Solution Overview

Solution Name:

IGNITE Design-thinking and STEM Learning

One-line solution summary:

Every girl can be an innovator in STEM through design-thinking and social justice

Pitch your solution.

The best solutions are developed by those who directly experience social challenges but too often they lack the skills, specialized knowledge, and understanding to actively engage in tackling these issues. As a result, innovation does not happen at the level of the problem. It is critical to create confident problem solvers and critical thinkers to address challenges in their own communities and/or global challenges. We have created a program called IGNITE to educate and connect a global community of students on STEM concepts that integrate design thinking and technical innovation to address social challenges. We use peer-to-peer learning (students teaching other students) and attain scale through a train-the-trainer model. Sustainability is achieved by partnering with local champions and schools who have access to diverse student communities. We have successfully implemented IGNITE in the U.S., Guatemala, India and Kenya and are ready to scale the program for wider impact

Film your elevator pitch.

What specific problem are you solving?

Quality STEM education is linked to reduced poverty, economic growth, and more resilient democracies, yet young women and girls in many parts of the world lack the skills, specialized knowledge and understanding to actively engage in these issues International organizations like USAID and UNESCO have prioritized STEM education as STEM needs including jobs and business, health advancements, and engineering are projected to grow exponentially in the 21st century (UNESCO, 2017). Programs implemented by international non-profits and think tanks often lack the resources to scale due to scarcity of qualified teachers (Elayah, 2016). Additionally, pedagogical methods can be inappropriate within the context and culture for which they are intended and of little interest to the target population. Importing foreign instructor labor may result in limited input by the intended beneficiaries (Waisbord, 2008).  To ensure students benefit from programs designed by foreign institutions, it is essential that educators work with the community and not “for” it prescribing their perceived solution to community problems. This starts by building local educational capacity. In communities without the infrastructure or monetary ability to build fully functioning STEM learning labs, sustainability and scale have to be considered as much as the content and delivery of STEM curricula. 

What is your solution?

IGNITE enables students to make connections between STEM and social justice. This is particularly important as students who work on real-life problems, especially ones that they experience, and can contextualize STEM education through a personal lens. IGNITE teaches STEM concepts through design thinking and technology innovation within the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals. Specifically, students use the human centered design process and technical skills to develop an idea from sketch to prototype for a specific social challenge. Students not only internalize STEM concepts, but they also learn about problem-solving and critical thinking, teamwork and collaboration, as well as empathy and stewardship. To address the lack of trained STEM teachers, the program relies on a peer-to-peer mentoring model. To scale IGNITE, students become peer instructors, where former IGNITE instructors train new IGNITE instructors. Sustainability is achieved through partnerships with schools and NGOs with a vested interest in enhancing STEM and building educational capacity. We have implemented IGNITE in four countries in five years. Now we propose to leverage IGNITE’s best practices to transition from an in-person to a virtual model delivered through Android and IOS devices at physical or digital community “hubs,” enabling IGNITE’s continuation in the COVID-19 era.

Who does your solution serve, and in what ways will the solution impact their lives?

Though education in Guatemala has improved dramatically in recent years, the country still faces significant inequities in access to STEM education between urban and rural populations (Marshall 2009). In the U.S., communities of color and of low socioeconomic status face similar issues. Our initial target population will comprise students from underserved areas in the departments of Sololá and Guatemala, and 3 counties within the state of North Carolina. By year 5, we will scale across 15 schools in Guatemala, and 20 schools in North Carolina that collectively represent urban and rural populations. These target populations were chosen for three reasons: (1) collaborations have already been established in these locations, (2) access to STEM education is woefully lacking, particularly for female students, and (3) internet connectivity is generally available (even though the target population in Sololá are from rural communities, internet connectivity is available due to tourism around Lake Atitlán). In communities where this is the case, physical community hubs will be created in local schools that already have the requisite infrastructure.

Which dimension of the Challenge does your solution most closely address?

Increase the number of girls and young women participating in formal and informal learning and training

Explain how the problem, your solution, and your solution’s target population relate to the Challenge and your selected dimension.

Our solution directly increases opportunities for young girls and women to access quality STEM education informally through the virtual community hub model. This model will provide physical lab space and a connected student base for young girls to develop critical academic and social skills to prepare them for school and the workforce. Our solution will also empower young girls to be leaders of change within their own communities through the train-the-trainer and team-based learning methodologies used.

