Pursuing a career in technology can be an arduous climb for young people in Albania.
The country on the western coast of the Adriatric Sea in Europe doesn’t offer a ready path for students to prepare for jobs in the fields of science, technology, engineering or mathematics—also known as STEM—but Freeman Broadwell is working to change that.
Broadwell graduated from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 2016 with a mechanical engineering degree focused on machine design. Today, he and his wife, Natalie, live in Albania, where he’s starting a STEM program for students from middle school to university-level.
Most Albanian schools that teach STEM subjects are in the capital, Kosovo—where 1.5 million of the country’s 3 million people live and those outside the city have limited access, Broadwell said.
He said his work is part of a two-pronged approach to overcoming obstacles to broader STEM education.
“One is providing them with the necessary skills, courses and equipment, but two is increasing enthusiasm and awareness for the general areas that are presented by STEM,” Broadwell said. “If you went out and you ask kids, ‘Could you name three STEM careers?’ They might not be able to do that.
“So we are cultivating creativity and innovation in the youth while providing them with the technical skills and educational connections necessary to pursue careers in STEM fields.”
Living and working
Broadwell and his wife live in Korçë, a city of about 76,000 that he said has unique status in Albania. It’s the only one in the entire country with running water and electricity 24/7.
A month after they met in 2018, Natalie moved to Albania to work with a church group. A year and a half later—two months after they got married— he joined her in January 2020, helping her with church work while working as a freelance design engineer.
Through his design work, he ran headlong into the lack of anyone proficient in STEM in Korçë.
“As a mechanical engineer who has a passion for engineering, innovation and sciences, I saw an opportunity to help,” he said.
Working with a local library for classroom space, the University for Business and Technology (UBT) in Korçë as an education partner and getting advice from several Albanian professors who teach engineering, Broadwell is gearing up the STEM program. He’s in the process of raising money to buy equipment such as desktop computers, 3D printers and software. Classes are scheduled to begin in November, he said.
“There is no program like this in the area, and no lab like this in the nation,” Broadwell said.
Aleksia Xega is a program coordinator at UBT and Broadwell’s co-founder of the STEM program. She said the lack of STEM education and skills force many young Albanians to leave the country to find work. .
“They go abroad. They never stay here,” Xega said. “So that’s something we’re trying to do here by building this STEM lab. We’re trying to actually hold our students here instead of letting them go abroad and never come back.”
Beginnings of success
Although the program is in its infancy, a local high school signed up back in February as the first client for the program, bringing 20 to 30 students in 10th and 11th grades, Broadwell said.
The program’s first focus will be robotics, a starting line for many STEM careers because robots are cool and most people recognize them, he said. He gained substantial know-how in robotics as a member of the UTC Chem-E-Car Team that competed in the national championship competition in 2017.
“Robots are fun and a great way to see and physically experience programming,” Broadwell explained. “Robotics is a great way to teach analytical and logical thought processes. An analytical thought process is essential in all STEM fields.
“Technical skills and analytical mindsets, along with experience with robotics, will set these students above the rest when they seek to find work.”
This is an updated version of a story that first appeared in the spring 2022 issue of The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Magazine.