May 21, 2021

Pioneering a New Teaching Model for High School STEM Education in Liberia

Rodney Bollie and Sylvia M. Bollie founders of The Institute of Basic Technology provide STEM education for high schools in Liberia. Built In Africa.

Home to 40% of the world’s youth population by 2050, access to quality STEM education is vital to Africa’s future.

The National Science Foundation estimates that 80% of the jobs created in the next decade will require some form of STEM literacy. 

With 54 countries, all existing at various parts of the tech-enabled spectrum, STEM literacy is defined differently in each nation. For some countries, training the next generation of software engineers, data scientists, and cybersecurity professionals means building sustainable tech hubs to equip their talent. 

However, for Liberia, home to only one of Africa’s 643 active tech hubs, the tech revolution doesn’t start with providing a” hot startup” with a workspace and funding. It begins with investing in the youth. 

Founded in 2017, the Institute of Basic Technology is pioneering a new teaching model for high school STEM education. At NO cost, their practical and cost-effective model has provided STEM education to over 2,000 children in Liberia.

I spoke with Rodney L. Bollie, Founder/President of the Institute, about the importance of STEM education, their vision of the Institute, and Tech in Africa.

How did your journey lead you to create the Institute of Basic Technology?

The Institute is both my wife (Sylvia M. Bollie) and I’s idea and stems from our background. I came from Liberia to the US, and my wife’s parents are from Liberia, and we wanted to give back to where we come from in a meaningful way. 

The burning question was how to transport quality education back home. Which led us to the fundamental question, what does it mean to educate someone in an economically challenged environment? 

To answer the question correctly, we found a means of measuring the socio-economic factors that negatively impact learning, as opposed to the catchall phrase of poverty. We wanted to look at discrete impediments.  

For example, what impact does access to study materials, vocabulary, and reading comprehension have on learning? How does your parent’s educational background influence your education achievement? What about reciting affirmations, is there a marginal impact? 

What specific void or opportunity did you discover that inspired the Institute of Basic Technology?

We looked at the landscape prior to starting the Institute, and during my visit, we saw that less than one percent of high school students across the country had laboratory experience. Most students go through all of their high school journeys without ever seeing a microscope, touching a computer, or mixing some chemicals.

While I was there, I audited some schools and sat in the classes. I saw a deficiency between what was taught on the board and student comprehension. There was this hands-on aspect lacking, and having gone through it myself, I knew what was being taught could be quickly grasped if students had the opportunity to be immersed in a hands-on environment.  

How does the Institute work?

Currently, we serve five high schools. Our model operates similar to a college where the lab complements the lecture. 

Our labs align with the school curriculum, so if the human reproductive system is taught in class, students will come to our lab where we have a full-sized human mannequin and get hands-on experience. 

Trained staff with at least an undergraduate degree in the subject and five years of teaching experience, lead each lab.

In places where we may not have the physical materials, we supplement it with a video from Khan Academy. Sessions last about an hour. Twenty minutes is dedicated to the lecture, and then the last 40 minutes is hands-on learning. 

Why is it important for high school students to be proficient in STEM?

It all goes down to the fundamental question that we asked, what does it mean to educate someone in a socioeconomically challenged environment? 

With that in mind, with the Institute, we are hoping to give students the basic tools to bootstrap themselves out of that environment. 

If we teach our students basic programming, let’s say Python, and they take that knowledge and connect it to a need within their immediate environment, you’ve created some form of job opportunity. 

Also, STEM is pretty pervasive in everything, even in writing, your typical high school student in Liberia doesn’t know how to use a computer, talk less about writing a document in Microsoft Word. With the Institute, we want to give students a foundation. 

We had one student that graduated last year who wants to be a writer. He learned how to use a computer at our laboratory and was able to write his autobiography’s first manuscript.

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What impact is the Institute having on students in Liberia?   

In West Africa, every graduating high school student has to take the WAEC (West African Examinations Council). It’s similar to the SAT in that you need to pass the exam to attend just about any college in West Africa. For example, if I want to leave Liberia and go to a university in Ghana, one of the requirements for admission is a certificate showing that you passed the WAEC. 

When we started in 2017, across the country, there were massive failures. “F’s” across the board. After the exam, we invited our senior students to provide some real-time feedback about the impediments on the test. For the first time, we realized that reading comprehension played a huge factor.

A lot of students didn’t know some of the words used on the exam. So the next year, we started to focus on building their vocabulary bank. Every day of the week, we introduced one new word.

This past academic year, our students took the WAEC, now the WASSCE (West African Senior School Certificate Examination) which was changed to reflect the emphasis on the laboratory aspect of the test, and our senior students transitioned from F’s to A’s. 

We also want to see students transitioning from high school to some form of post-high school education. In 2017, when we first started, we had three students pursue post-high school education. After calling the seniors from last year to see what they are doing, we found that close to 20% of the graduating class went on to do some form of post-high school education, 60+ students, a significant increase from three.  

How do you see the Institute evolving in the next 3-5 years, and what impact do you hope to make?

Based on what we’ve learned from 2017, and what we ultimately would have learned after 5 years of running the Institute, I see us evolving into more of a guidance role for education not just here in Liberia, but across Africa. 

We want to build a predictive model out of the data we’re collecting to predict student performance and then prescribe ways to improve.

By building this tool, we hope to improve education and provide some form of guidance to those interested in supporting students in these environments.

For example, if you provide access to reading materials and a feeding program, this will translate into some improvement in their academic performance.

When you hear the phrase “Built In Africa”, what does that mean to you?

From my perspective, it’s something that is built by Africans. They could be living on the continent or be here in the diaspora, but it’s built by Africans and for Africans. The product that is built reflects their African identity with-in and meets the needs of Africans in whatever environment they may be.

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