What is your solution’s stage of development?

Growth: An organization with an established product, service, or business model rolled out in one or, ideally, several communities, which is poised for further growth

In what city, town, or region is your solution team headquartered?

Durham, NC, USA

Who is the primary delegate for your solution?

Nimmi Ramanujam PhD

More About Your Solution

If you have additional video content that explains your solution, provide a YouTube or Vimeo link here:

Which of the following categories best describes your solution?

A new application of an existing technology

Describe what makes your solution innovative.

IGNITE is innovative in three distinct ways – (1) It connects STEM concepts to pressing social inequities, which allows students to learn through a personal lens; (2) it leverages peer-to-peer mentoring to address the scarcity of STEM educators, and at the same time leverages the effectiveness of near-peer mentoring, which enhances relatability; and (3) it allows students to internalize STEM concepts by giving them experiences in design thinking and technical innovation, such that they can turn a sketch into a prototype to both understand and act on those skills, whether it is in innovation, education or activism. How the curriculum translates to impact is illustrated through the following examples. Innovation – students used the renewable energy curriculum to build flashlights or sell locally to help with recurrent blackouts in the community, others innovated further, building a car with “headlights” and a volume unit meter (Guatemala).  Education - students taught the same curriculum to four successive generations of students through a student-led club (Kenya). Activism - students who engaged in a clean water curriculum built microscopes to view contaminants and filters to purify the polluted water in Lake Atitlán (Guatemala). They then created a grassroots campaign to raise awareness as well as advocate for local policy change. There are many STEM programs including Room to Read, Forum for African Women Educationalists, LitWorld, Reach Out to Asia and Global Minimum, but none of them share all of the attributes of IGNITE that makes STEM personal, interactive and peer-to-peer.

Describe the core technology that powers your solution.

The technology that will power our solution is an online virtual learning platform compatible with Android and Apple smartphones and accessible via computer browser. While this “e-learning” technology is tried and tested, our format and delivery are unique. Android smartphones are the ideal learning platform due to widespread use in rural communities across low-and middle-income communities globally. One phone company in Guatemala, Millicom, disclosed in 2017 that they had penetrated 68.2% of the Guatemalan market, a threefold increase over the prior year. Forbes reported that smartphone adoption among low-income Americans now exceeds 85% due to market segmentation. These statistics show the potential of deploying a learning platform via smartphone technology. The Ignite platform will also be compatible with internet browsers, though we hypothesize most site interactions will not be derived from this less accessible format. To address access issues, we will establish “Ignite hubs” in the communities around Lake Atitlan and in the US, equipped with tablets and broadband internet connectivity to give students a centralized community base for learning with peers. Such hubs will be situated in key community spaces such as local non-profits. They will be constructed in collaboration with organizations our team has long-lasting relationships with, such as Amigos del lago. We will work with these organizations to ensure the safety of the students who travel to the hubs, including approving volunteers from these organizations to be trained in lab safety to be able to monitor students and use of equipment such as soldering irons.

Provide evidence that this technology works.

Our model uses a co-learning methodology where students and instructors create a collaborative learning environment to cultivate empathy and mutual understanding (Freire, 2000). In addition to co-learning, we also use a peer-led team learning (PLTL) framework, which allows students to explore topics with near-peers closer to their age, enhancing the students ability to relate to the learning experience (Tenenbaum, 2014). The instructor in PLTL is a student who has successfully completed the program and has been trained on how to facilitate small group learning (Quitadamo, 2009). In addition, the train-the-trainer model for peer instruction also benefits from the PLTL model. The 1:250 teacher-student ratio may seem high but other virtual learning programs have achieved this with success, such as K12 (NPR, 2012). Focusing on real-world issues, particularly those that apply to the personal life of the students can engage and energize them and offer an opportunity to apply classroom knowledge and hands-on work to challenges within local and/or global communities (Paris, 1998). Hands-on learning through the design-thinking process strengthens student creativity and problem-solving skills (Shieh & Chang 2014). We have two manuscripts on the IGNITE program, one which has been accepted for publication in the American Society for Engineering Education journal (ASEE), and the second which has published in the journal, Frontiers in Education (Dotson et. al., 2020). These publications collectively describe the IGNITE framework, our strategy for scaling through the train-the-trainer model; our flexible, modular curriculum; and IGNITE’s sustainability, secured, through deep local partnerships.

