Joel Baraka and Anson Liow | Madison, WI
I had to think about the problems I’ve seen in my community and what I could do about them. I was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but we fled to Uganda to escape the civil war. I grew up in Kyangwali refugee camp in Uganda and received a scholarship for high school to attend the African Leadership Academy in South Africa.
While taking the entrepreneurship class, I realized that going to school and education was changing my life, yet many children in my community continued to lack access to quality education. I thought maybe I could do something to help other refugee children in my community get a chance at an education.
Anson: Joel and I had this interesting connection where we both had experience working with refugee children and we both love to play games. I’m from Malaysia, and after high school, I volunteered with refugee communities. Teachers in refugee camps have to manage overcrowded classrooms—like 150 students in a classroom. That’s a big part of the social mission of our venture—help teachers and students by providing learning materials that are fun.
Joel: Looking back at how school had been for me there are things I had not loved. I love socializing and playing all sorts of games with my peers. But while attending class you’re expected to sit down and listen to a teacher. There is nothing wrong with this approach, but as a child, I didn’t enjoy this kind of setup. The entrepreneur leadership class made me ask ‘What can I do about the education system to make the environment more childlike?’ That’s how I came up with my educational game, 5 STA-Z.
Anson: Looking back on my childhood, primary school was fun for me because I was involved in lots of extracurricular activities, but I didn’t really enjoy going to classes because of how rigid the system was. It would have been better if we had games or activities within the classrooms.
Joel: I am daily amazed by Anson’s love for games. To me, he is like this young board game guru. He has this great passion to understand how they work and their different mechanics, which is amazing. When we met here at UW-Madison and were living in the same dorm, we played tons of games—volleyball and soccer during the day and board games in the evenings. There was a board game marathon every evening!
Anson: Remember when we played Jenga? You had never seen it before and you took it back to Uganda!
Joel: Right, that’s how it all started! I was still working on 5 STA-Z as I simultaneously carried out testing pilots, but it was in its starting stages. When Anson came on, he helped make it into a complete product.
Anson: The game is made up of a star-shaped board that can accommodate up to five players. We have tried to make the game as simple as we can. It is basically a question-answer card game based on the education curriculum. Children take turns asking and answering and they get to move on the board if they answer correctly. We have incorporated other game mechanics such as chance and jeopardy to make it less obvious for the smarter children to always win. It’s a simple game, but the beauty of it is it’s child-centered. Now the learning is taking place among the children. When they are asking questions and sharing answers, there’s a lot of discussion going on. There’s learning taking place and it’s also fun.
Joel: Its name, 5 STA-Z was inspired by a simple idea that any child is meant for the stars; all they need are the tools and resources to simply be. The ‘5’ represents the idea that we wanted each board to accommodate up to 5 students to allow learning to happen in smaller groups compared to hundreds of children in one single classroom. The ‘A-Z’ represents the idea that we wanted the game to cover the Ugandan education curriculum from beginning to end. When the children play the game, the 5 players actually take on the names of the 5 brightest stars in the galaxy (Sirius, Canopus, Rigil, Arcturus, and Vega).
Anson: The game obviously is making learning fun but it’s also supplementing the limited resources they have. Textbooks don’t come easy in refugee camps. What we do is we try to find ways to get the money that’s needed to produce these games and we provide them at zero cost.
Joel: One thing I’ve loved about talking to the kids is that kids tell you the truth. They will tell you what is great about the game, but also what is not good about the game, which has been helpful for improvements. They don’t necessarily point out how they are learning, but point out how school is becoming fun for them.
Anson: They might not point out how they are learning, but we are seeing it! In Uganda, after grade seven students take the Primary Learning Exam to determine if they are ready for high school. This year, one of the communities that we’re working with had record-breaking numbers of distinctions among the students for the exam.
