Midtown teen takes STEM knowledge to Africa

Makena Mugambi, 16, spent most of July sharing her passion for engineering with disadvantaged students in Kenya.

Credit: contrib

Credit: contrib

Makena Mugambi, 16, spent most of July sharing her passion for engineering with disadvantaged students in Kenya.

A search for ways to volunteer led Midtown teen Makena Mugambi to another continent.

After posting on LinkedIn that she was interested in robotics and coding, the 16-year-old was contacted by Leonard Onyango, founder of the Watoto Coding Club. The Kenyan nonprofit works with youngsters in Kibera, a slum in the capital of Nairobi, and was looking for volunteers.

“He saw that I was interested in engineering and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math),” said Mugambi. “But I told him I really wanted to teach robotics.”

Onyango was happy to include that topic into the free sessions the center hosts after school and on weekends. The usual focus is coding, engineering and game design. But after raising funds from family and friends to make the trip, and receiving a donation of three laptops from the Georgia Bar Association, Mugambi headed to Kenya and spent most of July building and programming robots into the curriculum.

“I wanted to teach them about how hand-held robots can respond to coding and to show them what hand-built robots they could build,” she said. “I also touched on video editing so they could tell their stories and poster-making so they could post what they’re doing.”

Within a few weeks, Mugambi saw she was making a difference. “They could see that coding can go farther than just than what’s on the screen: It can be brought into the physical world,” she said. “One group wanted to do a podcast to tell their stories, and they were using video editing with that.”

Mugambi worked with boys and girls from ages 6 to 17 who live in one of the poorest areas in the city. For most, the only access to computers is at the center.

“Many of their homes don’t have electricity or water,” said Mugambi. “The center is a safe place where they can learn and also play sports.”

Though born in Atlanta, the Midtown High junior spent 13 years in Kenya, so she was fluent in the local Swahili language. She also had family friends nearby with whom she stayed. Now back home, she’s concentrating on the engineering path at school and looking forward to studying robotics and engineering in college.

“I want to use the robots I build to help people, especially in Kenya,” she said. “That’s one of my top goals.”

She’s also keeping in touch with her young friends in Nairobi.

“I’m planning regular calls to check in with them,” she said. “The more I learn, the more I want to share with them.”

Information on Watoto Coding is online at watotocoding.com.

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