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A STEM in the right direction / Drogheda girls celebrate taking on tech

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Rachael Akano, Evelyn Nomayo of Phase Innovate, Margaret Akano, and Joy Ejekwe. Photo Credit: Kathy Gilroy-Barry.

Rachael and Margaret Akano and Joy Njekwe are world champions. Announced as winners in the senior girls’ division at the 2020 Technovation Girls competition, part of the virtual 2020 edition of the Technovation World Summit, their app Memory Haven saw off entries from the world over to claim top prize.

Their mentor Evelyn Nomayo is a champion too, someone who is dedicated to championing under represented communities in technology fields. A native of Drogheda and a current PhD research fellow at Trinity College, Evelyn is the founder of Phase Innovate, a non-profit organisation with that exact goal in mind.

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Her teams win in last week’s competition is justification of her efforts and just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to work being done in schools and outside of them, locally and beyond, to encourage more women of colour to move into a field dominated by men and lacking in racial diversity. Evelyn works by providing mentorship and has built a strong relationship with schools.

“Phase Innovate is a non-profit organisation and we try to bridge the gender and racial gap in tech fields. We provide technology and education to under represented communities. In tech fields, that is women and people of colour. They are very under represented,” she explains to LouthNow.ie.

Every year, she goes to schools locally, regionally and beyond too. Last year, her programmes ran in schools in Cork but those kind of trips were curtailed this year as Covid-19 locked down most of the country.

“A project is 12 weeks long, it’s not a one-off workshop. They learn how to code but they also learn how to pitch, how to speak and create a business also. Some schools don’t take it seriously in my opinion. They aren’t really pushing for it. Some girls drop out along the way, they say it’s too much. Its one of those things.

Many schools do see their role in promoting tech to under represented groups as an important one. And so do social enterprises such as The Mill in Drogheda, where Evelyn mentors students who participate outside of a school-hosted programme. “Breanndan Casey is  superstar. He’s been so helpful.”

Lockdown has meant that most of the mentoring in 2020 has been conduced via WhatsApp, Evelyn explains, but that did not deter local students Margaret and Rachael Akano – who attend Sacred Heart Secondary School in the town – and Joy Ejekwe who goes to Greenhills. Their app Memory Haven was the big winner last week.

If you have yet to see the video of the moment the girls found out they had won the prestigious award, it is below and is guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

“They get girls from all over the world to come up with a project that solves a social project in their community. That is what it is all about,” Evelyn says of Technovation Girls. “We only got to the quarter finals last year but this year was different. I actually mentored six teams this year, four of them got to the semi-finals. One school that I mentored that got to the semi-finals was Ballymakenny College.

This year, 5,400 students from 62 countries worldwide created more than 1,500 mobile apps addressing problems such as climate change and even the Covid-19 pandemic. Evelyn’s teenage team focused on dementia, dating back to last year when the idea was first conceived.

“It’s an app that promotes the independence of people who challenging memory losses, to support such families and caregivers. That’s what the app addresses.

Working with the talented group on the app proved a very personal experience for Evelyn, who lost her mother to dementia in the Spring.

“That’s what made us focus on that and the research that we made. From time to time, people who have dementia get agitated. Music has a calming effect. That’s why we incorporated a feature that creates music and video playlists on the fly based on users emotions.

“The Reach Out feature allows users to reach out to friends, doctors, GPs and family members. They don’t even have to type in the number. They just press it. You can also book an appointment with a GP, a video call, if that’s what they want.”

The Memory Haven app also has a feature called Memory Gain which is all about assisting users with testing their cognitive ability. It also includes reminder and alarm functions for such things as taking medication.

“I started working with one of the girls for the BT competition. We had this in the pipeline last year. When my Mum died, we said we do more research and we decided to submit it for the international competition.”

The local girls saw off competition in the senior division from Eunomia, by a team from New Zealand, which is a mobile game that teaches about politics; RecycleRight, from the US, an iOS application that helps prevent waste contamination by facilitating and simplifying the recycling process; Goal Shadowing, which pairs children with similar career goals – one from an underserved community with a child who is privileged; and Mappid, from Brazil, a social app which aims to help keep women and the LGBTQ+ community safe from dangerous or uncomfortable situations.

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