Children from underdeveloped parts of the world often have little opportunity for adequate education—in fact, more than 72 million primary-school-age children are not in school, according to UNESCO. MIT and many alumni want to change that situation.
In step with MIT’s motto, Mens et Manus, students, alumni, and faculty are researching and developing new learning models and testing the outcomes both at the Institute and through MIT alumni network organizations. These initiatives focus on expanding digital learning opportunities for both teachers and students—with particular emphasis on K–12 programs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Not only are STEM occupations growing at a much higher rate than those in any other field, but STEM education has proved to be successful in bridging economic gaps worldwide. Thousands of alumni have made education their life’s mission, with some bypassing six-figure jobs in the United States to be catalysts of change in their native countries. Here’s a look at two alumni efforts to provide STEM education, in Nepal and Nigeria.
Education Access in Nepal
Ram Rijal ’12 considers himself lucky. Born in Banfikot, a remote village in northwest Nepal, where literacy is barely 10 percent, Rijal went to Kathmandu at age 10 to go to school on a government scholarship, a life-changing opportunity. He then attended secondary school in the U.K. and earned a scholarship to study at MIT, where he says he encountered gifted and exceptionally talented people. This didn’t surprise him, but he was curious: what did these MIT students have in common, and how were they able to dive into their passions from an early age?
“This was an idea that fascinated me,” says Rijal. “And I thought, if we could create this environment so that students can engage in the field of their interest for several years starting at a young age, we can create a school that can produce these high-quality, highly intelligent students.”
Rijal decided to start a school in Nepal, and days before his graduation ceremony, he returned home to pursue his dream. In 2013 he started the Bloom Nepal School, a K–12 STEM school in Kathmandu. The school sought out students throughout Nepal.
“There are people much more qualified to come to MIT than myself, but we need to find them,” he says. “There could be lots of highly intelligent people lost in oblivion, like me, coming from a remote village. Hopefully, with this model, we can find them.”
The school provides scholarships to these students through private funding. In less than two years, it grew from 17 students to more than 150. But after a devastating series of earthquakes hit Nepal in spring 2015, enrollment dropped to 55.
“The last two years were not easy for us,” says Rijal. “We had to juggle too many things, and the learning environment was distracted by construction. But we’ve still seen progress, especially in the students that have been here all three years. They have developed mobile applications and strong skills in math.”
After a year and a half spent rebuilding, Rijal says, the school is back on track, and he hopes to have 200 students enrolled in 2017. Despite that natural disaster and the fact that he is running the school while working as a consultant for the World Bank, Rijal is committed to Bloom Nepal.
“I am a firm believer in this idea,” he says. “I feel that once we can really provide the right ecosystem, these students will flourish.”
Returning to Nigerian Roots
Obinna Ukwuani ’12 did not have the same kind of upbringing as his classmate Rijal, but he developed a similar vision. Growing up in the United States, he first visited Nigeria with his parents and sister at age nine.
“My parents were born and raised in Nigeria, and they were keen on us knowing where they came from and for us to have our own Nigerian identity,” Ukwuani says. “The trip gave me a real anchor to [Nigeria] because I always knew that I had people over here who loved me.”
Ukwuani returned to Nigeria to attend a boarding school in Enugu for eighth and ninth grades. He later studied at a STEM magnet school in Washington, D.C., for grades 10 through 12, and his interests in technology and robotics thrived as he sharpened his scientific skills. “We’d clone things. We did DNA splicing. It was very scientific and complicated and challenging,” says Ukwuani.
When he visited Nigeria after his first year at MIT, he saw a huge discrepancy between his knowledge and abilities and those of his boarding school classmates.
“There was so much that I knew that they didn’t know,” recalls Ukwuani. “I could tell that there was just no way they could accomplish what I may be able to accomplish simply because they weren’t equipped. I just thought, ‘It’s the educational system.’”
He decided to apply the skills he learned, and the U.S. educational model, to Nigeria. Ukwuani started the Exposure Robotics Academy in Nigeria while he was a student at MIT. The program ran from 2011 to 2015, but he wanted to pursue an educational program on a larger scale. He developed the Makers Academy, a STEM-focused school with a hands-on curriculum for grades seven to 12.
“Other schools in Africa offer STEM education,” Ukwuani says. “But the Makers Academy would be the first innovation center where students have access to laser cutters, 3-D printers, woodworking equipment, and more.”
Ukwuani moved to Nigeria in August 2015 to start the Makers Academy. In 2016, he shopped for land, created campus architectural plans, and developed curricula and teacher training materials. He expects the school, which will be located in either Abuja or Lagos, to enroll students by 2018.
“The students will have the toolkit and skills already at their fingertips,” explains Ukwuani. “So when they have a problem they want to solve, it’s second nature. They can design a solution, prototype something, and bring their ideas to life.”
Learn More About MIT’s K–12 Outreach
MIT News articles:
Office of Digital Learning:
Dean for Undergraduate Education:
Alumni Association K–12 STEM Education Toolkit: