A New Ghana

If you haven’t read the previous post, please do so to learn more about our humble beginnings. We have gone a long way since the first two years in Obodan. Quite frankly, I am not sure that I would be sitting in Ghana right now if I had to write this post from Obodan– but that’s an aside. Our University partners in Cape Coast and Koforidua have provided us access to incredible resources and a world-class faculty who have been more than willing to support our efforts.

Just as we have grown, Ghana too has grown, and it has allowed me to travel more efficiently and get more accomplished during my stays. The roads which were once covered with dirt and filled with potholes are now 4 lane highways allowing even tro-tros to reach speeds of 90 km/hr and cut the trip from Accra to Nsawam down from 2 hours to just 35 minutes. After meeting former students in Nsawam, I continued onwards the next day to meet old friends at All Nations University and coordinate the transportation for our Koforidua students to travel to Cape Coast for SITE 2013. By Friday morning I was on my way to Kumasi and KNUST for the 5th Annual NSBE-Ghana Leadership Conference. This was my third straight NSBE-Ghana Leadership conference and it seems that each year the guys try to make the conference longer, bigger, and better. With passionate leaders and advisors and over 2000 members, most of whom are affiliated with University chapters, NSBE Ghana finally seems ready to stand on its own.

After a successful gathering and a long Saturday in Kumasi I eventually ended up in Koforidua for the night where I am writing, organizing lesson plans, and collecting my thoughts as SITE: Ghana 2013 is just around the corner. Check back in a few days for a recap of week one of the program!

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Students and instructors after 2009 program in Nsawam

Students and instructors after 2009 program in Nsawam

Back in 2009 I never would have thought that I would be preparing for my 5th STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) summer program in Ghana. It has been an incredibly challenging yet rewarding journey as our core team has scaled this undergraduate summer experience into a sustainable nonprofit organization.

In 2009, Chelsey Roebuck, Clayton Dahlman, Danny Cosson, and Todd Kwao-vovo, four brave (and naive) college students from Columbia Engineering, embarked on an adventure. At the time, one of us had ever traveled to Africa. In fact, I had never traveled outside of the country. Nevertheless, we loaded up cardboard boxes with science equipment and recycled computers from the basement of the Columbia Engineering Building, and boarded a Lufthansa flight to Accra.

Ghana Tro-Tro 2009

Exiting the airport in Accra was as terrifying as anything that I’ve ever experienced. Walking out of the airport we were immediately greeted by what seemed like thousands of people rushing towards the obvious student tourists, offering assistance with our luggage, finding a taxi, purchasing phone cards, etc. Once we eventually met our host, Sammy Gamson, it was another 2.5 hours through the traffic of Accra and over the unpaved road to Nsawam. Back in 2009 there were rumors of a highway being built to connect Nsawam to the metropolitan city but the experience riding in a tro-tro through ditches and potholes gave little suggestion that progress was on the way.

Obodan Room

It was a rough 6 weeks in our initial years living in Obodan. Obodan, Sammy’s hometown, is a small satellite village a few miles outside of Nsawam. Four of us spent the time crammed together in a concrete room sleeping on the floor below mosquito nets and atop latex foam mattresses. I was fortunate enough to listen to my mother and bring my own camping mattress from REI. Clay and Danny were not so lucky as the mattress they shared for the month was damp and moldy from day one. The walls were painted a sterile pale blue, only brightened by a single bulb on the ceiling (when electricity was available) that providing just enough light to see the red dirt and cobwebs in the corners. The village had no running water and thus no flush toilets or showers. Trips to the bathroom required strapping on a headlamp or flashlight and walking about 50 yards to a dark closet with an elevated pit to squat over. Bath time was a similar experience but first required a 5-minute walk to the borehole on the other side of the village followed by a carful act of trying to transport the bucket back to the washroom with minimal spillage.

Sitting on boxes writing lessons for the next day in Obodan.

Sitting on boxes writing lessons for the next day in Obodan.

This experience alone made others question our sanity. Why on earth would we subject ourselves to this? To volunteer? Yes, the first few years we spent our own money, or our parent’s money, to travel abroad and teach. Despite the personal sacrifices, it was the students who made the experience worthwhile. And it is the students who have kept us coming back.