Please select the technologies currently used in your solution:

  • Software and Mobile Applications

What is your theory of change?





Modular Curricula

Trained peer instructors

Students participate in IGNITE

Materials and supplies

Impact assessment methods

Opportunities for IGNITE participation beyond participation in curricula

Curricula by peer-instructors and delivered through virtual and physical hubs

Each IGNITE instructor trains three new instructors

Peer instructors interact with students through virtual hub (1:250 instructor-student ratio) This is bolstered by small group mentoring.

Schools and students purchase materials and supplies locally and online

Observations, focus groups, and interviews will be used

Design competitions, individual mentoring on new projects, and peer-instructor training 

1-2 new curricula developed annually, beginning with one based on Covid-19

> 4000 peer instructors trained in 5 years

>1 M students participate over 5 years

Approximately 80% purchased by schools

Evidence of meaningful community contributions post-IGNITE

At least 50% of IGNITE students continually engage beyond participation in INGITE curricula

Increased knowledge base in STEM, real-life challenges, technical and design-thinking  skills

Virtual hub rapidly scale peer-instructor base

Increase in peer instructor base increase student reach

Students are able to physically and virtually engage in STEM learning

Students transform knowledge to action through education, innovation and activism

Student independence increases with competitive and personalized learning opportunities

Select the key characteristics of your target population.

  • Women & Girls
  • Children & Adolescents
  • Rural
  • Low-Income
  • Minorities & Previously Excluded Populations

Which of the UN Sustainable Development Goals does your solution address?

  • 3. Good Health and Well-Being
  • 4. Quality Education
  • 5. Gender Equality
  • 6. Clean Water and Sanitation
  • 7. Affordable and Clean Energy
  • 8. Decent Work and Economic Growth
  • 10. Reduced Inequalities
  • 11. Sustainable Cities and Communities
  • 17. Partnerships for the Goals

In which countries do you currently operate?

  • Guatemala
  • India
  • Kenya
  • United States

In which countries will you be operating within the next year?

  • Guatemala
  • United States

How many people does your solution currently serve? How many will it serve in one year? In five years?

Currently, 79 Ignite instructors have been trained through the train-the-trainer model and successfully implemented the program. These peer instructors are from Duke University, Emory University, University of Michigan, the Universidad de Valle de Guatemala, the American School of Guatemala and the NGO, Asociación Amigos del Lago de Atitlán. Collectively these trainers have taught 1,602 students in four countries through in-person peer-to-peer learning. Assuming that each peer-instructor trains three new instructors (from both the current and additional schools and universities), the total number of instructors in year 5 will be 4000 (we will start the expansion at the end of year 1 after the virtual platform is created). Currently, the student: instructor ratio is 1 to 20-25 students. Assuming that the instructor: student ratio increases to 1:250 (order of magnitude) owing to the transition from a physical to virtual platform, the total number of students reached in 5 years should be 1 million. The student population at the middle school to high school level is expected to be 350 per school in North Carolina, 500 per school in the department of Guatemala, and 500 in the department of Sololá. The proportion of female students to the total number of students is 3:1 in the U.S. and 2:1 in Guatemala. This population is sufficiently large from which to reach 1 million female students in 5 years.

What are your goals within the next year and within the next five years?

We have 5 milestones we want to reach in 5 years.

1.     Train >4000 peer instructors and reach >1 million students using the virtual platform through the train-the-trainer model and peer-to-peer instruction, respectively. Trained instructors will be required to pass a series of tests demonstrating their proficiency in the topics.

2.     Use the virtual community to create interactions between U.S. and Guatemalan peer-instructors and students to foster cross-cultural exchange.

3.    Establish an annual design competition as a way to promote student engagement within and outside of IGNITE and to provide support and mentoring for those who show potential to be leaders. We have launched the first design competition in Guatemala. The design competition will be also be used to link to students with potential employers and mentors in STEM-related fields of interest.

4.     Document impact as reflected by student engagement in education, innovation and activism. Student engagement is defined as number of peers or family members they have shared learned topics with, number of innovations created, and jobs. Impact assessment will entail observations, focus groups and interviews immediately and one-year after participation. 

We have created a partnership with the Museum of Life and Science in North Carolina, which has a broad base of students who visit their educational museum and attend their webinars. Our first webinar will be released at the end of June. We have also partnered with Sesame Street to disseminate IGNITE as a TV show for kids in Guatemala (one show sponsored by Sesame Street ).  

