SEAS Students Teach Computer Science in Ghana

Columbia Engineering students Rahi Punjabi '18, Zainab Aina '18, Edo Roth '17, Harish Shanker '17, Zia Osman '17, and Kunal Kamath '17 traveled to Ghana this past summer as part of a program that trains local university students as STEM instructors.
—Photo courtesy of Rahi Punjabi '18

No one understands the power of a STEM education better than Columbia engineers. So it wasn’t a surprise when a team of six Columbia students volunteered to travel to Ghana this past summer in support of an educational initiative organized by Emerging Leaders in Technology and Engineering, Inc.(ELiTE), the Harlem-based nonprofit headed by SEAS alum Chelsey Roebuck BS‘10.

Roebuck co-founded ELiTE in 2009 as a way to leverage a STEM education to empower low opportunity students. Though based in New York, global outreach has always formed an integral part of the nonprofit’s mission, and over the years the group has also traveled to areas around the Caribbean and Latin America. Its efforts in Ghana, meanwhile, have grown from a single program of summer vacation classes to a network that reaches every major university in the country, bringing hands-on engineering and web development classes to some of the most promising high school students from across the region.

“Working with … [the] team this summer was a welcome reminder of the impact that a group of motivated Columbia students can have,” Roebuck said. “With their curriculum and support, we were able to train and empower over 15 Ghanaian university students to lead computer science outreach activities that will impact hundreds of students across Ghana this year.”

To do that, the Columbia students had to first develop an introductory computer science curriculum, which they used to train the Ghanaian instructors who in turn taught the nearly 100 youth served by its two local programs, the Girls Are ELiTE summer camp and the Summer Institute of Technology and Engineering.

“Working with such a committed team to inspire the students who will be the future STEM workforce of Ghana was an experience I will never forget,” said team leader Rahi Punjabi BS‘18. “Coming back to Columbia, I am excited to get others involved with ELiTE to expand access to STEM education.”

To develop their Python-based curriculum, the group spent months collaborating with their Ghanaian university counterparts. This process included rigorous preparation and a thorough vetting of their course materials. For instance, before leaving New York, Columbia student Zainab Aina piloted the group’s lessons with high school students at Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem, a school where ELiTE runs STEM programming throughout the year. After polishing the curriculum, the team headed off to the capitol city of Accra, where they spent their first week focused on instructor training. They then dedicated their second week to supporting these instructors and their students, to ensure effective implementation of the program. This level of commitment didn’t go unnoticed by the Ghanaian instructors. “[The Columbia team] gave me a family that made me feel loved and motivated to do well,” said Christabel Acquaye, who studies at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. “I can now stand in front of people and speak confidently because [they] gave me the training I needed. [They] have given me everything a girl needs to make it in engineering.”

The trip culminated with a reception at the U.S. Embassy where Ambassador Robert Jackson acknowledged the program’s success and discussed the Embassy’s initiatives to improve access to STEM education in Ghana. Among those recognized were Punjabi and Aina, along with fellow team members Edo Roth BS‘17, Harish Shanker MS ‘17, Zia Osman BA‘17, and Kunal Kamath BA ‘17.

Funding for the initiative was provided by Columbia University’s Alternative Break Program, the Department of Computer Science, and the Columbia Engineering Internship Fund. 

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