Noella Akuzwe’s Playful Engineering

Back in Rwanda this summer, the rising junior helped young students flex their STEM skills through fun, visionary projects

Computer science major Noella Akuzwe, A25, grew up in Kigali, Rwanda. This summer, she was back, working on an event to inspire Rwandan students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.

The exhibit and competition, organized by the Rwanda Makerspace Consortium in collaboration with Tufts’ Center for Engineering Education and Outreach (CEEO) and funded by a Lego Foundation grant, involved 20 schools and hundreds of students. As one of two Tufts undergrads among the CEEO staff on the ground in June, Akuzwe helped the young students and teachers prepare for the competition, which showcased ideas on how to build green communities.

The CEEO helms the Playful Engineering-Based Learning project, which supports organizations in encouraging students to explore creative problem-solving through STEM. This approach resonates with Akuzwe.

What does “playful engineering” mean?

Playful engineering allows students to apply what they learn to make a fun project.

Each school we worked with has a makerspace, a place where students and teachers gather to work on projects that apply their knowledge with the goal of solving a certain problem, or just for fun. Here, they used the coding platform Arduinos, as well as boxes, Styrofoam, and other recycled materials that would have otherwise been thrown away. 

Ideally, it’s nice if there’s a room solely dedicated to making. However, some students and teachers showed us that making can still happen without a specific room. I learned from them that the most important aspect of making and makerspaces is the people and their passion.

Why was this project so meaningful for you?

The theme was the “Green Village”: It was all about designing a village and incorporating solutions related to keeping the environment clean.

For example, one project was a smart home hub. They built a small village of houses from cardboard and Styrofoam. They considered problems such as shortage of land due to agriculture and poor land usage, and pollution of the environment. To address the land shortage, they made low-rise buildings with a gardening area on the rooftop. This way, there would be less cutting of trees to build more houses and more land left for natural habitats. Additionally, they had a small turbine for hydro energy. The biggest house model, their hub, controlled power distribution throughout the whole village.

In all, I visited about seven high schools and one primary school. The students were so amazing. They are real engineers. They talked to us about the problems they identified in their own communities, and solutions, which is very inspiring. It reminded me of the passion you have when you’re young.

What excites you about this project?

I got involved because one of my dreams before coming to Tufts was creating something tech-related and giving back to my community. I know that a lot of students in Rwanda, especially in public schools, don’t get the opportunity to apply what they learn in a fun way. It felt like I was doing something very important and maybe life-changing for these students.

How will you apply this passion to your career someday?

One of my longtime dreams is to start a company in Rwanda that involves technological devices, like phones or laptops, because I know that there aren’t a lot of Made in Rwanda products that are technological.

It’s so important, because Rwanda, as a developing country, now places great importance on manufacturing its own products and hopefully increasing its level of output. I’d like to create more job opportunities for people there.

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