ADDIS ABABA — Fleets of exhaust-belching shared taxis rumble along Ethiopia’s roads, night and day. More ubiquitous than public buses, the blue and white mini-buses drive along set routes, picking up passengers at unmarked stops.
Once a passenger boards the bus, however, bargaining may begin. So to solve any ticket-price uncertainty, two Ethiopian high schoolers named Dagim Yeneneh and Henos Shimelio have invented an ingenious device they call the “Origin Taximeter.”
They demonstrated their idea at the Foka STEMpower science center in Bishoftu last month for this visiting Israeli journalist, alongside dozens of other teams and their projects. The Times of Israel was invited to report on the efforts of the STEMpower organization, which seeds science laboratories throughout Africa in a desire to turn high schoolers on to hard sciences — and improve their nations’ chances for a brighter future.
The pair of blue-uniformed teen boys explain that their hope in installing the Origin Taximeter throughout the country is to create a fair, objective payment scale and negate any ticket price “unpleasantness.” It’s a need they encounter in their everyday lives.
“The goal is for pupils to identify their own problems from their own communities,” says Eyob Aychew Teffera, head of the STEMpower center in the Foka neighborhood of Bishoftu, about an hour outside of Addis Ababa. The teens bring those everyday problems to the staff, who attempt to teach them ways to find their own solutions through the center’s mechanics, coding, optics or robotics labs.
Origin Taximeter uses a numbered keypad linked to a standard taxi meter. The teens programmed the device to identify each seat on the bus so that when a passenger boards, the driver pushes that seat number’s button. When the passenger alights, the driver pushes the button again and prints out that passenger’s ticket price. At the end of the day, the meter will also add up the day’s sales and separate out the company’s tax obligation, they explain.
It’s an idea so simple that one wonders why it doesn’t already exist. That’s the case for many of the inventions the STEMpower pupils presented to The Times of Israel.
Founded in 2012, the Bishoftu center is STEMpower’s prototype learning lab. Today there are 107 STEM centers throughout Africa, with 60 in Ethiopia alone. They cater to high school pupils but also include programs for entrepreneurs up to age 30. Another 29 STEM centers are set to open in the coming year and, as witnessed by this journalist in Ethiopia and Uganda, there is an unquenchable thirst on the part of educators for more.
The dream of STEMpower’s Jewish philanthropist/founder Mark Gelfand is to draw pupils to hard sciences before they begin university. The 72-year-old Boston-based retired physicist insists, “Inside every child is a scientist. Nurture that scientist and you will change the world.”
At the Ministry of Education in Addis Ababa, Dr. Solomon Benor Belay, the chief executive officer of Research and Community Engagement, said STEMpower’s hands-on science labs are “a breakthrough” for the nation.
Each center houses labs for core science instruction, computer terminals and electronics boards, 3D printers and robotics kits. To increase the center’s reach, this year the organization rolled out a pilot project of a mobile STEM lab from its Bishoftu hub that serves about 15 schools in a 50-kilometer (31-mile) radius.
“We had nothing before STEM came to Ethiopia and schools could only do simple practical chemistry or biology experiments,” said the Education Ministry’s Belay, an associate professor at Addis Ababa’s Science & Technology University.
When greeting this Israeli with strong Ethiopian coffee, the Gondar native said he spent five months in Israel while working on his master’s degree. He studied in Rehovot and said he felt at home among the country’s Ethiopian immigrant population.
Belay said the ministry expects to continue to work in collaboration with STEMpower on a national framework to create a standardized training program for all the facilitators at the dozens of centers throughout the country.
“Its contribution is really vital,” said Belay.
A computer science major — but no computer
In mid-July, a brand new center at a Ugandan university received a first visit from STEMpower Inc. CEO Edwin Kumfa. Official pleasantries over, as we stepped out of the lab’s door, it was clear that the university students whose work we’d interrupted were eager to get back to their computer terminals.
Kumfa explained that for some universities, the centers fill a huge niche: Hundreds of computer science majors who do not have ready access to computers learn how to program on paper. Now they have terminals to actualize and visualize their theoretical programming work. Likewise engineering students can make use of the electronics boards and robotics kits.
With robust humor and encyclopedic knowledge, the Cameroon-born Kumfa shepherded The Times of Israel on a tour of veteran STEMpower centers in Ethiopia and fledgling new labs in Uganda in a whirlwind week.
