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STEM Branches out to Southern and Eastern Africa Schools

By Troy Gordon
STEM Branches out to Southern and Eastern Africa Schools

Rubeena Zavari, a student at Harare International School, designed the ISSEA STEM Warthog (credit: Zavari, HIS).
On March 20th, 2015, Harare International School in Zimbabwe hosted the first ever STEM competition for International Schools of Southern and Eastern Africa (ISSEA). The tournament consisted of a series of math, technology, and design competitions, as well as opportunities for students to participate in TED Talk-style presentations on technology. The tournament included International Science Olympiad, Botball Robotics, and Math Olympiad-like challenges. The philosophy of the ISSEA STEM competition is “to provide an arena for like-minded students to compete, collaborate, communicate, and demonstrate strengths in academic areas that are rarely celebrated.”
The STEM competition placed students in the spotlight and celebrated their strengths in multiple intelligences. The opening ceremony welcomed each school with a rock star ovation. One English teacher from Harare International School said, “I loved the reception. I always wished that I would get recognition like the jocks, but for writing a great paper!” The kick-off emphasized the importance of succeeding in science, technology, engineering, and math. This was further supported by keynote speakers who focused on the growing importance of STEM skills in the work force and trends among female researchers and academics in STEM.
The International Schools of Harare, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, along with the American International Schools of Lusaka, Johannesburg, Mozambique, and the International Community School of Addis Ababa participated in the competition. Teams of up to 14 students matched their problem-solving skills against one another in a myriad of STEM-based challenges.
STEM-based activities build creativity, communication, collaboration, critical thinking skills and “grit.” Psychologist Angela Duckworth, who has studied grit as a predictor of success, defines it as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” As students rebounded, challenge after challenge, and aspired to achieve at a higher level each time, they displayed many of these characteristics. Throughout these rigorous STEM challenges, teams consistently re-evaluated and applied new approaches, displaying courage, conscientiousness, perseverance, and resilience.
“I was absolutely amazed that teams kept getting increasingly better scores as the Botball competition went on. The semi-finals produced the highest scores of the whole day,” stated a coach from Kenya.
“I saw the students really step up and meet the challenges every time a new one came up,” the Lusaka coach reported. “I know that they felt good about their performance and about what they were doing in general and I think it gave them more confidence.”
A member of the American International School of Johannesburg’s team that did not participate in the science event said, “We are planning a project where we can start an official science Olympiad Club and also teach more students to program in robotics.”
The STEM competition has motivated close to ten students from three different countries to compete in the Global Conference of Educational Robotics held in New Mexico in July 2015. The emergence of these goals demonstrates that celebrating students’ strengths in academics adds value to their skills. It reinforces pride in their abilities and inspires them to set higher academic goals. This, in turn, influences other students to participate in STEM and encourages them to embrace their talents.
The ISSEA STEM project is the result of a year-long collaboration effort among Al Briesemeister (Science H.O.D., Harare International School), Troy Gordon (Technology Director, Harare International School), Maciej Sudra (Technology Coordinator, International School of Uganda), Gwinyai Jambga (Athletics Director, Harare International School), the ISSEA organization, as well as science, math, and technology teachers from all the ISSEA Schools.
Al and Maciej first introduced Botball to Harare International School four years ago.
“It’s great to see all this come together,” stated Briesemeister. “Technically, this turned out to be a STEAM event, since we also incorporated the arts with MTV night as the social. It’s where students and teachers submit MTV-style music videos.”
The ISSEA STEM invitational event will be hosted at a different ISSEA school each year. The 2016 competition will take place in April at American International School of Lusaka. Follow all the developments of ISSEA STEM 2016 at
Troy Gordon is Technology Director at Harare International School, Zimbabwe.
Email,, or to find out more about starting your own STEM competition.

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