Community Challenges In the post-conflict communities in which Yiya works, there are a myriad of interconnected problems that feed off each other. The long list includes: demotivated and underpaid teachers, under-educated youth, unequal application of infrastructure and basic amenities, post-traumatic stress mental health disorders, and a region flush with a constantly rotating cast of international NGOs and expats who come for a week, a month, maybe a year, to help fix one chosen problem and then leave. This set-up creates a culture of learned helplessness amongst young people who grow up in this environment and fosters lack of agency, a feeling that the people who have the tools, resources... read more Community Challenges In the post-conflict communities in which Yiya works, there are a myriad of interconnected problems that feed off each other. The long list includes: demotivated and underpaid teachers, under-educated youth, unequal application of infrastructure and basic amenities, post-traumatic stress mental health disorders, and a region flush with a constantly rotating cast of international NGOs and expats who come for a week, a month, maybe a year, to help fix one chosen problem and then leave. This set-up creates a culture of learned helplessness amongst young people who grow up in this environment and fosters lack of agency, a feeling that the people who have the tools, resources, and skills to solve challenges come from outside. Educational Challenges Compounding the above problems are the substandard educational opportunities available to students in these communities. This education is largely theory-based, with few hands-on or active lessons. The high school curriculum is much too full (with 17 mandatory subjects per school year!) and the individual syllabus for each subject is overloaded, with more learning topics than can be taught in a school year. The government places heavy pressure on schools to produce students who score well on written national exams, which creates a highly competitive atmosphere amongst both students and teachers, who are both rewarded for teaching and learning "to the test." The two most detrimental by-products of this atmosphere are: 1. ...the emphasis on the one, right answer to each exam question, which de-emphasizes crucial 21st skills such as critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration. 2. ...the disconnect between what students learn in school and what they see in their communities. Our Lever for Change! Many of these interconnected problems can be solved by providing young people with an active, relevant education that they can directly apply to the challenges they see in their community. Yiya encourages students to identify community challenges, supports them in investigating various solutions, and then helps them learn the skills they need to build technological solutions to the problems they have identified. This kind of relevant education empowers young people to view themselves as agents of change in their communities, not only to dream a better future but also to actively build it. For example, when students identified that communicable diseases (such as Typhoid and Hepatitis A) were creating a massive burden on their communities, especially during the dry season when there is scanty water for handwashing (and the water supply that does exist is occasionally contaminated with these diseases), we designed a chemical engineering unit on hand sanitizers. In this unit, students researched, designed, prototyped, tested, and improved hand sanitizers and then used petri dishes to compare the bacteria-killing effectiveness of their hand sanitizers to bar soap and liquid soap. When students recognized that their communities have unequal access to the power grid as the rest of Uganda-and that this leads to phones with dead batteries that can't be used to call for help in emergencies-we designed a unit on bike-powered phone charging systems so community members could keep their phones charged. Yiya works hard to dispel the exam-driven culture of "fear of failure" that pervades education by instilling the belief that failure is just one more step (sometimes multiple steps!) on the long, winding path to a workable solution. Engaging in the iterative design process pushes both teachers and students to recognize there is never one right answer or one final solution to a problem. Our engineering lessons build resilience in youth by giving them practice in persevering through failure to a successful solution, so they will not be deterred by failure when they try to implement change in their communities. We push students to see themselves as agents of change in their communities and we give them skills to practice being those agents of change here and now, not in some distant future. We inspire teachers to see their students as the key to the future of their country, and to recognize the massive role they play in shaping the future, through the lessons they teach today and the community problems that they help students to solve here and now. Our Mission Yiya focuses on math and science education but our underlying mission is much bigger: we are trying to shift mindsets around the purpose of education itself and to augment the resiliency of young people in these communities by empowering them to view themselves as changemakers who build and test practical solutions to real-life problems. We passionately believe that providing an active, relevant education to students equips them to be proactive and engaged members of their community, and that teaching students skills that they can directly apply to help their community empowers them to be more active and responsible citizens.
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