Talking Books: Reducing Gender Inequalities Around the World [EngineerGirl Cross-post]
Updated: Aug 25
High school STEM student Katherine Liu shares her award-winning essay and interest in engineering solutions for social good
In 2022, Katherine Liu’s essay on Amplio Talking Books and gender equality won an EngineerGirl writing contest. At the time, Katherine was a 9th-grade student at Clements High School in Sugar Land, TX. Today, she's a high school junior.
When we caught up with her last week, Katherine was at a math olympiad training
camp, but she readily agreed to an interview.
“I was researching international projects to benefit humanity, and the Talking Book caught my eye," Katherine shared. "I was immensely impressed by how simple the solution was, considering the prevalence of illiteracy and all the difficulties surrounding it. Yet somehow, no one had considered the idea of Talking Books before."
Katherine was especially interested in solutions for social change.
“While a lot of great science projects are focused on protecting the natural world, I wanted to show how engineering can bring positive societal change as well, especially for women. Gender equality is an important focus of inspirational organizations like EngineerGirl, and I’m glad that Amplio cares about it, too," she shared.
"I think it’s incredible that Amplio has added over 20 programs in less than two years since I wrote my essay."
Katherine Liu’s award-winning essay is cross-posted with permission from EngineerGirl.
Talking Books: Reducing Gender Inequalities Around the World—by Katherine Liu
Out of the 773 million illiterate people in the world, about two-thirds are women and 95% reside in Asia or Africa. Part of this problem is due to an imbalance in education, but a lack of online access has further exacerbated the knowledge gap. Indeed, men in Africa are 25% more likely than women to possess a phone with a stable internet connection. In response, Cliff Schmidt has applied his background in computer engineering to establish the Amplio Talking Book program, a solar-powered device that stores crucial information within a playback machine, circumventing both the literacy barrier and the need for internet access. The result is a guide that leads all listeners toward an enhanced quality of life.
To illustrate, the Talking Book is a handheld, colorful device that plays hours of recordings, ranging from cultural songs to health warnings to agricultural advice. The technology was designed by software engineers who consulted with rural communities in northern Ghana. Instead of numbers or letters, the front face is covered with easily recognizable icons such as a house, a tree, and a table, as buttons on a remote. Listeners are directed with audio cues that explain the function of each image. Additionally, each icon is embossed with a dot to accommodate visually impaired people. This means the Talking Book is a helpful resource for the literate and illiterate alike, providing an elegant learning tool to the nearly unreachable last-mile communities, where a development worker would only be able to hold literacy lessons once or twice a year.
Crucially, the Talking Book has specifically reduced inequalities for women. In Ghana, it taught women how to negotiate with middlemen, who were cheating them out of deals. By replaying recordings of people haggling until they settled upon a fair price, the women were able to realize the power of their voice and walk away from the unfair contracts that men demanded. In Kenya, messages targeting pregnant women resulted in a 110% increase in antenatal visits, and Talking Books were used in mother groups in Haiti to encourage learning and discussion.
Already, 33 Talking Book programs have been set up within the last 10 years. They span 13 countries in South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and South America, reaching 1.2 million people so far. Owing to the diverse backgrounds of its users, the Talking Book can be programmed in any local language, using informative and entertaining content made through partnerships with local musicians and experts on agriculture, food security, climate change, health, or business. Information is updated quarterly to fit the planting seasons: Overall, the programs have increased crop production by 48%, compared to a reduction of 5% in control groups, thereby greatly improving the impoverished families’ incomes. Another type of update may include information about circulating diseases like COVID-19. Moreover, the device recharges using solar power to both conserve resources and acknowledge the absence of formal grid power in most locations.
The Amplio program is funded by a wide array of international stakeholders, including CARE International and the World Cocoa Foundation. Many of the directors of these programs sit on Amplio’s board of directors, such as Tim Akimbo, a Nigerian computer engineer. Among the other directors are educators, computer scientists, and a judicial commissioner, with degrees ranging from science and engineering to media and international development. By incorporating perspectives from people of all genders and backgrounds, Amplio can make the best possible decisions on how to continue serving communities around the world.
Thanks to the engineers’ prowess, the Amplio Talking Book has been able to significantly improve the lives of marginalized communities. By empowering women and informing them about the topics most relevant to their lives, everyone can use their voice to earn a better living. With a quarter of the world’s population feeding the other 73 percent, these underdeveloped communities need all the help they can get, and engineering is the key to their sustainability.
View Katherine Liu’s essay and bibliography on the EngineerGirl website.
Katherine Liu is a high school student in Sugarland, TX. Her favorite subjects include math, science, and Spanish. Outside of school, Katherine enjoys swimming, art, writing, and eating shredded cheese straight from the bag. She also volunteers for INTEGIRLS, a student-led global nonprofit bridging the gender gap in competitive problem-solving.
EngineerGirl is a National Academy of Engineering (NAE) outreach program that highlights exciting engineering opportunities, especially for girls and women.