A cohort of 18 students from Angola and Nigeria have participated in the first Summer Engineering Academy at ALA, a partnership between Chevron Corporation and African Leadership Academy.
Last year, when Mr. Hans Sowder, African Leadership Academy’s Head of Science, learned of an opportunity to partner with Chevron Corporation to expose high school students in Chevron’s operating countries to the field of engineering, he soon began to create the program that became the ALA Summer Engineering Academy (ALA SEA).
The program’s curriculum is designed for students interested in careers in STEM, investigating subjects such as engineering concepts, technical communications, engineering math, and professional skills. It also introduces participants to the engineering design process, which Hans describes as, “solving problems using science and math to create a technology – which can be an object, a system, or a process.”
The centerpiece of ALA SEA is the Engineering Design Challenge. Using skills learned during the program, students compete in small groups to create and design a solution to an important and relevant engineering challenge. Hans was particularly enthusiastic about this element of the program, since he feels that these types of open-ended projects, “are a hallmark of great educational initiatives.” At the close of ALA SEA, each team pitches their solutions and a final team of winners is announced.
The original plan was to bring 18 high school students to the Academy’s campus this summer. However, confronting the reality of the global Covid-19 pandemic, it became clear that hosting ALA SEA in person was no longer a possibility. Looking at the prospect of quickly shifting ALA SEA into a virtual conference, Hans said, “In the back of my mind, I knew that we could still engage these kids…do things interactively online.”
That is precisely what Hans did. With the support of his colleagues Dr. Oluseyi Aberefa as the SEA curriculum coordinator, and Mr. Phenyo Tshwantsho as the program coordinator, ALA SEA became a virtual, interactive conference that was hosted on Zoom.
Using Zoom’s software, including breakout rooms, and working with the participants on using Google Docs to collaborate with each other and with the facilitators, the conference truly came to life.
Each of the 18 students was given a short personality assessment, and then split into teams of 3, with the goal of creating as much diversity within each team as possible. Participants learned a five-step Engineering Design Process while working towards their team’s solution to the Design Challenge.
The originally planned Design Challenge focused on renewable energies, but Hans and his team wanted to make their virtual conference as applicable to real world events as possible. As such, the challenge posed was, “What technology would help my community navigate an epidemic?”
When each team presented their final projects, it was clear that they had taken the challenge and run with it. Solutions presented included a contact tracing app, a mask sanitization system, the use of infrared demographic sensors, and more! The winning team, Sleek Bricks, presented a process-focused solution. Using the Engineering Design Process, they came up with a new idea on how to organize markets, allowing vendors to run their businesses while still ensuring that shoppers enter the market in smaller groups and are spread farther apart. Each member of the winning team will be receiving a laptop equipped with software packages meant to inspire further learning and innovation amongst these exceptional young engineers!
Mentors and facilitators with backgrounds in STEM, including a number of ALA alumni, worked with ALA SEA participant teams regularly throughout the program as they worked towards the final presentation of their solution to the Engineering Design Challenge. During this time, two STEM teachers from Nigeria were also able to join the program as a professional development experience, gaining new ideas for lessons as well as additional experience with virtual classrooms. Reflecting on their experience, one educator wrote, “The program has put serious academic passion inside me. The fire inside me burns like I should do something.”
Hans hoped to instill creativity, passion, and optimism in the ALA SEA students as key engineering Habits of Mind, encouraging them to stick with even the most challenging problems until they can figure out a solution. The diversity and creativity of the solutions presented, as well as feedback from students, indicates that the program achieved these goals and more. Summarizing what they learned during the program, one participant wrote, “After these few days spent with ALA SEA, I realized that engineers are actually problem solvers … It has opened my eyes to realize one needs great communication skills. It has really increased the zeal I had for engineering.”