The A. Richard Newton Educator ABIE Award recognizes educators who develop innovative teaching practices and approaches that attract girls and women to computing, engineering and math. This year’s winner, Bih Janet Shufor Fofang, is from Cameroon and has been teaching electrical engineering for 15 years at the College D’enseignement Technique Industriel et Commercial.
We caught up with her to discuss her work, career and future plans. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s the best part of teaching the girls at the Tassah Academy?
The fact that I get to teach something new and exciting to students is very rewarding. I call it the “change” factor. School curricula here are very old and have hardly undergone any major changes to suit the changing times. Traditional teaching methods are still used in many schools and there is a complete disconnect between what is taught and everyday reality. It takes a very long time for systems to change and adapt to new ways of thinking. Finding a new method to break the myth behind technology, and using innovative ways of thinking, is very exciting for the girls.
Can you tell me about one moment that stands out as the most rewarding in your teaching?
When I broke the myth of understanding codes and the language and processes that happen behind user interfaces. I have succeeded in getting STEM club members to understand computational and creative thinking. The moment any girl discovers she can write a line of code to change an action, or connect two live wires to produce energy from a solar source, are very powerful moments for them. They beam with so much joy, and I want to continue putting smiles on every girl’s face and let them know nothing is impossible.
How did you come up with the idea for the STEM Boxes?
As an engineering teacher, I draw in a lot of practical experiences. When I visited California in 2013 for the Techwomen experience, together with my professional mentor Gheeta Gharpure, who worked at Symantec at the time, we explored possible ways of ensuring STEM courses were taught with practical, hands-on activities. We explored virtual concepts, and she invited a lady who worked on building practical training kits in electrical engineering to collaborate. She carried her kits around in a bag. I got an introduction to a nonprofit called International School to School Partnerships (ISSP) based in California, and they had another brilliant idea of boxes with solar training kits for students. With all the ideas and knowledge I gained during my stay in California, I came up with the idea of putting all the resources for each STEM club into a box. That way, each club session could access “on the go” training, making things a lot easier for our clubs. Now we don’t have to ask the school administration’s permission to access labs, or deal with absence of resources for any school. We can also carry the boxes around to schools and fairs, and train anyone interested in our programs, even in areas without any power or computers. A typical STEM box will contain a Raspberry Pi, solar kits, 9v batteries, small electric motors, electronic components (diodes, resistors, capacitors, transistors etc.), electric wires, integrated electrical/electronic components, breadboards, Arduino microcontrollers and any other components to directly build a circuit or run a STEM project.
What was your biggest takeaway from your visit to Silicon Valley in 2013?
The innovative ways in which people worked to solve problems around them was something that stood out to me. People in Silicon Valley actually work hard to make change happen, change that would last generations. Not quick fixes. Fame is not what a majority of these innovators are looking for. They work each day, seeking a solution to a problem, and they don’t give up. They keep working and failing and never giving up. They become famous because they are successful, not successful because they are famous. So my biggest takeaway was the motto “Fail Fast and Fail Often.”
What is your vision for the future of women in technology in Cameroon?
I aspire to help build a strong ecosystem of women who can harness the potential of technology and use it to build wealth, and to create jobs for themselves and others. Cameroon, like any other country in Africa, has tremendous opportunities in fields yet to be tapped into. When I look at all the difficulties around me, I realize behind each difficulty is an opportunity.
By listing the difficulties we face each day as women, we could simply build skills and translate those same difficulties into opportunities. Each problem has a solution, and problems are endless. I am creating a workspace to incubate brilliant ideas and products that can be marketable. Our next step will be to turn our ideas into products, and to turn those products into wealth. I would like to give market value to our ideas and creations. Tech businesses run by women are limited in Cameroon, and I believe I have the unique opportunity through powerful networks here to help mentor brilliant minds and to help them succeed in becoming successful tech entrepreneurs.
What technology trend are you most excited about personally?
I am mostly excited about electronics and software programming. In Cameroon today, I encourage my students to take an interest in electronics and programming — building electronic hardware and writing software to program that hardware. Artificial Intelligence is the next big thing. My dream is to train my students to build useful electronics and write software to program them. It will be interesting to see how we can create technology that directly solves our problems. Every piece of hardware could become intelligent if some software programmer gave it brains through some lines of code.
If you had one piece of advice to give to a young woman entering the world of computing or tech, what would it be?
I would, and do, tell any young woman entering this space not to hold back their potential, to prove their worth and not be afraid. Fear is the last thing you should feel when you are competent. I would tell her to believe in her dreams, and that this is an amazing opportunity to contribute and solve at least one problem in the world. Don’t mess up that chance. No contribution is too small in technology.
Meet Bih Janet at the Speakers Corner at the AnitaB.org Booth (Booth #1420, GRBCC Hall B-D) on Wednesday from 4 – 4:45 p.m.