What barriers currently exist for you to accomplish your goals in the next year and in the next five years?

The technical barriers the team anticipates are as follows:

1)    Converting the in-person IGNITE curriculum to a virtual platform may create a barrier in terms of engagement, that would typically occur in a physical interaction.

2)    Engaging students who may not have previously engaged in digital learning. Training these students to be digitally literate for course participation through in-person or virtual small-learning groups.

3)    Funds to support start-up and recurring costs.

4)    Intermittent internet connectivity.

5)    Theft of the devices.

6)    Access to materials and supplies.

7)    Adoption and community buy-in.

8)    Parents not allowing their daughters to participate in the program.

9)    Student schedules.

How do you plan to overcome these barriers?

These are anticipated solutions to mitigate these barriers.

1)    Creating teams that work virtually together to solve a problem and provide regular feedback during the interaction.

2)    Creating a primer module for addressing lack of proficiency in digital learning – what is attractive about this approach is that modules can be added as we identify gaps over the course of student participation.

3)    Sustain recurring costs through support from Duke University, which has incorporated IGNITE into a service-learning course, and from the schools that support the program. Grant funding is needed to support fixed costs and the monitoring and evaluation of IGNITE for our 5-year plan.

4)    For students with limited internet connectivity, physical hubs will be created in the schools they attend. These hubs will also have a small solar-powered back-up generator.

5)    Providing compensation for a student who has become a peer-instructor locally to serve as a teaching assistant in the course.

6)    Students who participate from settings without in-person community hubs (virtual hubs) will receive a list of needed supplies and vendors (for example, Amazon). Students who cannot afford the components will be able to attend the physical hubs where supplies will be provided. 

7)    We will work with our partners to iterate on the processes to implement the virtual hub.

8)    We will work with the schools to directly engage the student learners.

9).   The virtual platform will mitigate scheduling problems and offer modular curricula that can allows students to engage for different periods of time.


About Your Team

What type of organization is your solution team?

Other, including part of a larger organization (please explain below)

If you selected Other, please explain here.

Our program is housed within the Center for Global Women’s Health Technologies (GWHT) at Duke University. This center’s mission is to democratize access to reproductive health technologies and STEM education and is led by Dr. Nimmi Ramanujam, Robert E. Carr Professor of Engineering. IGNITE was developed based on a flagship course designed by Dr. Ramanujam, Biomedical Engineering 230: Global Women’s Health Technologies, where university students partner with a socio-economically disadvantaged community, identify an educational need, and then build a curriculum and prototype to teach students based on an intensive, iterative design-thinking process with a community partner.

How many people work on your solution team?

Currently, three staff members and 10 students work at the Center for Global Women’s Health Technologies. These staff collectively have expertise in human centered design and STEM education and have implementation experience with the IGNITE program. In addition, four full-time staff members work on IGNITE implementation and evaluation at our partner organization, FUNDEGUA, located in Guatemala. Duke will spearhead the scaling of the IGNITE program in the U.S. schools. Similarly, FUNDEGUA will lead the scaling of the IGNITE program in Guatemala. The GWHT center at Duke and FUNDEGUA have collaborated for the last four years.

How many years have you worked on your solution?


Why are you and your team well-positioned to deliver this solution?

Dr. Nimmi Ramanujam, is the Robert W. Carr Professor of Engineering and professor in Cancer Pharmacology and Global Health. She is the founder and director of the Center for Global Women’s Health Technologies (GWHT), which focuses on technological innovations in health and education to improve the lives of women and girls, globally. At Duke, she has taught STEM courses for 15 years, including design courses. Her flagship course, BME 230, is a design course focused on STEM curricular development and includes a service-learning component to implement the curricula in a student community. Since first offered (2014), it has transitioned from 40% female to 95% female, which is the exception for an engineering course at Duke. Students learn human centered design, STEM concepts and community challenges related to the Sustainable Development Goals. Students create a specific curriculum and conduct peer-to-peer instruction at a partner site. After returning to Duke University, the students mentor a new cohort who then undergo a similar experience. Each year, the framework is modified based on community feedback. Now the program trains peer-instructors at three additional U.S. universities, and one Guatemalan University. Dr. Diana Silimperi advises the team. She has 30+ years of experience working with advanced implementation frameworks to develop and evaluate public health interventions globally. Research Associate Libby Dotson will coordinate the program with the international partner, Gabriela Asturias, a  past IGNITE instructor herself, she has mentored several generations of IGNITE students at Duke and published two peer-reviewed articles with Dr. Ramanujam on IGNITE.