Mohammed Abanga

Mohammed Abanga

After arriving in Accra earlier this week and traveling immediately to the University of Cape Coast, our current program host in Ghana, I ventured back to Nsawam to connect with our former students from 2009 and 2010. Many of our students from the first few years have graduated from high school, gotten jobs, gotten married, and or enrolled in universities. Still, about 15 students responded to a last minute Facebook message and came out to meet me in town and reconnect over dinner. Emmanuel Kemevor, also known as Ortega, has always been passionate about film and entertainment. So I was incredibly excited to learn that after working with us in 2011 to film experiments and student interviews to make a program highlight reel, he now works as a Video Editor at Extra Edge Multimedia Concept in Nsawam. Mohammad Abanga, is one of the strongest and hardest working people that I have ever met. If it wasn’t apparent on the soccer field where he labored for hours to help our team win games against local villages without water due to his religious obligations during Eid, he surely showed it in 2011 when he woke up at 3am every morning in to study for his National exams. We’ve always known Mohammed had what it takes to be successful, so we were not the slightest bit surprised to learn that he had enrolled in and just completed his first year a Takoradi Polytechnic where he is currently studying Electronics Engineering.


Emmanuel “Ortega” Kemevor

Ortega and Mohammed are just two of many success stories for ELiTE over the years. As we focus more on metrics and evaluation going forward, we expect to have extensive quantitative data to back up our students’ incredible stories.

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The final days in Mexico!

It’s almost the end of our SITE: Mexico Program. Where did time go?  The past 3 weeks have been incredible and an absolute success for all of us at ELiTE.  The program has of course had its challenges, from finding materials to translating course instructions and tutorials and getting all of the programs and computers to work, but we have a fantastic team on site and great support from our partners at INAOE.

At the end of week two we are already moving on to more difficult material and experiencing the technological and scientific curiosity of our students grow as they immerse in the chemistry, mechatronics, electronics and programming curriculum. This week our students wrote their first code for their very own word games using the raspberry pies. They learned about non-Newtonian fluids, calorimetry and have gained the basics of mechatronics preparing them to program their own robots during our last week!


We’ve had so much fun here in Mexico. It has been incredibly rewarding to spark up interest in science and technology and show our students that STEM is fun. Our volunteers have also been able to explore Tonanzintla and its local traditions, and venture off to visit the ancient wonders of the Pre-Columbian Americas at Teotihuacan and historic centers in Mexico City.  I am so proud of the successes of ELiTE’s first Mexico program and I can’t wait to see what the future brings!


P.S. Stay tuned for Chelsey’s first post from the Ghana SITE 2013!

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Large Millimeter Telescope Field Trip, July 17th, 2013

On July 17th, at our halfway mark, the ELiTE SITE: Mexico team took our students on a field trip to visit the Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT or Gran Telescopio Milimétrico http://www.lmtgtm.org). The LMT is the world´s largest single-dish steerable millimeter-wavelength telescope and is a joint venture between México and the US. It is the largest and most complex scientific instrument constructed in México designed for astronomical observations. At the LMT, out students learned about the science, engineering, and international collaborations required to make this technological wonder come to life. Also, many of our students experienced the phenomenon of snow for the first time!!

To reach the telescope, our students, ELiTE facilitators and INAOE staff set out in mini vans and trucks early in the morning for the two hour trip up to the telescope. This was the first time some of our students had left their hometown for any reason and for most, the first trip to a scientific site of such magnitude. The road trip itself was a great way for our students to bond, play games and enjoy the biodiversity and beautiful scenic drives of their country as we ascended approximately 4600 meters above sea level to where the telescope is located.

To our surprise, at our arrival we found the peak of the mountain covered with snow and heavy fog which made this field trip much more special for all of our students. For most, it was the very first time they saw snow and experienced cold weather. As we left the cars, they were jumping overjoyed, touching and playing with the snow and having their very first snowball fights! Our day was filled with surprises and unforgettable moments. We had hot drinks and typical tamales at the top of the mountain, toured the telescope and site and learned about its construction, current research and ongoing projects.

This day will go in the books as a highlight of our SITE: Mexico.  Our students were able to see for themselves a massive scientific instrument and relate the knowledge of the previous classes to its design, construction and current operation and had an absolute blast enjoying the biodiversity of their home country. Stay tuned for the rest of our program and find additional pictures and day to day updates through our Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/elite2009).


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Mexico: Half way mark

We are about half way through our SITE: Mexico program and it has been absolutely incredible. Our students have had the opportunity to work in groups to develop their problem solving and teamwork skills, have been taking a closer look into programming using the raspberry pis, made their own home-made batteries and made polymers in chemistry class! In addition to that, our students had the opportunity to learn about astrophysics and optics from INAOE scientists and professors and learned and saw all the exciting projects INAOE scientists are working on, ranging from cryogenic cooling techniques for radars to sea surveillance cameras for the Mexican marines and simulation equipment for the national air force.


