Skip to main content
Joel Baraka and Anson Liow
June 22, 2021

Engineering students’ engaging educational game is ‘genius’

Written By: Alex Holloway

The educational board game that Joel Baraka developed emerged in large part from his experiences as a child in Africa.

Now the University of Wisconsin-Madison civil and environmental engineering undergraduate is earning national recognition for the game. He’s one of 10 winners of 2021 OZY Genius Awards, which help promising college students bring their big ideas to life.

Rising fifth-year senior Baraka and fellow civil engineering student Anson Liow—who recently completed his undergraduate degree and is continuing his graduate studies at UW-Madison—created the 5 STA-Z educational board game for use in Ugandan refugee camps. It incorporates core curriculum subjects taught in Uganda—math, science, social studies and English—and breaks them down into easy-to-understand parts for a unique blend of learning and fun. The result is that students in the large camp classes stay more engaged in the classroom.

Baraka knows the refugee experience himself; he was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but his family fled to Uganda’s Kyangwali Refugee Settlement to escape civil war in his home country. He attended high school at the African Leadership Academy in South Africa and came to UW-Madison through the university’s King-Morgridge Scholars Program.

With help from Liow, and on the recommendation from Kate McCleary, his mentor and the associate director for UW-Madison’s Global Engagement Office, Baraka applied for an OZY Genius Award. The coveted honor draws more than 3,000 applications from students across the United States, and 10 winners are ultimately selected from that massive pool. Winners receive $10,000 and mentorship opportunities from OZY, an international media and entertainment company, and Chevrolet, which sponsors the awards. Past OZY Genius Award winners have included Amanda Gorman, the youth poet laureate who wowed the nation during the 2021 presidential inauguration.

“This has been very humbling, for Anson and I to be honest,” Baraka says. “OZY is a very big company, and receiving their support and mentorship means we can continue to grow My Home Stars and support more children. It’s a big win for the children home.”

Baraka and Anson plan to use all of the funding to support 5 STA-Z and the startup company, My Home Stars, which he founded to produce the game.

The OZY Award isn’t the only success Baraka and his team have had. They’ve also won a $5,000 Wisconsin Ideas fellowship and $4,000 in prizes from the 2021 Transcend Madison competition. And they have, with the support of collaborator Emily Chan, raised approximately $16,000 through a campaign focused on overseas donations. All of that is in addition to a GoFundMe campaign that’s generated more than $12,500 in donations to support 5 STA-Z.

Thanks to the awards and support from donors around the world, Baraka and his team can expand the reach of his education game faster than even he anticipated. The more than $40,000 they’ve raised so far will allow 5 STA-Z to fully support the Kyangwali Refugee Settlement, the first partner camp for the project. Now, Baraka is working to expand to the nearby Kyaka II Refugee Settlement by August 2021 and hopes to reach a third refugee camp by the end of the year.

“Anson and I have some exciting plans this year and this money will be able to take us far if we can sustain the focus,” Baraka says. “A few years ago when I started working on this, it was just going to be for one class, then I started thinking about multiple classes, and now we are working with schools and communities. When we raised the money on GoFundMe, the idea of going to other refugee camps came to mind, but I never imagined it would be this quick. When we won the OZY, I thought why not go immediately? There’s no need to wait.”