What organizations do you currently partner with, if any? How are you working with them?

The U.S. partnership includes universities, schools and NGOs. Peer-instructors have been recruited from Duke, University of Michigan, and Emory. NGOs in which IGNITE has been implemented include Boys and Girls, the Lower East Side Girls Club, and Girls Inc. The Burroughs Wellcome grant has initiated a partnership with the director of the Durham Public Schools system, Eric Archer, and have also initiated collaborative efforts with directors of public school systems in other counties. We also offered a position to a public school teacher from North Carolina to assist us with scaling our efforts in the three counties in North Carolina. She will be on-boarded as soon as Duke lifts its hiring freeze.

The Guatemalan partnership is directed by former BME 230 student of Dr. Ramanujam, Gabriela Asturias, who founded the FUNDEGUA Foundation in Guatemala City in 2015. A Guatemalan native, she received her B.S. in Neuroscience from Duke University in 2017. FUNDEGUA fosters a rigorous, ethical, and forward-thinking research ecosystem to promote sustainable, impactful development work in Guatemala. Her team works with schools across the country, organizations with a corporate social responsibility arm, and educational organizations such as Sesame Street. FUNGEGUA has implemented IGNITE across Guatemala; worked with the NGO Amigos del Lago to implement 17 workshops for more than 1,000 participants, resulting in increased awareness of water contamination and empowerment of youth to advocate for solutions with local leaders; and partnered with Sesame Street to create a TV series on IGNITE focused on preventing COVID-19 transmission.

Your Business Model & Funding

What is your business model?

Our partner countries have shown sustained interest in IGNITE from teachers and students, NGOs and schools. Several countries including Guatemala, Kenya and the U.S. have local initiatives to continue IGNITE within their communities. We have observed many IGNITE students using what they have learned to educate their families and community, fix broken utility items, create new products and/or use their awareness to engage in local activism such as writing a letter to the mayor about water sanitation issues. There is no question there is demand. Organizations like Sesame Street are also interested and recently sponsored an IGNITE TV series in Guatemala. The Museum of Life and Sciences is doing the same through webinars. Within IGNITE, we provide a variety of educational products and services. The virtual platform provides curricula for digital learning of STEM topics.  Students, who participate in IGNITE have continual opportunities to grow their STEM education by learning multiple curricula that IGNITE offers, one-one-mentoring for advanced students who want to create their own innovations, such as physical products or new curricula. IGNITE allows for collaboration and social interaction between peers, which is an important way to create of community. Design competitions and seed funding are used as tools to promote collaboration, whether it be local or between countries or between instructor and student. Through peer-instructor training, students learn leadership skills, which better prepares them for academics and job opportunities. Adding a virtual platform will further democratize access to STEM education and reach a broader number of beneficiaries.

Do you primarily provide products or services directly to individuals, or to other organizations?

Individual consumers or stakeholders (B2C)

What is your path to financial sustainability?

The virtual model proposed is cost-effective. Peer-trainers often participate in the program as part of their service-learning university requirement and thus, the costs are negligible with respect to teaching future cohorts of student instructors. Curricula is largely developed by Duke students but the expectation is that the virtual platform will provide a way for others to share their curricula through a standardized process. IGNITE is free for student participants. Funds for materials and supplies, transportation and other ancillary items are provided by local organizations and/or schools. Any surplus that IGNITE receives will be reinvested back into the program. A social franchise model is already in place where there is a sliding fee where wealthier schools can subsidize schools that cannot afford the fees. An additional idea for generating recurring revenue is to create a recurring revenue model where instead of charging a one-time for services, subscription models are used to generate a steady source of recurring revenue. As previously mentioned, there are startup costs which will require funding from grants, which the team has successfully applied for in the past. Further, organizations who have a social responsibility arm and educational organizations like Sesame Street already provide sponsorship and/or in-kind services. For example, Sesame Street funded an entire IGNITE TV series production. These models primarily cover recurring revenue. Larger sources of funding are required to periodically evolve IGNITE based on community feedback. For example, the transition of IGNITE to a virtual platform to address access issues due to Covid-19. 

Solution Team

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