Who says a 20-year old can’t transform Peruvian education?

an interview with Giuliana Huerta-Mercado

Giuliana Huerta-Mercado has been in the media a lot this summer. But of all the interviews she’s done, this one with Jeff Sorensen is her favorite so far!

(We can only assume.)


I met Giuliana last November, shortly after the first workshop for our annual Social Innovation Challenge. She thought it was too late to join optiMize until one of our peer mentors informed her that anyone can join optiMize at any time! Why not her?

She attended our next event, and I’m so glad she did. She has become a great friend, an inspiration to all of us, and a supportive member of our optiMize Community.

Giuliana is in Peru this summer working full-time as an optiMize Fellow, and she took some time to talk with me about her project, education’s role in society, and our generation’s hope for the future.

Jeff: Tell me a bit about yourself and your project, United Technologies for Kids (UTK).

Giuliana: Of course! My name is Giuliana and I am a Peruvian student at the University of Michigan. I’m majoring in Economics with a focus on development economics and minoring in Science Technology and Society.

As an optiMize Fellow, I’m building UTK, a nonprofit I founded that promotes science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education in high schools in developing countries. Our goal is to increase the interest in science and engineering and improve the ratio of high school graduates that pursue majors in STEM.

We work toward this goal by implementing STEM Labs in high schools. To do this, we partner with student organizations at Michigan and UC Berkeley. College students travel to Peru and Colombia to be instructors and help high schoolers develop hands-on projects. So far we have implemented Labs in 8 schools and benefited more than 250 students!

J: What are some examples of the projects the students create?

G: We encourage students to build tech projects with social impact. Some of my favorites are: an automated irrigation system (highly useful for low income farmers!), a mouse for a quadriplegic girl, a prosthetic hand, a water contamination detector, and a landslide detector. Peru suffered seven terrible landslides on summer due to “El Niño Costero”, so this last one feels particularly relevant.

J: I’m almost speechless. It’s incredible that these students with no previous STEM experience can so quickly start creating projects that take on pressing issues like climate change in Peru.

G: Yes!! They amaze me every time. Their creativity has no limits and they are super conscious about solving the world’s problems.

J: What’s your vision for what UTK can become?

G: I see UTK helping more than 200 schools and bringing STEM education to the poorest regions of Peru. I see us identifying kids with high potential and a passion for STEM and connecting them with sponsors who can give them the opportunity to study in the best universities. I hope they’ll gain as much knowledge and experience as they can so when they graduate they can give back to their communities in really meaningful ways.

Our results are really promising so far. 96% of participants say that UTK’s STEM Lab program increased their interest in science and/or engineering. And 26% even changed career preference to STEM related majors!

J: I’m inspired! But not everyone responds so positively… you recently told me about a newspaper reporter who accused you of being “too idealistic.” I’ve faced the same accusation. What do you say to this?

G: I’d say that it is not idealism. It doesn’t just stay as an idea — more and more people from our generation are taking action and working towards a common goal of solving social problems with pragmatic approaches.

By 2050, 5 of the top 10 world economies will be countries that are currently developing, but at the same time the inequality gap will widely increase. If our generation does not take a lead and engage seriously to solve problems like inequality, we will be doomed to social conflict and political instability. So being “idealistic” is the only solution I think we have.
J: I’ve started replying, “What’s the alternative?” Like, do we just give in to pessimism and doom the future of life on Earth?

G: I like that! I’ll have that in mind for next time.

J: Getting back to your vision. For a lot of people, it feels intimidating to start working toward an idea that’s so big.

G: Yes, sometimes I also feel intimidated by my vision haha!

J: I know what you mean! And the truth is, everything starts with taking small steps. Can you tell me a bit about how you got started with UTK?

G: Since I was in middle school I had this big dream about solving the education problem in my country because I think it is the seed of tons of other social problems. So I always knew I wanted to action, I just didn’t know how. At the same time, I’ve always loved science and doing hands-on projects even though practical education was not promoted in my school.

When I graduated from school and visited US universities I realized how much they promote STEM education and saw amazing projects from people my age. I finally realized I could connect my drive to change the education and my love for science.

J: So what did the early days of UTK look like?

G: It all started by sharing my ideas with people around me. I met two UC Berkeley students on a trip and told them I wanted to create a program to encourage hands on STEM education in Peru by transferring technology.

I’d seen the 3D printers in their lab and I wanted to include them, so I asked them what else they thought could be useful for a small lab. They proposed Arduinos and programming so that’s how we chose the technologies. I asked if they would want to come to Peru to be instructors and they immediately said yes! So that’s how it all started, and we’ve been building UTK ever since.

J: I love that it all began by sharing your ideas openly. Openness and sharing are such foundational parts of optiMize, too. Speaking of that, what does the optiMize Community mean to you?

G: I think when you have a big social impact goal it is easy to lose motivation. The news constantly reminds us about the negative things happening in the world, and lots of people discourage your ideas just because they don’t think big. I have experienced this many times and thought that maybe I’m aiming too high.

But then every time I meet with fellow optiMizers and go to the workshops, I immediately find my motivation again! The optiMize Community gives me the strength and inspiration I need when I’m facing obstacles, because we are all working towards a common goal and share a noble vision!

J: Before we go, what’s one thing you need help with right now? Maybe someone reading this can help!

G: We are trying to build relationships with organizations who run similar programs, to share ideas and collaborate! If anyone reading this knows of any organizations who might be relevant, please reach out to me!

J: Thanks Giuli! You give me so much hope for the future and inspire me to work hard on optiMize every day.

G: Thank you! See you soon!

To learn more about UTK, follow them at Facebook.com/UTKPeru. If you can help Giuliana or just want to connect, contact her with the button below or email her at giulihm@umich.edu!

And if you enjoyed this interview, you can find more optiMize Fellow stories on our Instagram @socialinnovators.

Thanks for reading!

Jeff

This interview originally appeared in our July Newsletter. It’s a monthly email full of inspiring interviews, innovative techniques, and ideas that illuminate possibilities. When you read our newsletter, we hope you’ll:

  1. Smile and feel inspired!
  2. Learn something new and useful every month!
  3. Feel informed and included in optiMize Community happenings!

Take 10 seconds to subscribe now!