George Boateng ’16 Th’17: Engineering for Social Change

George Boateng ’16, TH’17 was awarded the 2018 Martin Luther King Social Justice Award in Emerging Leadership. We caught up with George and asked him about his experience as a leader, what led him to Dartmouth, and his dreams for the future.

Can you tell us about your background, about the journey that led you to study at Thayer, and why you’re passionate about service?

I grew up in a small fishing town along the coast of Ghana called Winneba. No one in my community or immediate family studied Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects; my aspiration to become an inventor was hanging in the balance! This situation was exacerbated by Ghana’s theoretical educational system, which promoted rote learning and was devoid of hands-on experiences and real-life applications.

However, everything changed in middle school after one of my family’s holiday trips to visit my grandmother in Accra, Ghana’s capital city. At my grandmother’s house, I found some science encyclopedias in her library that were filled with all kinds of science experiments. I was fascinated and began reading them, and then proceeded to take the whole set back home to Winneba. The more I read, the more I became confident that I too could be an inventor. I shared my newfound knowledge by getting friends together to perform the science experiments in the encyclopedias. My excitement about hands-on scientific-learning continued through high school when I built a portable clothes-drying machine to combat thieves who were stealing my clothing anytime they were hung outside to dry. My friend and I then started a team to whom we taught basic electronics and with whom we worked on various science projects, such as creating a dishwasher in order to solve the problem of our school pantry’s unhygienic process of cleaning dishes.

After high school, I got admission to study Electrical Engineering at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana. However, I was bent on not continuing with Ghana’s theoretical educational system through college. I yearned to study outside Ghana where I could get a hands-on education so I took a risk and I declined my admission offer. I took a gap year and applied to colleges in the U.S. by partaking in a program at the U.S. Embassy in Ghana called the Competitive Colleges Club through which a group of recent high school graduates were helped throughout the application process. I eventually got into Dartmouth—on my birthday! I was attracted to Dartmouth by the opportunity to receive a liberal arts and hands-on Engineering education as well as the myriad of opportunities it offered.

At Dartmouth, my education made me hyper-aware of how broken the Ghanaian educational system is—a problem faced by several other African countries. I resolved to use every resource I was privileged to have to empower young Ghanaians and Africans to gain practical STEM skills and use them to solve problems in their communities. I obtained grants from Dartmouth and along with a team of friends, started a nonprofit, Nsesa Foundation to change the status quo and cause a paradigm shift. I lead Nsesa Foundation as the president to achieve our vision—to spur an “Innovation Revolution” in Africa—a movement in which the youth across the length and breadth of Africa are developing innovative solutions to problems in their communities using STEM.

Tell us about how you are creating impact with your organization?

To achieve our vision, we are raising the next generation of African innovators through our 3 programs: Project iSWEST (Innovating Solutions with Engineering, Science & Technology), STEM WOW (STEM Woman of the Week) and SuaCode.

Project iSWEST which is modeled after Dartmouth’s intro to Engineering class (ENGS 21) is an annual 3-week intensive innovation boot-camp for high school students in Ghana during which participants are given hands-on STEM skills, and mentored to develop solutions to real-life problems in critical areas in Africa such as Agriculture. We’ve run four editions since 2013 and impacted more than 100 students directly through the program: our students have developed 10 team projects that have addressed problems in Ghana, started two entrepreneurial ventures and won 10 major national awards for their ventures. We will be running our fifth edition of Project iSWEST this summer in two of Ghana’s 10 regions, impacting more than double the number of students from last year!

STEM WOW seeks to bridge Africa’s gender gap in STEM by inspiring the next generation of female African Innovators, Scientists, Engineers and STEM Educators. Over eight weeks in 2015, my team celebrated eight inspirational Ghanaian women doing amazing work in STEM and reached over 30,000 people during the course of the project via Facebook. STEM WOW is running again starting this month (January 2018) for six months during which 24 inspirational African women will be celebrated!

SuaCode is our ambitious program to teach coding to millions across Africa by taking advantage of the proliferation of smartphones in Africa. SuaCode is an online coding course (modeled after my introduction to programming class: CS1) that has been optimized for delivery on smartphones with limited Internet access. Through SuaCode, we will bring coding skills within arm’s reach of millions across Africa, literally into their palms, thereby, breaking the coding barrier in Africa and bridging its digital divide.

How did your Dartmouth experience help in creating this impact?

My Dartmouth experience has been an integral part of the impact my organization has created over the past 5 years. As I mentioned earlier, two of our programs are modeled after my introductory Engineering and Computer Science classes: ENGS 21 and CS 1 respectively. I’ve received grants from the Thayer School of Engineering, Neukom Institute, Institute for Security, Technology, and Society and E.E. Just Program. I’ve had some alumni members donate equipment, such as laptops, for my program and others serve as mentors to our students. Also, I honed my leadership, communication, and entrepreneurial skills through my Writing 2-3 class and participating in several programs by the Tuck School Business, Dickey Center, Rockefeller Center, Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network, and DALI Lab. There are so many people—professors, staff, and students—that have poured into my life throughout this journey, for which I’m truly grateful!

What are your future plans?

Over the next decade of my life, I yearn to significantly impact the lives of people through my research as a scientist and engineer, and through my nonprofit as a social entrepreneur and educator. On the research front, I will be starting a PhD program later this year at ETH Zurich in Switzerland. I will be working at the Center for Digital Health Interventions on a project on multimodal emotion recognition, which entails applying machine learning techniques on data from smartphones and smartwatches to infer a person’s emotions. After my PhD, I would like to continue working at the intersection of applied machine learning and mobile health in both academia and industry.

On the nonprofit front, over the next 5-10 years, my team plans to be running Project iSWEST in all the 10 regions in Ghana and all the five regions of the African continent. We hope to train and mentor over 10,000 students to develop projects addressing problems in different parts of the African continent. Through SuaCode, we hope to teach over 1 million people across the African continent how to code. With STEM WOW, we hope to reach millions of girls and young African women with these powerful and inspirational stories both digitally and through the compilation of these stories into books.

My ultimate life goal is to leave my footprints in the sands of time by leaving the world much better than I found it. I yearn to shape a society in which young Africans grow up believing that they can create the next big innovation or invention, a society in which my two nieces—currently aged 2 and 6—will grow up believing not only that they can be scientists and engineers, but the very best the world has ever had!