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Building a dream: UNF alum brings STEM education to Ghana

Girls for Africa
Step by step, a group of eager young students work their way through a series of challenging math problems. Every part of the process is unfolding on an interactive whiteboard projecting from the front wall of the classroom. The instructor coaches the students through the correct formula as they follow along, either by watching the screen in front of them or focusing on the tablet computers on their desks.

As far as classrooms go, this one would rank at the top of any United States school district when it comes to technology integration. The only difference is this one is separated from the American mainland by more than 6,000 miles — and a wide expanse of the Atlantic Ocean.

The Haven of Hope Children’s Home and Academy in Accra, Ghana used to be a struggling school ensconced in a region of crushing poverty. Thanks to the outstanding efforts of a distinguished University of North Florida alumnus and a cadre of undergraduate and graduate student volunteers, the academy is now a shining beacon of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education for a developing nation.

Myron Pincomb, a 1995 UNF graduate, established the nonprofit Girls For Africa in 2011. He coined the name of the group as a reference to his three daughters’ desires to put actions to words and do something truly extraordinary for a community in need. Through donations and business support, the initial phase of Girls For Africa led to the investment of about $200,000 into the academy located outside Ghana’s capital city. Pincomb, along with many UNF student interns and volunteers, travelled to the site in 2013 to outfit the classrooms with a suite of cutting-edge educational equipment, train the teaching staff and improve the academy’s on-site amenities. The ultimate goal is to craft a world-class STEM academy for kindergarten through ninth graders that could support up to 1,000 students.

“The students at the school are being exposed to a level of education that’s so far beyond what they would have access to that it’s not even comparable,” Pincomb said. “Before we arrived, their building didn't have any sides on it. Now, the school is comparable to or better than a lot of schools in the States.”

Pincomb is no stranger to giving back. The owner of his own Jacksonville-based business consulting group, he was appointed to the UNF Board of Trustees in 2011 by Florida Gov. Rick Scott. He also made a generous contribution to the University as a part of The Power of Transformation campaign. He said his wife, Amanda, planted the seed of an idea for Girls For Africa about three years ago. A former teacher with a commitment to education, she suggested that they should bring a state-of-the-art school to a community that truly needed one. Accra, Ghana fit that criterion. The West African nation has experienced unprecedented economic and population growth in the past decade, but the educational system hasn’t exactly kept pace. Also, Ghana is diplomatically friendly with the United States, making it an accommodating locale for American visitors.

Pincomb and his wife began laying the groundwork for Girls For Africa’s Ghanaian relationship in 2012 by visiting a number of potential sites capable of supporting a sprawling educational facility. They settled on a location about 90 miles northwest of Accra operated by the Haven of Hope Children’s Home and Academy. The academy at the time was home to more than 60 orphans and homeless children and educated about 250 students in total, many hailing from the impoverished villages surrounding the school.

Once a location was settled upon, Pincomb, with the help of JAXPORT, began shipping building supplies and equipment to prepare for the renovation of the facility and the update of the classroom’s technological offerings. Yasmine Bakhsheshi, a UNF senior sociology major, was chosen for a Girls For Africa internship opportunity in late 2012 and helped coordinate social media initiatives for the nonprofit leading up to the trip. That temporary post soon expanded beyond even her wildest dreams. Bakhsheshi was chosen to join the group on the trip overseas and was even offered a paid position with the Pincomb Group once she returned to the U.S.

“One minute, I was helping to plan a fundraiser, and the next I was packing for Ghana,” Bakhsheshi said. “When I came back, I had a job and a ton of amazing stories.”

For that initial travel phase in August 2013, Bakhsheshi joined a team of more than 20 students, friends and workers who journeyed to Accra to get the academy running smoothly using their own unique skillsets. Hunter Hayden, a 2008 UNF construction management graduate and current M.B.A. student, led a crew of some of the more construction-savvy travelers. They were tasked with improving the academy’s gutters and primitive drainage system. Despite his strong undergraduate training and on-the-job work experiences, he called the work a definite learning process. Building an integrated drainage system halfway across the world was a bit more difficult in reality than it seemed during the planning phase.

“I learned a lot about trial-and-error working on the gutters on that trip,” Hayden said with a chuckle, recalling some of the early challenges for the construction team. “During the nine days I was there, I worked really hard out in the sun, had some good laughs and made professional relationships that returned with me to America. I left with the knowledge that we did a good thing for the people of Accra and came back with a partner for my latest business start-up. I’d call that a win-win.”

Most of the workers remained in Accra for 14 days, helping to outfit the classrooms and train the teachers. Pincomb said a pair of American instructors remained in Ghana to help the local teachers with integrating STEM curriculum tools. These directors live on the property and oversee the 70 students from the local orphanage who also reside at the academy full time. Now boasting more than 400 students, the school has grown tremendously since Girls For Africa became involved with the formerly struggling academy. However, Pincomb said there is still a long way to go to reach his vision of 1,000 students.

The next phase seeks to continue the life-changing work that began the previous year with the acquisition of a school bus, the improvement of the facility’s water and septic systems and the construction of four additional bathrooms, among other tasks. He estimated that work would cost about $21,000. Once the academy is complete, Pincomb said he’ll work to formalize the construction process and package it so that other facilities across the globe can be retrofit into top-of-the-line STEM academies. He views the Girls For Africa model as entirely portable and adaptable for different cultural and educational environments.

“STEM is where the jobs are, especially in developing countries,” Pincomb said. “These students are learning transferable skills that will get them ahead in life. And workers like that can jumpstart the economy for a country. I’ve been so inspired by the students and volunteers who I’ve met through this process. This is truly one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.”