Komminist Weldemariam grew up in Arba Mich, a small town in Southwest Ethiopia. Even though he wouldn’t see his first computer until college, the future computer science PhD knew at the age of 11 that math and science, along with intuition, could solve problems. Today, after studying and teaching in cities all over the world for almost a decade, Weldemariam is back in Africa to apply cognitive computing to education. His work developing online learning systems at IBM Research-Africa’s lab in Nairobi, Kenya, recently led to him earning a Next Einstein Forum Fellowship. The Smarter Planet caught up with Weldemariam recently to talk about his education technology projects, like Watson Cognitive Tutor.
Smarter Planet: What was your first exposure to science and math?
Komminist Weldemariam: I discovered the power of math and science to solve problems when I was 11 years old. After school, I used to buy goods like bread, bananas, and sugar cane to sell on the street at a slightly higher price. I recorded all the transactions, and calculated everything to track my profits, and save some money.
Unfortunately, sometimes heavy rains forced the market where I sold the goods to close. So, I had to get scientific to preserve the freshness of my food to sell them the next day. I didn’t have a refrigerator to store them. But I knew I needed to create a cooler temperature difference, so dug holes to keep everything from spoiling.
At school, I dealt with sharing textbooks with 15 classmates. And had classrooms without water, electricity, sometimes without chairs. But I had amazing teachers who told me, “Kommy, the only way to unlock any harsh condition is through education.” It’s something I’m still trying to do at IBM.
SP: You earned advanced degrees and worked all over the world. What brought you back to Africa?
KM: I was at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario in 2013, the year IBM opened its first lab in Africa. Colleagues sent me job openings for IBM Research’s new lab in Nairobi – and I was following their progress of exploring Africa even before that. IBM’s approach to “unlock Africa’s grand challenges” excited me!
Africa’s people, problems, and opportunities – and IBM Research – brought me back. It’s a perfect environment to create innovative, commercially viable solutions that impact lives.
SP: What are you working on at IBM Research-Africa?
KM: I am currently working on education transformation projects. One, the Cognitive Learning Companion (CLC) delivers personalized learning content and assessments to students, and performance metrics to teachers. It does this by interpreting student performance based on how the student approaches learning, as inferred from his or her content interaction patterns, comments, and questions, as well as affective states.
This data are captured through non-intrusive instrumentation of mobile client interfaces and sensors that lets CLC analyze user interaction with the educational content. Throughout the process, CLC learns about the student and gives evidence-based actionable insights for teachers.
Similarly, our multimodal project collects, characterizes, and analyzes data about students, classrooms, and schools, including school resources. The analysis will help us understand: How do students behave in a school environment? What is the relationship between school resources, attendance and enrollment patterns, and learning outcomes? We want to integrate technology with the traditional school experience, and give teachers, principals, as well as district and state leaders insight to make decisions on resources.
I’m also working the IBM Watson team on Watson Cognitive Tutor. We want to give teachers the power of cognitive computing to provide targeted strategies and lesson plans to improve learning outcomes. By focusing on the needs of each student – using Watson to make educational content personal – our work can better position students and teachers for success.
SP: What do you hope to accomplish as an Einstein Fellow?
KM: I know how empowering education can be, personally, as well as for shared community pride in those accomplishments. So, as an Einstein Fellow I want to tap into their Africa-wide network to address the continent’s Grand Challenges in education, healthcare, agriculture and economic inclusion.
I want to use the Forum to mentor scientists in technical, and leadership skills. And maybe help develop the next generation of Einstein Fellows. Lastly, the Forum can help further my efforts to transform education technology – and how it is delivered across Africa to give our students an opportunity to compete on a global level.
I don’t think people fully understood what we mean when we say “Africa is rising.” Africa is home to the 10 fastest-growing countries in the world. At the same time, Africa needs about $1 trillion to close its infrastructure gap with the rest of the world. This is a perfect opportunity for IBM, and innovative startups, alike.