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The heart of my work lies in human-centred design – Nyagaki

Nyagaki Gichia is a Kenyan and Africa Regional Hub coordinator of Team4Tech, a California, United States of America-based nonprofit impact accelerator bridging the digital equity gap in education to create inclusion and opportunities for learners in under-resourced communities around the world. In this exclusive interview with Edugist, she relives her childhood experiences, her love for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and how these have fashioned her into a resourceful tech professional in education. Nyagaki is on a mission to bridge the education equity gap by advocating for quality education in Kenya and the broader African continent through human-centred design and a systematic application of technology. She is also a beneficiary of the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) Emerging Leaders Programme (WEL). Excerpts
Nyagaki Gichia
Nyagaki Gichia Credit: Nyagaki Gichia
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Tell us about the significant childhood experiences and persons that have had the strongest influence on how you have turned out as an individual.

As a child, I was fortunate to have my uncle, an electrician, stay with us during a formative period of my life. His presence introduced me to the fascinating world of electrical equipment, machinery, and circuits.

Our shared moments were like interactive lessons, where he patiently explained the concepts, encouraged my curiosity, and allowed me to experiment with the coolest of tools. This hands-on experience wasn’t just about learning technical skills; it ignited a lifelong passion for problem-solving and innovation. Those early interactions fueled my natural curiosity and laid the foundation for my journey into engineering and education.

Additionally, being raised by a single mother who worked tirelessly to provide me with the best education she could, ingrained in me the values of hard work, resilience, and the importance of quality education.

School children in Kenya
School children in Kenya, Credit: Nyagaki

Across Africa, females (girls) in STEM are fewer compared to the number of males (boys). What is the situation like in Kenya and how can the trend be reversed?

Addressing the gender disparity in STEM fields in Kenya is a complex challenge that requires a holistic, systematic and multi-pronged approach. Our society’s prevailing gender norms and stereotypes often discourage girls from pursuing STEM subjects and careers.

Addressing the gender disparity in STEM fields in Kenya demands a multifaceted approach rooted in education, empowerment, and representation. To reverse the trend, we must start early, offering young girls exposure to STEM subjects through engaging activities and mentorship programmes.

We can challenge stereotypes and inspire aspirations by showcasing successful female role models who have excelled in STEM. This will also help parents see the value of letting their daughters pursue STEM careers. We must also create safe, inclusive learning environments that encourage experimentation and curiosity.

Additionally, advocating for policies that promote gender equality in education and career opportunities will play a pivotal role in fostering a more balanced STEM landscape. By weaving these strategies together, we can inspire a generation of girls who confidently pursue STEM and contribute to innovative solutions for our society.

Nyagaki, middle, with cohort of WEL programme
Nyagaki, middle, with her cohort of WEL programme, Credit: Nyagaki

To be working at the intersection of engineering and education must be exciting. Why did you get involved?

The fusion of engineering and education is a journey born out of a desire to mend the gap between theoretical learning and practical application. As an engineering student, I had envisioned a curriculum brimming with hands-on experiences and creative problem-solving.

However, the reality was often a stark contrast, with education primarily centred around memorising facts, passing exams and attending long lectures. As you can imagine, I got frustrated and bored fast! Coincidentally, a few other students were in the same boat as I was, and by chance (or grace), we stumbled upon the FabLab (Fabrication Lab) hosted within the University campus.

Access to this space was transformative for all of us, as we spent hours learning how to use the machines in the lab and receiving mentorship from our professor who oversaw the lab.

Within no time, we started the FabLab Robotics Outreach Club, where we would teach robotics to children from all backgrounds. For one of our first projects, we received funding to teach students from informal settlements in Nairobi. That is where I witnessed the profound impact of experiential learning and technology on young minds.

The spark of curiosity ignited in those children mirrored my own childhood experiences. This ignited a fire within me to blend my engineering background with education to create an environment where learners can thrive through active engagement, critical thinking, and practical application. This intersection has become my career, enabling me to empower students with the tools they need to shape the future.

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You leverage human-centred design to bring quality learning experiences to learners regardless of their economic background. What are some of the technology solutions you have designed and launched?