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Our first program in Latin America: A reality

The entire ELiTE development team and most recently our group of volunteers has spent over a year figuring out every detail of making this dream a reality. As ELiTE, we have come a long way and continue to grow thanks to the rising support of those who believe in our mission and continue to step up to the challenge to help us bring technology, science and engineering education to new communities around the world. Our Summer Institute for Technology and Engineering (SITE) in Mexico has been a challenge in many dimensions but we are incredibly excited to start classes this upcoming Monday July 8, 2013.

SITE: Mexico will be our very first program in Spanish, and in a foreign language altogether. From developing the curricula, to fundraising, ordering materials, building relationships with the local community partners and recruiting volunteer facilitators and teachers for the program, we have spent countless hours preparing for the program to ensure its success. We have developed a robust 3 week schedule of interactive sessions, lectures and experiments that will immerse our students in chemistry, mechatronics, electronics and programming. Through these interactive sessions, the students will learn to think outside the box, develop problem solving skills and to apply scientific and technical concepts through hands-on experimentation. They will develop their own code for simple word games, create batteries and solenoids with house hold materials, build their own calorimeter and program their own robot!

In addition to the classes facilitated by the ELiTE local team, our students will also get a first-hand instruction from astrophysicists, engineers, scientists and professors at our host institution and partner at the “Instituto Nacional de Astrofísica, Óptica y Electronica” (INAOE- National International Institute of Astrophysics, Optics and Electronics). INAOE will provide astrophysics and optics lectures and hands on workshops for our students in addition to tour of their research facilities and a special visit to The Large Millimeter Telescope (largest of its kind in the world!).

We are incredibly grateful for our local partner and host, INAOE (http://www.inaoep.mx), for providing the facilities, resources and support making our first program in Latin America possible. We would also like to thank our SITE: Mexico program director Sam Bhattacharyya for all of his hard work and dedication to this program and for making it possible for ELiTE to reach new communities. We are also excited for Kiara, Leslie, Rosa, Ximena and Christian who will facilitate their first ELiTE SITE. We thank YOU for supporting us and following our journey. Stay tuned for the development of the program, pictures and day to day updates through our Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/elite2009).


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2013: Spring Forward!

It has been far too long since our last post. We have accomplished quite a bit since last summer, and we have a lot of exciting news to share with our blog community!

In August of 2012 (wow, almost a year already?) we facilitated two SITE:Ghana Programs. We returned to the campus of the University of Cape Coast for another summer, and initiated a new program in Koforidua at All Nations University. Our students and facilitators had a great time exploring ELiTE’s activities and projects.

UCC pic

Back in New York, Chelsey shared his views about the future of education at the October TEDx Columbia Engineering event. A full recap of our 2012 activities can be found in our winter newsletter.


The organization has once again risen to new heights in 2013. In February we were selected as one of thirty organizations from eighteen countries to receive a Google RISE Award. Not only have we been awarded financial support for our new Harlem programs, but we also gain access to the amazing Google and RISE communities. Our supporters in New York joined our celebrations for this prestigious award during the 1st annual ELiTE Winter Friend-raiser this past March. We look forward to sharing knowledge and learning new strategies for best practices with nonprofit leaders in STEM education and technical support through the Google NYC office. The program kicks off with the Google RISE Summit in London, U.K. in June of this summer, so look forward to more news from the ELiTE team!


We are also honored to announce that our co-founder and President, Chelsey Roebuck, has been selected as a finalist for the prestigious Echoing Green Black Male Achievement Fellowship. Chelsey joins a group of 52 other Echoing Green finalists from around the world who have made it through the rigorous selection process that saw almost 3,000 applicants in 2013.

Screen Shot 2013-05-01 at 9.33.36 PM

Our programs and curriculum development teams, lead by Clayton Dahlman and Sam Bhattacharyya, have been hard at work over the past few months preparing for our programs in Harlem and abroad. Although we will not be traveling to Jamaica or Tanzania in 2013 we are happy to launch IVTI: Mexico in July. IVTI, or Instituto de Verano de Tecnología e Ingeniería, is our first SITE program offered in a language other than English and will be held at the INAOE Research University in Tonantzintla, Puebla, Mexico.


Stay tuned over the coming weeks as we will share additional details about our new partnerships, summer programming, recap our spring programs in Harlem and Ghana, and provide details about our Black Male Achievement Initiative to begin in late 2013.

Thanks for reading!

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