Sierra Leone: Day 2

This is a series of posts I will be making about my trip to Sierra Leone to teach with the US State Department-funded TechWomen program. See photos here.


Morning: STEM Career Day

Chemistry and biology and physics teachers from across Freetown brought their middle school-aged girls to the British Council building today to learn more about STEM careers.

We started out with a panel — I wrote this thread about how this morning perfectly demonstrated why is it necessary for the ideas, vision, grit, and skills of women in technology in Sierra Leone to receive a global platform. I was particularly impressed by the high school-aged Hawa Yokie‘s inventions.

After the panel, we had breakout sessions with 4-8 girls and their teachers to tell them about our careers and answer questions. I was thrilled to be paired with Jacqueline Scoggins. Jackie has rocked a 22 year career at Lawrence Livermore Labs managing the high performance computers that allow the Nobel-prize winners, the element inventors, and the everyday geniuses who populate that Department of Energy lab to do their best work. One of my favorite moments, which I asked Jackie to reenact during all of our conversations with different groups of young women, was when she whipped-out the Periodic Table of Elements and pointed to the sixteen elements on it discovered by scientists working at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory.

For my part, I had prepped a fun Python project (link goes to my GitHub) to help inspire the young ladies to learn to code. I start out:

“Who here has read a really long book?”

{There is some discussion about what counts as a long book; eventually, we concur that someone in the group has read a long book.}

“Alright,” I say, “If I asked you to, could you confirm with 100% accuracy that the word ‘lizard’ appears absolutely nowhere in that book?”

{There is some discussion on the nature of truth/textbooks/lizards. We agree that it is very hard to know for sure and that it would take days to check.}

I turn my laptop around, showing them the program I wrote:

“That kind of question is one that is incredible hard for humans and very easy for computers. Here’s a harder version of it — I put in several English translations of the Bible and several English translations of the Koran, for a total of 11 million words. About how long do you think it would take us to read 11 million words and be 100% certain that a certain word did not appear?”

{The group concurs much faster that this would be very, very difficult and take a very, very long time/}

“Let’s test it — can each of you tell me one word that you are sure is not in the holy Bible or the holy Koran?”

{Top words included: Samsung. Nokia. Sneaker. Astronaut. Cellphone. Failed attempts include: Wife. Sorrow. Purple. Door. Love. Sorrow.}

I run the program and it prints out:

Comparing words against Word English translation of the Holy Bible
Comparing words against M. Ali translation of the Holy Koran
Comparing words against Douay-Rheims translation of the Holy Bible
Comparing words against Rodwell translation of the Holy Koran
Comparing words against AY Ali, M Pickthall, and MH Shakir translations of the Holy Koran
Comparing words against King James translation of the Holy Bible
Compared against: 11,150,451 words used in holy books

I saw bright eyes get even brighter, teachers lean forward. I tell them about Technovation Challenge and encourage them to start a Technovation club in their schools, that they can learn to code while teaching their students to code. I tell them about attending the Technovation Celebration, how many girls get to come to Silicon Valley, how proud everyone is of their hard work.

One teacher pushes back, hard, saying he only has one computer, and it is impossible to teach computer science.

I affirm that this is both unfair and a major barrier. I also direct him to the dozens of free, offline coding resources. I tell him that in my computer science classes at Foothill, I’ve had lots of paper-based lessons and assignments. I tell them the story about studying for hours, running and re-running the different search, sort, and tree algorithms I had learned with a deck of cards, so that on my final I knew them by heart. I tell him the story of the women in TechWomen who had gotten into computer science programs on the strength of their math skills and never coded a line in their lives before university. I try to encourage them to try, knowing how massive the barriers they may face are, but also seeing so much passion and hope in the eyes of their students. It’s always on teachers to save the next generation and theirs is a world — worldwide — of massive responsibility, massive dreams, and always too-scarce resources.

Our conversation about how to teach computer science with limited access to computers gave me an idea for the last group. After going around the table (the young ladies wanted to be an engineer, a dermatologist, and a computer scientist), I pulled-out a Notable Women in Computing card deck.

My Mom and I had given 3 away to teachers in the course of the morning; this was my last deck.

I played a row of cards, sorted, on the table I asked one of the young ladies to guess a card but not tell me which one it was.

Then I used a binary search algorithm to workout which card it was in log(n) guesses. It was a magic trick, sure, but a mathy magic trick that underlies any kind of tree-based logarithmic search we do. The young ladies loved it, as did the teachers I played the “I bet I can guess any number you choose between 0 – 1,000,000 in fewer than 20 guesses,” game with over lunch. Maybe they’ll add some of these games into their talks about logarithms and exponents and logic.

An Aside on the Value of Coming In-Person

As I with last year’s trip to Nigeria, I have a rule for myself before I travel to another country for a social justice reason: I need to provide more value to the people I meet there than if I’d just written a check for the cost of the flight ($1200 – $2000 depending on your route / luck). That much money pays for a year of tuition, room, board, and leadership training for a young person in Sierra Leone with Families Without Borders, so it is a high bar.

The big way that I met that bar in Nigeria was by presenting to a roomful of entrepreneurs and social innovators how to seek funding from a variety of sources, including how to apply for grants. One of the amazing Fellows in that session asked me to review a grant she wrote for US State Department funding for her afterschool STEM program; she later receive that grant, which I believe is significantly above $2000. Check. Mark.

(I packed 2 suitcases on this trip, and, as part of the ancient tradition of #TechWomenMail, one was entirely full of Arduino boards, breadboards, build-your-own-computer kits, and other CS educational materials that the winner of that grant bought from Amazon and had shipped to my house. As of today, they are with another Nigerian Fellow and will be on their way to her. The mail is fairly unreliable and often exorbitantly expensive for many of the women in TechWomen, so mentors and Fellows often bring packages and toolkits and devices along with us. This is a small, but consistent reason why traveling in-person is vital — you can’t email someone a breadboard and you can’t Skype them an Arduino kit.)

Back to the value of coming in person: in Sierra Leone, I intend to do the same presentation and brought a thick packet of resources for those present for it.

But I also brought educational materials for the teachers who I met this morning. I know they don’t total $2000 of value, but bringing novel ways of teaching STEM like my “Teaching Binary Through Weaving” workshop, bringing posters with the faces of 54 women in tech from the Middle East and Africa, bringing solar system mobiles and dice to teach probability and spare looms and balls of yarn — well, I know for a fact that they get used and they are needed. I know they hang in classrooms from South Africa to Kyrgyzstan, from Foothill College to Carnegie Mellon University. And I love giving them away:

Afternoon: The Oldest College in West Africa (Fourah Bay College)

We spent the afternoon doing progressional development workshop for university students, including resume/CV writing, public speaking, design-thinking, and using a growth mindset.

There are lots of videos from the afternoon here, but my biggest take-away is how impressed I am with how dedicated and passionate the STEM students are, how clearly robotics, chemistry, programming, civil engineering fill a fundamental human need to understand, to explore, to build and make, to fix; it’s a human need that has existed in every culture I have had the pleasure of visiting.

Geekdom really is its own human experience, it’s very own culture, shared between hundreds of thousands of nerds worldwide. On this delegation trip, we are those nerds, we serve those nerds, and when we present — whether it’s to middle school girls or Seniors in college — we are out to find and support more of our geeky kind.

More tomorrow!

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