"My motivation is my love for our planet earth and the organisms that reside on it", said Emerald Akhaumere. Earlier this year, Emerald, aged 17, developed a prototype for an artificial intelligence tool that helps users find environmentally-friendly ways to dispose of waste — specifically plastics, which are often burned, contributing to poor air quality in her home country of Nigeria.
Emerald developed the tool through Idea Lab, a learning and creative programme for girls run in partnership by UNESCO and Technovation, a member of the Global Education Coalition.
The Technovation Idea Lab pilot programme supported girls to continue learning remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I chose to solve this problem because it is a global problem that affects my community, too", Emerald said. "According to the national hospital in Abuja, Nigeria, about 65% of heart and lung diseases are caused by inhaling toxic chemicals, which enter the atmosphere by burning plastic and other recyclables. I also wanted to do my part to protect my home planet because there is no planet B."
During the Idea Lab programme, 1,500 girls aged 10-18 in Brazil, India, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, and Pakistan learned about artificial intelligence (AI) and how it works by building their own AI models. These models would support girls’ ideas to address community problems including deforestation, contaminated drinking water, and crop disease.
The programme was hosted on Google Classroom, allowing girls to connect and collaborate with peers and mentors around the world. A post-program survey showed at least 60% of the girls reported gains in self-efficacy, and skills improvement (especially in AI and problem solving).
The pilot showed that girls can be effectively engaged in self-directed online learning experiences as long as they are supported through real-time video classes or meetings, have many opportunities to be heard, and receive consistent feedback for the duration of the programme. It is also key to celebrate everyone's hard work through a virtual gathering at the end of the programme.
Volunteer mentors from companies like Ericsson, SAP, Uber, Google, and NVIDIA provided feedback and support to students throughout the pilot. The Micro:bit Foundation also supplied micro:bits (tablets with educational resources) as prizes for girls in participating countries.
"As a mentor, I want to support as many mentees as possible to realize their dreams of exploring the world of technology", shared Sunday Orjingene, an Idea Lab mentor and IP Solutions Engineer at Ericsson. "I was glad to see a lot of energy from the girls, and the flexibility of remotely supporting them from different countries definitely motivated me."
Sunday supported Emerald as she developed her idea and trained her model, encouraging her to add more training data to improve the model's accuracy. He also cheered her on and encouraged her to keep building and dreaming up solutions to air pollution and waste disposal.
Emerald said this mentorship combined with the hands-on focus brought the lessons to life. "The curriculum empowers girls like me to go beyond what I limited myself from doing. I was able to learn skills that empower me and which helped me to feel more confident knowing I have the capacity and the ability to make a positive impact on my community and the world at large."
Emerald is one girl with an incredible idea – imagine what the 11 million girls at risk of not returning to school might build if they have access to learning opportunities. We must all work together to keep girls in school during this pandemic and beyond.
Under UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition, the Gender Flagship safeguards progress made on gender equality and education. An integral area of action of the Gender Flagship is accelerating the deployment of gender-responsive distance learning approaches to support continuity of learning, with a focus on marginalised girls. UNESCO is continuing its cooperating with Technovation, on their flagship programme Technovation Girls, aiming to reach 20,000 girls around the world.