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Megan Hampton Helps Teach African Refugees How to Code

Hampton guided the girls through print statements, inputs, strings, lists, basic for loops, while loops and introduced them to iteration.

Megan Hampton

Megan Hampton is photographed in New York, Image by Natalie Chitwood

Megan Hampton believes that young women often lack the confidence to pursue careers in STEM fields. That’s one of the reasons the advisory software engineer for IBM Data Privacy Passports hosts #SheCanSTEM, an event designed to encourage high school girls. 

“I think what happens is this gap where women are afraid when it comes to their intelligence being maybe criticized or perceived as not smart enough,” Hampton explains. “They shy away from certain career paths not because they don’t want to do it or they’re not capable, but because of socially cultivated anxieties.”

Fostering International IBM Z Skills

While Hampton has worked on these annual events for girls in the United States, she also had the chance to go to an African refugee camp in Malawi and teach refugee girls how to code. She initially planned the trip as a personal vacation to see family friends. Hampton is of African descent and had always wanted to visit the continent. 

“This was a dream of mine since I was a little girl,” Hampton says. “Not just hearing stories or looking at pictures, but saying I actually, physically went there myself.” While she was planning the trip, she got connected with Melissa Sassi, a developer advocate for IBM who travels to Africa frequently.

Sassi suggested that Hampton visit a refugee camp while she was in Malawi. She also connected Hampton with the right people in order to make all of the arrangements and accommodations. 

Sassi is heavily involved with events and programs that get young people across the world interested in STEM. In addition to her role in IBM, she started a nonprofit that has a North African working space with a robotics lab and an Internet of Things lab. She runs workshops (mainly turned digital these days) that teach young people how to code.

“It’s all youth-led and youth-run,” Sassi says. “Once I started that up, a lot of people from all over the world, from Pakistan to Bangladesh to Jordan to Malawi, Cameroon, Zambia, Swaziland, all over the place, started asking me, ‘Hey, could we get this started in my corner of the world?’ ”

When Sassi is on the ground in the countries she works in, she works to engage people who might not normally consider IBM Z® skills in their daily lives. She holds digital literacy camps for young people in order to build these skill sets. Sassi is also the chair of the Digital Skills Working Group within the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the largest engineering organization in the world, with over 400,000 members worldwide. 

“I’ve been working on an engagement with IEEE to leverage their standards body to create a standard of what it means to the world to become digitally literate,” Sassi says. “A variety of organizations report out on digital inclusion, but the world has yet to adopt a framework or a definition of what it actually means to be digitally literate.” 

Sassi is on a United Nations roundtable in support of the UN High-Level Panel for Digital Cooperation to work out new and inclusive ways to drive digital inclusion worldwide, particularly when it comes to underrepresented or underserved communities. 


Developing a Hands-On Technical Python Exercise

Despite all of the work Sassi and others like her have done in African communities, when Hampton visited the refugee camp in Malawi, she was the first person to actually do a hands-on technical exercise at the camp for this specific group. They had never seen a volunteer coming from a company to demonstrate coding.  

When Hampton arrived at the refugee camp, she initially thought she’d be at another nonprofit organization where she would only be teaching a group of 12 girls. She had to quickly change her plans when the new nonprofit had many more girls, most of whom didn’t have any coding experience.

“I had to change my more intricate challenge to a basic introductory course to Python,” Hampton says. “I just thought about the girls, thought about making it interactive. That was the biggest thing. I didn’t just want to have an hour-long session of me talking at them, so I did a lot of review questions.”

That day, Hampton’s classroom held 70 girls, most of them Congolese refugees. Mothers in their 30s and 40s also attended the session. They spoke French as their first language, along with Swahili, so Hampton worked with a Swahili translator.

Hampton approached teaching the girls Python from her own experiences learning the coding language. She only took two computer science courses in her undergraduate education in electrical engineering, so when she began her job as a software tester at IBM, there was a learning curve for her to get a handle on Python and Java®. In Hampton’s experience, Python was very straightforward, making just as much sense as if she were writing.

Balancing Simplicity and Complexity

“We started off simple,” Hampton says. “I thought that would be the best thing without so much complexity in terms of explaining it to young girls who didn’t have any coding experience.” 

Hampton guided the girls through print statements, inputs, strings, lists, basic for loops, while loops, and then introduced them to iteration. She wanted the exercises to be challenging enough that the girls could feel accomplished but simple enough that the novice coders wouldn’t get discouraged.   

When the translator first told the room of 70 that they would be learning Python, all of the girls screamed with excitement. However, Hampton found that once they got started, many of the girls became quiet and fearful of asking questions. 

“If they didn’t understand something, it was completely OK to ask me a question, and a lot of girls feared that,” Hampton says. “I understand where they’re coming from. I mean, even me, what I go through sometimes being a developer in a male-dominated field, you can ask a question and you might be afraid of the response of ‘You don’t know that answer?’ ”

Hampton made sure to tell the girls that it’s OK to ask questions, because that’s the only way they can learn. “I was very patient and understanding,” Hampton says, “Even if I had to repeat myself four or five times, I would do it because I knew that these girls, they needed this.”

Looking Forward

When Hampton finished the event, many of the girls came up to her to get her contact information so that they could keep in touch, and the nonprofit insisted that she return. Next time Hampton visits Africa, she wants to have a smaller setting where she can give individualized, undivided attention to the girls. 

“They have a lot of people always coming and visiting the refugee camp and volunteering their time and effort, but this is the most technical effort these girls have seen,” Hampton says. “Not only that, for someone who’s young and female, and looks like them, that’s what made the difference.” 

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