From arts to sciences: Once a teacher, always a teacher

Kenyangi discusses an aspect in mechanics with some of the mechanical students. Photo/Promise Twinamukye.

What you need to know:

  • Mellon Kenyangi is a qualified teacher yet, she never considered teaching her calling. However, because she loves talking to people, destiny still took her to teaching. Right now, Mama Bear is helping children embrace STEM education and champion a generation that thinks and works differently.

Despite doing education at the university, Mellon Kenyangi, also known as Mama Bear, did not think of going to class, and teaching students was her dream job.
“Since it was not my choice, I did not teach. I had to learn something that would take me to where my passion was, which was talking to people, though I was not sure of which category it would be,” she says.
She got her first job as a customer service provider at Airtel, a telecom company. She enjoyed every bit of it. During this time, she enrolled in courses that were in line with handling customers and relationship management at the Uganda Management Institute (UMI).

She later crossed over to banking, where she did sales and marketing for four years until she quit to take care of her sick child, who needed her attention most of the time. When her situation improved, she decided to go back into the job market, so she started applying. She had no luck with that.
“I was unemployed for about five years. Wherever I applied, I would get excuses that I was overqualified for what I was applying for. I had scattered experiences in marketing, sales and customer relations,” she says.
She needed something to do. Employment was not going to come in anytime soon.

In 2017, she started a skill hub with just one camera, a 4K that she got from a German friend. Here, she taught videography, editing, social media marketing, and management, along with doing documentaries for clients.
“In the different courses I had joined at UMI, I learned how to use Photoshop. I had friends who worked on TV, and we would go to the studio together. There, I would learn anything I laid my eyes on. Editing videos, name it.”
But business was slow. The effect was not so hard since they had no office to pay rent. When she got a documentary gig, she would call in friends, and after finishing the project, everyone would go their own way. She turned to driving an Uber to make ends meet.

Turning point
During her time as an Uber driver, Kenyangi met a client who turned her life around.
Their 25-minute’ drive from the airport to his apartment would later see her embracing robotics, a niche she had not thought she would do.

“My client, I learned, was working with the World Bank and a specialist in technical vocation education. I shared with him my experience, and he kept wondering why I was driving an Uber with my qualifications,” she recalls.
Because she was engaging, the gentleman decided to help her find something she would enjoy doing. He asked her what she would like to do, and she said she had a skilling hub that had no office.

“He flew back a week later (I had become his personal driver), and I drove him for three more months. He would give me a lot of money to drop somewhere, which he later revealed was to test my integrity,” he recalls.
After the three months, he gave her a start-up capital of $10, 000 (about 37 million) and gave her an idea of technical vocation education, where he said he saw potential.

A week later, he sent her a write-up of Young Engineers, a franchise from Isreal that already had a representative in Uganda.
It is a part of the worldwide Young Engineers educational enrichment programme founded in 2008 in Israel. The African School of Innovations Science and Technology (ASIST) LTD is responsible for running it in Uganda.

Joining young engineers
“I decided to get shares and started working with them. The partnership did not work out, and after six months, I decided to work for them as their marketing person,” she says.

In the six years she worked for Young Engineers, she dealt with children, schools, and parents. Because one cannot market what one does not know, Kenyangi took advantage of Coursera and got a certificate in artificial intelligence, computer science, electronics, and machine learning free of charge.

She also looked at what was hard for the franchise to implement. She would later decide to do something more liberal if she were to reach out to more children if she tried to make her own programme, which she intended to do.
“I started reading about different STEM and robotic companies. What they have, what they offer, how I can incorporate that in Uganda, how I can sustainably run my project,” she says.

In all companies, she decided to stick with World Robot Olympiad and First Lego League, an American not-for-profit that partners with the Lego Foundation and runs yearly competitions.
As the children progress in the competitions, they are positioned to have exchange programmes and scholarships and are positioned to be enrolled in STEM colleges.

Kenyangi oversees some of the students building a heavy lifter machine prototype in class. Photos/ Promise Twinamukye.

“That was a perfect opportunity to do a project that would bring together children from private schools and public schools and position them for international opportunities,” she says.
During her work at Young Engineers, she was able to assist a team that represented Uganda at the 2023 VEX Robotics World Championship, presented by the Northrop Grumman Foundation in Dallas, Texas, USA.

Next-gen innovators
The programme exposes children to concepts of science, technology, economics, mathematics, robotics, machine learning using Legos, and Adruino, a platform that has microcontroller kits for building digital devices.
Since there was First Lego League’s support through competitions, she would be able to register children and attach them to a team number that kept track of their progress.

By the time they are 14 (if they started the programme early), they are already qualified to have mentors from around the globe.
“I was able to solicit and source funding for the children who are not able to afford to pay for a session (underprivileged). For children who are able to pay Shs20,000 for a lesson, I can use that money to pay the teachers and to keep the programme running,” she says.

A shot for the olympiad
“In February 2023, I started my journey as the first Lego lead.”
By April 2023, Kenyangi had already had enough children to train, and their parents were in support. She started preparing a team for a competition in June.

“By June, we were ready for the competition. And in September, my team of 15 children (divided into five teams) represented South Africa in the World Robot Olympiad,” he says.
Two teams (senior and junior) emerged as winners in the category of future innovators. The children had the potential; they just lacked exposure to learn and build themselves. Her dream was getting rooted.
“They brought home a gold medal and a trophy under the category of future innovators. This category is purely mechanics and electronics, a project that is done from scratch,” she says.

After the win, the two teams have ongoing prototype projects. The senior team is building a robot that manages humidity and temperature in data rooms. They are working on expanding it so that we can manage any humidity and temperature on anything, be it soil, crops, or storage facilities.
The junior team is building a robot that will help in lifting heavy material to reduce labour.

These are issues they notice in the community and start looking for solutions to reduce labour and energy.
“While they are still doing prototypes, we are hopeful that next year will bring bigger innovations. My other team that was doing pure robotics came in the fifth and sixth positions and are now also doing different prototypes like a street sweeper, which saves time and energy,” she says.

The national competition in Uganda
“For the first time ever in Uganda, we are going to have a national robotics competition in December. I am excited about it because we have so many stakeholders doing robotics. First Lego League is going to provide a platform for children in and out of schools,” she excitedly reveals.
As long as children are doing STEM education and components of robotics, they can register for the competition. They are only guided so that they are able to compete favourably.

STEM education
STEM subjects give one an opportunity to try and fail and think of another way to solve issues, which cannot be done when a mind is focused on passing exams.
This is because the education at hand gives room to read answers and pass, not room to find solutions to a problem targeting the community.
“Teamwork is a core value generated in STEM education, which thrives in inclusion, collaboration, and creating impact in families and communities,” she says.
This brings together different children from different backgrounds on projects and teams that will help them excel in the same job markets anywhere in the world.

The satisfaction
The children are thriving with their projects with a vision, and yet they are in school.
My wish is for each Ugandan to embrace STEM education wherever it is offered. At the end of the day, we need a transformed community. We need a transformed generation technologically positioned for a better economy.

Learning never ends
Mama Bear also has an AI, machine learning, robotics, and Python programming certificate from STEMpedia, India; Enhancing Classrooms with Coding, AI, and Robotics from the same (both in 2023); and is doing an ongoing artificial intelligence education for teachers at Macquarie University.