Why did I move to Ghana? – Heather Beem

Ever since she relocated from Boston to Ghana in 2016, she regularly get asked a variation on the following question: “Why did you uproot your life and promising career path in the US and move on your own to Africa? You got your Ph.D. from MIT — I’m sure you must have had other options.”

Her answer is

“Well, it certainly wasn’t my plan from the beginning! I knew embarrassingly little about Africa beforehand. I was getting attention around my work (My Ph.D. research is on exhibit at the MIT Museum- do visit if you’re in Boston!), and I did have job offers. But God challenged me to adopt a new framework for viewing the world and my role in it.”

The longer answer is multi-faceted, drawing from many aspects of her life experiences, and it continues to evolve along with the weaving of her life story. She can point to 4 main stages in her journey to/through/with Africa so far, and she’d love to take you through each of them.

Born and raised in a mixed-race family in small-town America, she has long cultivated a curiosity about the world, cultures, and the different perspectives that people hold. In 2008, counter to what she and those around her thought was possible, she was accepted into a Ph.D. program at MIT.

Her task was to develop cutting-edge robotic technologies, leveraging principles in fluid mechanics. She learned a considerable amount academically, but her time at MIT was formative along multiple other dimensions as well:

  1. She found herself drawn to the “maker” ethos that permeates MIT’s labs, hallways, and conversations. Everywhere she turned her head, people were building things, experimenting, trying to solve problems. She had, of course, been engaged in the STEM disciplines prior to arriving, but this felt different. This was a mindset, a let’s-build-it attitude, a culture that dominated. The focus was never on the resources (just use whatever you can get your hands on) — it was on solving problems.
  1. My understanding of what an engineer can do broadened in scope. She met people who were using their technical skills to solve real problems that directly impacted people globally. In particular, she was drawn to the work at MIT’s D-Lab, a program that equips students to co-create engineering solutions to challenges faced in rural communities internationally. In between running fluid mechanics experiments for her thesis research, she volunteered to mentor student teams and co-instruct classes at D-Lab.
  1. She also connected with an amazingly earnest community of people following Christ, and God used them to help her sharpen her identity as a child of His. Through this process, she slowly began to realize God’s desire that we pursue things other than our own advancement (a tough message to internalize as someone who worked her way to the top of the available academic ladders).

Philippians 2:3–4 “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

These things converged in her mind to form new lines of curiosity and she asked herself:

Is it possible to create a richly experiential learning environment (like the ethos she was experiencing at MIT) for students in contexts where material resources appear to be limited?

What is life in Africa really like?

In 2011, she got the chance to explore these lines of curiosity firsthand. She and a few other MIT students had reached out to various schools in Africa, and the ones we most easily connected with were in Ghana — thanks to D-Lab’s strong relationships here.

She left her research lab for a few weeks and traveled to Takoradi Technical Institute, home of Africa’s first Fab Lab. In a matter of days, she and the students came out with a wind turbine design made from simple, available materials. It was a thoroughly engaging experience, and she’s still in touch with the students and staff now.

One key takeaway for her was an internalization of the scope of the problem. Whatever statistics she had read up until then became real for her. If hundreds of millions of children around the world have no platform to cultivate their inherent curiosity and potential, how can we possibly make progress as a global community?

She had known that she was fortunate to be among the select few that was accepted into MIT, but at this point, She realized that she was an extreme outlier in the global system.

The overwhelming majority of students around the world spend years of their lives in school, without any engagement in projects, experiments, or hands-on inquiry.

At the individual level, it is demoralizing to be suppressed in that manner. At the national level, there is no hope for sustained economic development until the youth are able to develop their technical competencies.

She became convicted of the severity of the global STEM education challenge and its foundational role in enabling dignity and economic development.

Isaiah 58:6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?”

Back on campus, she decided that one thing she could do was to mobilize the MIT community to take the global STEM education challenge more seriously. She worked with a team to co-found D-Lab: Education, a course which they first ran in 2013 and continues to this day.

It has equipped dozens of students to meaningfully co-create education-based solutions with communities across the Global South.

As she worked through the latter half of her PhD studies, she used her free time to continue communicating with people on the ground in Ghana. As a solution-oriented person, she yearned to identify the best way they could help students sustainably gain exposure and access to STEM.

She realized that what she really hoped to see was for practical education to become the new normal for students in Ghana- and the rest of Africa.

“My desire was for the bar to be raised for students on a large scale. In this period, it also became clear that working with teachers would be the most effective and sustained way to change teaching and learning norms.”

Directly after submitting her thesis in 2014, she flew to Accra to run a pilot teacher training. Leveraging the same types of low-cost, locally-available resources, this time her focus was on the teachers. The response was overwhelmingly positive.

No matter which angle she probed from, the feedback was always along the lines of “This is what we need! Teachers need support, and they need low-cost ways of teaching science practically”. The Practical Education Network (PEN) was birthed.

Over the next 1.5 years, she shuttled back and forth between Boston and Accra, attempting to live in both worlds. In Ghana, the demand for PEN’s training was growing rapidly.

Doors in government were opening, participants from the first training evolved into PEN Master Trainers who voluntarily ran workshops on their own, and the numbers of teachers they reached grew an order of magnitude a year. She felt alive in the field!

Back in the US, in late 2015, she attended the Urbana Missions Conference, an event where thousands of students are exposed to global mission opportunities and invited to enter in.

It was clear to her that she didn’t need to be presented an opportunity- there was one in her hands. And she didn’t need to be convinced – there was an unmet need in the world with a solution she could taste and see.

Being at the conference did, however, force her to make a commitment. All participants were challenged to commit to something, whether “short-term” or “long-term”.

As she fervently reached out to God, it became clear in her heart that the main thing standing between that moment and the potential change in the world that she visualized, was her.

If she committed to move to Ghana “long-term” and fully pursue PEN’s vision, then God could use her to help transform lives. If she had something to offer, then she had to give it a try.

1 Peter 4:10 “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”

This commitment required sacrifice in nearly every aspect of her life. She had an amazing community of close friends, including housemates who she had lived with for 6+ years.

She had various career opportunities in front of her, all of which provided financial security and job titles that lend themselves to self-interpretation by family members.

She had worked hard through the tumultuous Ph.D. program to achieve research success, and media were approaching her to recognize and celebrate the discoveries. But those same achievements would carry minimal value in this new context.

By any of the world’s measures of success, this decision did not make sense. It required her to let go of things she had laboured to build.

She regularly had conversations with confused and concerned people, to whom she couldn’t say much beyond “No — I don’t know how long I’ll be there or what this really means for my future.” But she knew that God had implanted something in her.

Matthew 6:33–34 “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

She recognized the call on her life to do this work, which sits at a point where the world’s needs and her skills and desires land. She understood that the first step was to obey, and She knew that guidance would come for the next ones.

She’s deep into the mission at this point. She has sacrificed things and gained many more. The work has impacted lives and her desire is that it continues to grow much bigger than she is. As she seeks God’s guidance, she feels Him challenging her to enter a stage of Faith.

She need to trust that this vision He has placed in her mind and heart is something that He will bring to fruition. It is a really tough challenge she’s stepped into — launching a startup is difficult, let alone one in education, in Africa, and which requires systems-level change.

“Please pray for me to grow in faith! I strongly sense that as I embrace this chapter of personal learning, God will unleash PEN into our next phase of growth, and there will be more stages of the story to share.”

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