UW-Madison student reimagines education through board game designed for Ugandan refugees

MADISON, Wis. — For University of Wisconsin-Madison senior Joel Baraka, there was one question that always lingered in the back of his mind: What can I do today to improve the life of another child?

It was this desire to give back to his community that inspired his project designed to reimagine education in sub-Saharan Africa — “The 5 STA-Z Educational Game.” The board game for elementary students is centered around Ugandan curriculum, where Baraka grew up.

Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Baraka and his family fled to Uganda when he was an infant as a result of civil war. He spent his childhood in a refugee camp in the western part of the country before moving to South Africa for high school, and later Wisconsin to study civil engineering.

According to Baraka, education plays a central role in who he is. As a first-generation college student, his mother placed a strong importance on school when he was growing up. “Something that always fascinated me was that she had no degree but really believed in the importance of education,” he said.

Now, Baraka travels back to Uganda often and helps teach math and science to the children there. “I’m one of the few children who have been able to leave the refugee camp and get an education somewhere else,” he said.

While teaching, Baraka noticed how the students in the front of the classroom were attentive and focused, while the students in the back of the room seemed distracted and disengaged. Drawing on his own experiences as a student at the camp, he noticed an educational void — and decided that he could help fix it.

“I wouldn’t be dreaming the way I am dreaming today if it wasn’t for education,” Baraka said. “Education is everything.”

With a shortage of teachers, some of the classes in the camp have only teacher per every one or two hundred students. The 5 STA-Z Educational Game seeks to remedy that by encouraging students teach each other.

“Peer-to-peer learning,” Baraka described it. “We want to have that interaction between students.”

Baraka has worked closely with his past teachers to tailor the game to Ugandan elementary school curriculum, focusing on science, math, English and social studies.

“We’re trying to make sure that the game is combining learning, and also bringing the component of fun and engaging them as they use the game,” Baraka explained.

Baraka, together with product engineer and fellow UW-Madison student Anson Liow, have been able to bring The 5 STA-Z Educational Game to more than 500 students.

“The refugee children can do more, be more and deserve more,” Baraka said. “All they need are resources. If they don’t get resources, we are losing opportunities for children.”

In order to support local economies, production of the games takes place entirely in Uganda. Baraka said his goal is to expand his reach and continue to help educate refugee students.

For more information on or ways to support their mission, visit The Home Stars website.