Joel: That’s actually the primary school I went to. This primary school has been in the Kyangwali refugee camp for about sixty years, and kids have never scored such high grades in its history. In the refugee camp, there were no computers or the internet to use at home when schools closed due to covid. We made a GoFundMe and raised about $12,000, so we were able to produce the games and give them to the parents and the kids at home. That’s how they were able to study. It makes us feel like the game made a huge impact game made a huge impact.
So far, we have distributed 5 STA-Z to eight primary schools, reached almost 5000 students and distributed more than 900 games. We want to do more than just 5 STA-Z, but we’re still students. I’m a first-year master’s student and Joel is a fifth-year undergrad student.
Joel: Yeah, at ‘My Home Stars’, as small as we are, we have always had this belief that children are just meant for the stars. We really have this strong belief that young children, no matter their background, can do more and be more; all they need are the right resources and the right support system, which has been our biggest motivation in the work we do. When I wake up in the morning, the first thing on my schedule is not ‘My Home Stars,’ it’s my classes. But still, I spend probably two hours of my morning on ‘My Home Stars’. We’re really invested and very passionate about this, and we always find the time. Do we have fun? Definitely. Do we do well in school? Yes. I think we are killing it.
We’re both engineering students and it’s not easy. There are days that I wake up and I think, ‘Do I have to go to class?’ But I know at the end of the day, I’ve got to get my assignments done. There’s no excuse, so I’ve got to find the time. When you find something you love, the “how” you do it is less important than the “why.”
Anson: You find a way. I spend half of my time working on schooling and the other half on ‘My Home Stars.’ It actually helps my schoolwork. Because I’m so invested in ‘My Home Stars,’ I’m managing my time better.
Joel: Of course it can be difficult sometimes but knowing that our work will impact a child’s life in accessing education and hopefully a better future someday, is what really matters to us. Do we get to hang out with friends and so on? Absolutely, I play soccer whenever I can, go for a bike ride, and nowadays to the gym. Anson’s always playing basketball or running which has really been very helpful for us to find balance.
Anson: I play video games at my house. We can still do the things that we love as long as we are accomplishing everything we want to accomplish with ‘My Home Stars.’ We won Wisconsin Without Borders grant from the University of Wisconsin in 2020 and the Wisconsin ideas fellowship this year where we shall be working with a few professors from UW Madison to keep improving our work.
Joel: Yeah, it has really been awesome to see how the Badger community around Wisconsin, and around the world through the UW alumni, has helped us. Our GoFundMe campaign was a huge success, and we really credit all this to the amazing people that have been so supportive. It means a lot every time when we win something because I think about the kids. Anson, I and the rest of the team winning something means that we can continue supporting these children. And thinking about the long term, I hope we can create something that will continue to inspire other young people. The other day we had an event where we talked to students in Malaysia. My assumption is that when they get to see Anson doing things in Uganda, they will get inspired and I think that’s really big.
Personally, when I look back, my greatest strength didn’t come from feeling like I was smart in school or at whatever I want to do, but because of some of the inspiring stories I have read or some people I have met. Inspiration and feeling like it can be done can go a long way. And it’s not just the kids but also it’s the people who have believed in us and who are supporting us. If we can do everything to make them happy, then we are also happy.
Anson: When they’re happy, we’re happy. When I think about the grants or the recognition, and how many interviews we’ve done together, it’s just amazing. People at the University of Wisconsin really care about what we are doing. They know about the product we’re working on and the impact we are making. It is crazy sometimes to think that I am working on something so far away in Uganda, but it means something for the campus. It means alot to us to have so much support from our friends and connections here. That is something we are grateful for.
Joel: For the past two years, Anson and I have not had the chance to travel. But we see videos and pictures of the kids, and have held a number of sessions with children via zoom to interact and learn about how the game is helping.
We get to talk to teachers as well and it really means a lot knowing that they are finding the game helpful as well. The obstacles for primary school students to advance to higher education are extremely steep. I want students to have the same chances I’ve had.
I also owe so much gratitude and thanks to my high school and specifically my entrepreneurship teachers who helped me through the initial stages. They were huge believers in this approach and I hope I can make them proud someday.