You’ll find a wall crammed with pictures of students whose lives have been touched because she cared enough to keep a promise
Dr. Effah Kaufmann, who would later on become Professor Effah Kaufmann, began lecturing at the University of Ghana in August 2001. From the moment she started till present, she has conducted her classes differently from the status quo. Most Ghanaian students are married to the type of rote learning that is useful for securing certificates. But imagine a learning environment where students are equipped with the knowledge to solve problems, and then encouraged to apply that knowledge to real issues around them. That’s the Prof. Elsie Effah Kaufmann brand of teaching. To her, education has not reached its full potential if it remains a series of meticulously memorised formulas which are not applied to real life.
“For most of their educational journey, students are handed a legacy of rote learning. You get selected into your school of choice based on your ability to chew and pour, and to reproduce in exams. By the time students get to me in university, they have mastered rote learning. But it does not necessarily mean that they are able to analyse the scenarios around them and identify problems to solve, or that they are even interested in doing these things. My goal in the classroom is to unravel that mindset. The purpose of STEM education, if you look at it carefully, is to produce critical thinkers; people who are able to observe and appreciate the problems in their environment and then do something to solve those problems.”
For more than twenty years, Prof. Effah Kaufmann has executed that goal of producing top-notch problem-solvers.
She utilises practical learning and encourages students to observe and ask questions concerning the world around them, whether the problems are STEM-related or not.
“It’s a shame that we have these subject groupings that inadvertently encourage narrow-mindedness. What I tell my students is that problems in the real world don’t have a course code. It is all the accumulated knowledge you have that you apply to solve the problems around you.”
This type of teaching is not always easy, especially when students resist the change from the rote learning they are used to. “It can be frustrating sometimes. But at the end of the day, I hope they believe in themselves. Sometimes when they finally come up with the solution, they themselves are amazed, because they have gone over and beyond what they think they are capable of doing. It’s the guidance and the encouragement along the way that they need.”
The Elsie Effah Kaufmann Foundation
While the work she does as a teacher in itself cannot be understated, Professor Effah Kaufmann has a vision of change on a grander scale. Having identified the problems that stem from rote learning, and which have serious implications on many aspects of national life, the engineer in her drew up a corresponding solution: The Elsie Effah Kaufmann Foundation.
The Foundation was an idea that the Professor had carried in her heart for many years, but had been unable to execute for many reasons. The principal roadblock was her incredibly busy schedule, which combined teaching with various administrative responsibilities, as well as other commitments. She had even considered waiting to go on retirement before starting, but she did not want to lose her momentum to time. The need for change was greater than her desire for comfort. And so, with the help of supporters such as Dext Technology Ltd., The Elsie Effah Kaufmann Foundation was born.
The aim of the Foundation is to change the face of STEM education in Ghana by targeting 4 different stakeholder groups: Students, Teachers, Industries and the General Public. This intersectional approach was developed to correct the perception that each of these stakeholder groups exist in isolation, and to drive a change that addresses societal needs, with STEM education leading the charge.
“When STEM students graduate, the expectation is that they solve problems. But problem-solving cannot happen if students are not equipped with knowledge and practical experience. Teachers cannot equip students, if they themselves have not been equipped. They can only give what they have. Industries also have a part to play, because they are the ones who can provide support to the students by providing real case studies in their industries that connect theoretical knowledge to reality, and produce solutions. We can make real impact in our communities in that way.”
Achieving these goals will take a tremendous amount of work, work that some may consider too much to be the burden of one person. And while it can sometimes be daunting, Elsie is 100% committed to the task.
“Someone has to do it. And if everyone sits back and waits for another person to do the work, it will never get done. This is how I was brought up. If you made a promise, you had to keep it. I made a promise to come back to Ghana to make a difference, and I have to deliver on that promise. I am responsible for being the change in the world I want to see, and it is not enough for me to just complain about things, I have to make a difference.”
The Honourable Quiz Mistress
You may have caught a few NSMQ quizzes, either on television or radio and thought to yourself, “This job is so easy, even I can do it!” But don’t let Prof. Effah Kaufman’s seamless execution fool you into believing that it’s an easy task.
“I have to go through the questions, and solve everything to make sure the answers provided are the right ones. I’m the one going to read them on the stage, so I have to make sure I understand the questions and can anticipate the type of answers coming in. If there are any mistakes in the questions, I have to follow through and make sure they are corrected. Otherwise, if it’s too late, I have to set the questions myself. There’s a lot of preparation that goes into it, because it’s a live contest, and we want it to go as smoothly as it can. During this period, I don’t sleep.”
