In this Q&A session, we asked IB DP alumna, Dr. Elsie Effah Kaufmann, a few questions about her career in engineering and her time completing the Diploma Programme (DP).
Elsie reflects on her IB journey, highlighting the positive impact of the diverse student community at her school, UWC Atlantic College. She discusses the hands-on learning approach, as well as her development of valuable skills for navigating STEM fields.
Elsie also spoke with us about her professional goals and her work to encourage engineers of the future across Africa. She is a keen advocate for women and girls in STEM careers and has not allowed a lack of female representation in engineering discourage her from pursuing the career she loves.
You described your IB experience at Atlantic College as life changing – why was it life changing?
“I never could have imagined that I would have such an incredible experience. When I arrived, I was representing Ghana and I saw that there were 68 other countries represented. It was as if the entire globe had gathered in one place. The opportunities to learn from my colleagues and peers were just amazing. I felt like a kid in a candy store.
I ended up taking higher level physics, chemistry, and biology followed by standard level mathematics, English, and French. The teaching was completely different from anything I had experienced before. We learned about theory, but we were also encouraged to go out and explore and to design our own experiments.
The Theory of Knowledge course was particularly challenging for me at first. We were asked questions about issues and asked to form our own opinions about them. This was a life-changer for me because I had grown up with the idea that my responsibility as a student was to listen to the teacher and reproduce the information.
I was given the opportunity to express my own ideas, and someone was actually interested in hearing them.
Later, for my extended essay, I had the chance to conduct my own research in chemistry and was trusted to work independently in the lab. I speak about these opportunities with passion because they were truly life changing and made me who I am today.”
What skills do you think you gained and developed during your studies?
“I gained a sense of adventure and resilience throughout my IB experience. I learned to try new things even if it meant failing and I learned to persist when solving problems. Problem solving is important given we all live in different environments with different types of issues. We need to understand what is happening around us and learn to formulate questions that are relevant to different contexts. The ability to work together in a team and communicate ideas in a respectful and inclusive manner is absolutely necessary.
I also developed my analytical, critical, and independent thinking skills. I had the ability to define what I wanted to do and justify my actions and choices. Therefore, independence of thought played a large role in my honing of these skills.”
When you learn and you can use that knowledge to solve problems, you can literally change the world.
What would you say to any girls or young women who are considering a career in engineering and life sciences?
“Today, we have many examples of role models within the life sciences. However, when it comes to engineering, young women are still underrepresented. But that does not mean it is an impossible field to pursue. I use myself as an example all the time. It is not because we are not capable. Sometimes it is because we do not see enough of ourselves in these endeavours. My advice is to apply yourself and remember that nothing good comes easy. You will have to work hard and persist in your studies, but it will be so rewarding.”
Don’t let underrepresentation discourage you. It is possible for you to succeed in a career in engineering.
What are your goals and hopes for the future of STEM?
“I recently launched a foundation to promote STEM education on the African continent. Currently, I am working on a project involving students and teachers. We are trying to provide resources for teachers to teach practical skills to students who are not benefiting from the traditional educational system. My goal is to roll this out to cover the entire range of experiences, making sure they are relevant. I started in Ghana, but the issues and problems we see here are not limited to Ghana. I plan to move around and share what I have learned and extend this work to other places in Africa.
It is through engineering that we create innovators and problem solvers who will think about the world in ways we haven’t yet considered. We need to find ways to help students develop the confidence and technical competence they need to take on this important task. Engineering is going to continue to change the world.”
Elsie is a distinguished Ghanaian scholar who graduated from the DP in 1988 at the UWC Atlantic College. She went on to earn a bachelor’s, master’s and PhD in Bioengineering from the University of Pennsylvania. Today, she is a professional engineer and holds the role of the Dean of the School of Engineering Sciences at the University of Ghana. She also founded the Elsie Effah Kaufmann Foundation and moderates the National Science and Maths Quiz, a popular Ghanaian television program. As a dedicated STEM advocate, Elsie is passionate about sharing her knowledge and insights to enhance STEM education in Africa.