Joel Baraka ’15 Gamifies the Ugandan Curriculum with My HOME Stars

Joel Baraka ’15 is reshaping learning in refugee camps through My HOME Stars – a Ugandan non-profit that increases curriculum accessibility for disadvantaged communities.

His goal is to develop more accessible, fun, and engaging academic resources for both teachers and students, transforming schools and community centers into spaces learners look forward to spending most of their time.

For many refugee children, education becomes the main if not the only source of hope to rebuild their future. Too few refugees have access to high-quality educational opportunities.

Joel knows this first hand: the child of Congolese refugees, he spent most of his childhood in the Kyangwali Refugee Camp. It was here where he started attending school at the age of 6 in the Ugandan education system.

“Reflecting back on my childhood, I remember how it was going to class. Teachers were trying to teach you math, but you can’t concentrate because you are tired and hungry,” says Joel.

From an early age, Joel felt like there was something missing. There had to be more to learning than just someone standing in front of a class and giving lessons on Math and English. He imagined that this approach might work for a child who has had a meal and could focus, but certainly not for a refugee learner with so much on their mind and weighing them down.

“Of course, I knew I couldn’t change the education system. But I had to ask myself, ‘What can I do and what do we have right now to help children in camps?’”.

Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joel came to ALA in 2015, following in his brother, Joseph Munyambanza’s footsteps. 

He describes his time at the Academy as life-transforming. He had his first exposure to the BUILD process, which helped him evaluate the refugee education problem further. He used it as the focus for his Original Idea for Development (OID) at the end of Year One.

“At first, I thought about this idea of building libraries and how it can be favourable for children. It was then when I realised that children like to play,” he recalls.

Joel built the first prototype of the 5 STA-Z in 2016 while at ALA. The tool is a series of fun, collaborative, and engaging board games based on the four core subjects (Science, Math, English, and Social Studies) taught in Ugandan primary schools.

The 5 STA-Z is an educational game that breaks down Uganda’s educational curriculum into smaller packages that would permit learning within schools in a game play.

After piloting the 5-STAZ in 2016 and seeing his impact on young learners, Joel was surprised to be invited to meet Queen Elizabeth II as a winner of the Queen’s Young Leaders prize in 2017. A few months later, he packed his bags for the University of Wisconsin, where he would study engineering as a King-Morgridge Scholar.

But his dream of refining the 5-STAZ and bringing it to students across Uganda did not die when he went to the US. Instead, he built a team of classmates at the university, refined the game further, and found a Ugandan manufacturer for his product. In August 2020, Joel walked away with US$5000 as the winner of ALforEducation’s Little Bets Challenge. He realized that the game could be a substantial help to students whose schools were closed due to COVID-19.

The funds from the ALforEducation community helped in expanding the deck of 5 STA-Z content cards and distribute the games, as well as facilitate an expanded pilot with strong measurement and evaluation processes. . 

Today Joel is using the 5 STA-Z game as part of his venture called My HOME Stars, which aims to serve larger communities in Uganda and across sub-saharan Africa.

Listen to Joel’s interview on BYUradio, located on the campus of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, to learn more about how My HOME Stars was created.

Joel was among the 11 students and faculty members to receive the 2020 Wisconsin Without Borders Award at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The program was established to celebrate students and staff doing impactful community-engaged work within Wisconsin and across the world, Joel was recognized with the Peter Bosscher Undergraduate Award that honors the work of Dr. Peter Bosscher, whose work and ethic of social responsibility is at the core of Wisconsin Without Borders.

Joel’s new goal is to raise $10,000 to create 500 more game packages for refugee children.To learn more visit My HOME Stars.