All the effort over the past 16 years put in by the Honourable Quiz Mistress has contributed to making the quiz one of the most highly anticipated events across the country and even internationally. It’s our very own academic world cup.
The Public Personality versus the Mother
It is hard enough for one person to carry these heavy responsibilities without the added pressure of being in the public eye, but Professor Effah Kaufmann takes this in her stride. How does she do it? Simply by being herself.
“I am who I am. There are very few things that bother me in terms of people’s opinions of me. I learned very early that I cannot please everyone. So, if you see me in a certain way, it’s because I’ve chosen to be that. I don’t allow certain pressures to get to me. I don’t feel pressured to comment on everything, or to constantly defend myself, and I consider that to be a kind of freedom that I get to enjoy.”
She leverages her opportunities to speak publicly to highlight issues in education that need to be addressed and more recently, the work of the Elsie Effah Kaufmann Foundation, but she also has concerns about the type of information that ends up being promoted.
“That’s the type of thing that happens. Somebody decides to interview me, and I grant the interview. I talk about STEM education, I talk about my Foundation, and at the end of the day, the publication that comes out is all about my personal life and unnecessary things.”
And while she remains largely unconcerned about opinions that address her personally, Prof. Effah Kaufmann sometimes worries about how being in the limelight affects her children.
“It’s not just about me. I have a family. I have children. Sometimes I worry that this public image thing impacts them as well. With my own children, just like with anyone else I come into contact with, I try not to be too overwhelming, or to dictate, but to guide them to reach their own potential. I guide them, but they make their own choices. Sometimes I wonder if the pressures of me being known made them stay away from engineering.”
At the end of the day, she does her best to ensure that, just like her parents who gave her the freedom to explore and find her own path, she gives her children the best chance of fulfilling their true potential, regardless of any circumstance.
Prof. Effah Kaufmann draws inspiration from the many women that have paved the way before her, such as her mother. Despite a lack of opportunities, her mother became a trained teacher by the age of 17, and taught many young Ghanaians in rural areas.
“She knows a bit about everything. She’s my strong support, and she has such an unshakeable belief in me which sometimes amazes me. Sometimes I think certain things are beyond me, but she always tells me ‘You can do it!’ She’s my best friend and has been a huge support right from the beginning.”
The late Mrs. Joyce Asibey, former headmistress of Aburi Girls’ Senior High School, was also one of her mentors. “She was a disciplinarian. I was too afraid to get too close to her, but I observed her from a distance; the way she carried herself and related to us students. It was very inspiring. I wanted to be like her.” It was she who nominated young Elsie for the scholarship at UWC, which would later lead to Bioengineering and the phenomenal woman we revere today. “When I came back to Ghana, I reconnected with her. One day she called me and told me she was so proud of me. That was such an emotional moment for me!”
Another woman who inspires our Woman of the Year is Professor Isabella Quakyi, a professor of Immunology and Parasitology, and the first Dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Ghana. Her work ethic is amazing, and she’s a source of great inspiration to our current Dean of the University of Ghana School of Engineering.
The journey is by no means over for our Professor. While the road behind her is littered with her innumerable accomplishments, the future promises to be just as bright, if not brighter. Every day brings new challenges which she takes on fearlessly, constantly evolving to meet the requirements of each task.
“You have to reinvent yourself every time in order to move to a higher level. And that is what my life has been like. If I talk about my professional life here in Ghana, I showed up in Ghana as a lecturer in 2001. The requirements of the lecturer are different from what my requirements are currently as a Dean of Engineering. And I had to learn. I had to put in the work.”
And the work goes on.
For now, she sees herself dedicating more and more time to the Foundation and the issues that she hopes to address. Although she admits that it’s an ambitious project, she believes that the impact it could potentially make is worth the effort.
A person might ask: why? Why go through all this effort to change a world you’ll one day leave behind?
Her response is a simple one. “I have been exceptionally blessed in my life. I’ve had people in my life who have pushed me and supported me to be the best version of myself. So, if I have the opportunity now, I feel like I must help others to reach the fullest of their potential.” And she’s doing just that.
If you ever find yourself walking down the slope that takes you to the University of Ghana School of Engineering, go up the stairs to Professor Elsie Effah Kaufmann’s office. If you’re fortunate enough to enter, look to your left. You’ll find a wall crammed with pictures of students whose lives have been touched because she cared enough to keep a promise.