While driving in bumper-to-bumper traffic and handing small bills to roadside beggars, Kumfa explains that most centers are attached to universities, which eventually take on the day-to-day running of the sites as part of the institutions’ community outreach mandates. The idea is for communities of scientists to raise their country’s next generation.
The halls of the Bishoftu center are decorated with portraits of renowned scientists, including famous African scientists, all painted by the same local artist. It was summer break when The Times of Israel visited, but dozens of teens bustled throughout the solar-powered compound, some checking out the free opportunity to learn hard sciences.
Head of the Foka STEMpower center, Eyob Aychew Teffera, told The Times of Israel that each year, about 300 students take part in his center’s programs and about 20 projects make it to the science fair, which takes place annually the week of November 10, the United Nation’s World Science Day for Peace and Development.
The Origin Taximeter and a slew of other necessity-born inventions seen by The Times of Israel were presented at last year’s fair. Ahead of the event, teams of budding scientists are coached on how to take their wild ideas and implement them at STEM centers throughout Ethiopia, with the help of the centers’ labs and mentors.
Among the other student projects were computer games that got this reporter flustered, a prototype of a phone-controlled switch that monitors power wastage, optical sensors for color-sorting robots, fingerprint-activated attendance sheets, and home braille printers that can scan documents such as prescriptions and print them out.
In many cases, the pupils had a story behind their project. The braille printer was inspired by a blind teacher; the genesis of a stair-climbing wheelchair seen at an Addis Ababa center came from a disabled family member.
That’s all part of founder Gelfand’s vision. “Kids come up with all kinds of solutions from what they see around them. They come up with these amazing devices. And solve what they see as their world’s problems,” he told The Times of Israel in a June Zoom interview.
African countries have no lack of problems, from rampant poverty to inefficient infrastructure. Several universities — and one government ministry — didn’t have running water on the days we visited as part of a multi-day water rationing program. They make do with bottled water for washing hands and insect-infested water drawn from barrels to “flush” toilets.
What boggles this Israeli’s mind is the fact that the countryside is lush and green, but the abundant water is eluding engineers. Today’s leaders — likely distracted by seemingly perpetual warfare on several fronts — don’t appear to be prioritizing the availability of clean water. The urgency of promoting sciences to the next generation under these conditions is clear.
Science as pragmatic nationalism
The daily mid-afternoon rains fell as we pulled into a muddy alley beside a small concrete workspace. Two STEMpower grads, Tilahun Adi and Biniam Dereie, wait to show off their new software, which runs a prototype of a computer numerical control machine. The software is named Jericho — after the Matrix film series, not the arguably oldest city in the world — and it represents a revolution and a cry of independence.
The team explains that until now, Ethiopians have been dependent upon Chinese programs, which involve lucrative licensing deals, to work the machines that they’ve reverse-engineered based on Chinese models. Once they perfect the Jericho program, they’ll be able to market their homegrown machines with native software — reducing prices and increasing national pride.
They’ve been working on the project for five years, attempting to overcome obstacles including Ethiopia’s unstable power supply, which hampers the program’s ability to send memory files. Each step of the way, they upscale the size of the machine the program directs, aiming to reach industrial standards. The pair sheepishly say they devote all their time to the project — often bunking down next to their machines.
Elsewhere in Addis Ababa — but equally muddy and rainy — we visit the STEMpower “FabLab” where the organization is attempting to unlock how to mass-produce the 20 different educational kits that it hopes to send out to schools to help teachers show, not just tell, how physics works.
Littered throughout the spacious warehouse are reverse-engineered machines and wild card attempts at creating cheaper made-in-Ethiopia solutions for imported devices. Using onsite 3D printers to create much of their modeling, the team is encouraged to think out of the box in the hopes of getting kits into them and on their way to science teachers who don’t have the means to demonstrate simple principles.
STEMpower is not a panacea. It is a drop in a very large bucket of what is needed to help Africans solve their societal ills. But one drop and then another can slowly fill a vessel. Especially if that vessel is supported from all sides.
At Uganda’s Busitema University, Dr. Saphina Biira, the acting deputy vice-chancellor, waited for our visiting delegation way past dark. After a long trip down an endless two-lane Ugandan highway, we finally arrived several hours behind schedule. A local church choir singing nearby fittingly served as the soundtrack for our meeting with the charming Biira.
“We now have what to give to the community, to empower them to learn the sciences that are not in their schools,” the trained physicist said. With good humor, she attempted to convince Kumfa that with the success of this first STEMpower center, each of the university’s campuses should house its own.
“When you have a good meal, you keep coming back for more,” she joked.
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