minorities, pursuing science and technology innovations, courses and career pathways.
His background is in Political Science; however, he has had a very strong interest in science and technology from a young age. He actually dreamt of pursuing computer science at University, but he was locked out due to poor subject selection in high school – he dropped physics, which is a requirement to pursue computer science. Blame it on poor mentorship. His dreams didn’t die. He ended up pursuing science and technology, especially physical computing, through friends, the university Fablab and online study. Hence the objective of the STEM Impact Center Kenya is to make sure learners have proper mentorship and exposure to select and pursue STEM-related career pathways.
Alex is also a member of the UNESCO SDG4 Youth Network (a global network of youth working on the achievement of SDG 4), and a member of the Out-of-School Youth Science, Technology and Innovation (OSYSTEI) Programme. This is a pilot programme by the Ministry of Education, through the Centre for Mathematics, Science and Technology Education in Africa (CEMASTEA) and the Office of the President. The OSYSTEI programme seeks to catalyse pro-youth actions to address the dreams and ambitions of the out-of-school youth in the country by creating a culture of curiosity, creativity, innovation and productive entrepreneurship.
He has recently been recognized as Top 40 under 40 Men 2022 in Kenya.
As the founder of STEM Impact Center Kenya, who is passionate about equity and inclusion through STEM education, what is your aim and why?
Every child deserves an opportunity to make an informed decision about their future. Therefore, we aim to create opportunities for every child in Kenya to have an equal chance of meaningful STEM education and exposure through our programmes. You are aware that, due to social and economic challenges, we have historically disadvantaged and underserved children or communities that have little or no access to meaningful learning, especially in arid and semi-arid lands, informal settlement, and rural areas.
Exposing children to STEM education could spark an interest and curiosity in science and technology that could lead to a life-changing invention or discovery in health, agriculture, technology etc. or could prepare them to fill the gaps in STEM-skilled professions in future.
With more than five (5) years of experience working in the science, technology and innovation (STI) ecosystem, and on the empowerment of girls and women, what challenges have you faced being in the field and how have you overcome those challenges?
Most girls in Kenya perform poorly in science subjects and are underrepresented in STEM-related
trajectories. Girls and women face numerous challenges, including:
Gender stereotypes: in most cases boys have been regarded as better performers in science and mathematics than girls. Further reinforcing this notion is the patriarchal nature of our society, where girls’ roles are clearly defined as being caregivers with little acknowledgement of their abilities and aspirations.
Inadequate access to female STEM role models and female teachers: due to the inadequate exposure to successful female role models, especially from marginalised communities, girls’ and women’s interest and confidence in their abilities have continued to be low. The situation is different when they are exposed to positive STEM role models.
Lack of gender-responsive curricula: very often books and manuals are filled with images of boys and men dominating STEM-related play, success and careers; therefore discouraging girls from aspiring thereto, since the perception is that boys thrive in certain sectors.
Socioeconomic barriers leading to inadequate infrastructure to support STEM learning, including connectivity, devices and adequate classrooms, among others, also hinder learning. Very often STEM education is a capital-intensive engagement and therefore adequate STEM learning and engagement are limited.
The culture does not favour STEM learning; especially among parents and teachers who focus on getting good grades over the acquisition of technical skills and competencies. “STEM is reserved for the top-performing students.” “STEM is for boys, while women take a back seat.”
How I have been able to overcome these challenges?
Well, we are yet to overcome this challenge but we are making significant strides in reducing the gaps in girls’ and women’s empowerment through STEM education. The strategies we are employing include:
Female mentors in our programme, especially women and girls from specific communities who are excelling and breaking the barriers in science, technology and innovations (such as those from the Girls in STEM programme).
Through partners, we are developing and carrying out continuous teacher capacity development in gender-responsive pedagogy and training, especially in digital literacy.
We have come up with a mobile tinkering and lending laboratory to reduce the cost of equipment, which has been a major barrier. As we speak, schools can access our materials including kits, laptops, tablets, curricula and our spaces to enhance STEM learning without buying any equipment. We are also able to move from one school/ county to another with our mobile laboratory; therefore increasing our reach and outreach activities across the country.
Use of locally available materials for tinkering, especially with the introduction of the new Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC) in Kenya. We are constantly developing local learning materials for learners to engage in hands-on STEM learning.
Lastly, we are engaging parents to sensitise them to the importance of hands-on STEM programmes that focus on developing students’ ability to do, over memorising to get good grades. We hope that this will ensure that parents support their children to acquire critical 21st-century skills and competencies.
What are the new things to be expected in STEM Impact Center Kenya?
We are looking at scaling our programmes further to reach 1 000 schools by the end of 2023. This means more teacher training, boot camps and outreach to schools, and competitions and also the launch of a STEM Career Guide Toolkit for high school students and a locally made tinkering kit.
How do you think we can start to get more young Africans into the field of STEM?
The growth and scale of our STEM programmes are one of our key strategic plans. We want to support many youths to develop their technical and 21st-century skills. As of today, we are supporting individuals and organisations in Tanzania, Uganda, Sudan and Egypt. Such partnerships and collaborations are key contributors to reaching as many youths in Africa as possible in STEM education at different levels.
We need to lobby the government to allocate more funding to science, technology and innovation programmes such as learning, exposure programmes, competitions, incubation and accelerations programmes.
What achievement are you most proud of?
Our key achievements are:
Rallying the government to collaborate in STEM boot camps. Over the April holidays, we reached more than 130 learners in a week-long boot camp.
The co-development of digital literacy content that will be used to teach millions of learners creative coding with Scratch and other platforms.
We are also proud of our various partners who have come on board to accelerate our work, including the Government of Kenya, the Ministry of Education, North Carolina Central University, the American Embassy in Nairobi, Google, the Commonwealth of Learning, UNICEF Kenya, and Elimu Projects, among other partners who we are working with to ensure we reach every child in Kenya and Africa.
What is your message to upcoming young Africans who are passionate about STEM?
The future of Africa is bright. We, as young people, have to take the initiative and not wait for others, especially first-world countries, to innovate solutions for us. The change we want must begin with you and I to rally our governments, communities, schools and partners to invest more in STEM, innovative spaces and incubation centres for the youth.