The heart of my work lies in human-centred design—a philosophy that places people at the core of solutions. Over the past year, I have supported an organisation in rural Kenya to build a maker space with training programmes. Makerspaces, especially those centred on technology, are commonly found in urban areas because of the favourable conditions. Working in rural areas has its fair share of challenges, including insufficient infrastructure, competing needs of the community, language barriers and lack of devices. However, over the past year, through a partnership with a tech foundation, a technology grant from Team4Tech and the commitment of the local nonprofit staff, we launched the maker space and designed training material that was locally relevant and supported the Kenyan curriculum.

Before introducing teachers and learners to physical computing and coding, we started with digital literacy basics since many had not interacted with computers. Training staff who gave continued support and who were from the community itself meant that the content could be adapted to suit the community, and they were encouraged to use local examples when delivering it.

Over 150 teachers have received training and are training others; over 10,000 learners have been impacted by this training. These locally relevant trainings bridge the digital divide for this community, providing hands-on experiences for students and teachers who do not have regular access to technology. By marrying practicality with innovation, these solutions don’t just impart knowledge; they empower learners to become creators, problem solvers, and critical thinkers.

Nyagaki upskilling teachers in Rwanda
Nyagaki upskilling teachers in Rwanda, Credit: Nyagaki

How do you evaluate learning outcomes as a function of these technology solutions?

Evaluating learning outcomes is a critical aspect of our work. We utilise a combination of qualitative and quantitative measures. We track student skills, knowledge, and confidence improvements through pre- and post-assessments. Additionally, we gather feedback from both learners and educators to understand the impact of our technology solutions on their educational experiences.

Observing increased engagement, participation, and enthusiasm for learning is a testament to our approach’s effectiveness.

What are some of the challenges you have had to overcome?

The challenges I’ve encountered along my journey have tested my resilience and shaped my determination. One poignant challenge is the stark disparity in access to resources and opportunities across different communities. This injustice fuels my unwavering commitment to bridging educational gaps, ensuring that every student, regardless of background, has the chance to thrive.

Personally, another hurdle has been striking a balance between my roles as a mother and a professional. The responsibility of nurturing a young family while striving to make a positive impact has demanded innovative solutions. This led me to seek remote work options that allow me to have a meaningful impact while spending quality time with my family.

What are some of the personal strengths that have helped you on this journey? Tell us also about some of your weaknesses and how you mitigate their effects on your journey.

My dedication, resilience, and passion for driving positive change have been instrumental in my journey. My ability to connect with people from diverse backgrounds has fostered collaboration, empathy, and understanding—essential ingredients for driving change.

Yet, like any journey, I’ve encountered moments of self-awareness. My idealism can sometimes lead to a sense of urgency that can be overwhelming. To mitigate this, I constantly remind myself of our incremental progress and focus on the positive impact we’re creating.

How do you plan to scale these solutions between now and the next five to 10 years?

Inspired by Ross Hall’s session during the WEL residential session, I look at scaling in three parts:

● Scaling out refers to reaching more people by replicating successful innovations in different communities and spreading positive results to a larger audience. At Team4Tech, we know we cannot offer individualised support to all nonprofits. However, through our online Community of Practice, we share best practices and build meaningful connections with educators, nonprofit leaders, and volunteers worldwide with the common goal of using technology to support learners in gaining the skills they need for education and economic success. Anyone who fits this criteria is free to join!

● Scaling up through advocating for changes in policies locally. Our model includes Regional Hub support, where people on the ground support our nonprofit partners, who understand the regional context. We support our nonprofits to scale through pilot programs that generate evidence around technology for education that their local governments can use.

● Scaling deep through continued, proximate support by our Regional Hub Coordinators. Team4Tech currently has strong partnerships with 37 nonprofit organisations worldwide. I support our portfolio of 21 partners in Africa by understanding their particular cultures and challenges and working with them to craft contextualised solutions to drive change within their communities.

How has participating in the emerging leaders’ programme organised by WISE helped you?

Participating in the WISE Emerging Leaders’ Programme has been personally and professionally transformative. The residential part of the programme emphasised the importance of rest, reflection, and self-care in leadership, challenging my perspective on constant productivity.

It reinforced the significance of understanding ourselves as individuals to drive meaningful change in larger systems. The connections I forged with fellow leaders worldwide have been invaluable, reminding me of our collective power to reshape education and drive positive impact.

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