By Steve Nakata, Student Affairs
Washington State University Pullman senior Kofi Frimpong remembers the electricity frequently going out when he was studying while living with his grandparents in Ghana at a young age. During those periods of darkness, he resorted to finishing his homework by candlelight.
“My grandma said jokingly that I would fix this problem someday, and that stuck with me,” Frimpong said. “It helped spark my passion for STEM.”
That passion has led Frimpong to some amazing opportunities that include participating in the White House Science Fair, becoming a student leader and role model at WSU, and helping develop new patent-pending technology at Boeing.
Impressing President Obama
Frimpong’s incredible journey in STEM education, sparked by his grandmother’s comment, began in earnest when he moved from Ghana to Colorado in middle school. He immediately got involved with science projects and partnered with a couple of seventh-grade classmates to design and build a carbon fiber leg prosthetic for a local veteran.
Impressed with their work, his school’s STEM teacher entered the project into the Samsung “Solve for Tomorrow” competition — a national contest where students from across the country showcase their STEM projects and vie for prizes and an opportunity to be mentored by a STEM professional. Frimpong’s group won several rounds of the contest, competing against mostly high school students; ultimately, their project was selected as one of the top five in the nation.
The feat earned his school $200,000 in prize money to upgrade its technology, and Frimpong’s group received an invitation to the White House Science Fair, where they met President Barack Obama.
“Among those we got to present our science project to was Obama, and he said he was very impressed with our work,” Frimpong said. “It was a big opportunity and a great experience.”
Making his mark at Boeing
Frimpong received another big opportunity to showcase his talent when he interned at Boeing during the summer of 2023. Arun Ayyagari, a principal senior technical fellow at Boeing, was designing a digital airplane cargo tracking system to help loaders make maximum use of a plane’s storage space and needed assistance from someone well-versed in coding. When he asked the interns if any of them could help, Frimpong raised his hand.
“He asked a lot of me, and I could tell he wasn’t sure if I would be able to understand what he presented to me,” Frimpong said. “The following Monday, I provided him with new code and a training module explaining how it works. From there it was full steam ahead on the project.”
What was expected to be a quick two-week collaboration turned into a summer-long partnership between Frimpong and Ayyagari.
“Kofi is wise beyond his years and performed at a level equal to people who have been working at Boeing for five years or more,” Ayyagari said. “The pace we kept and the accomplishments we achieved by the end of the summer were impressive, and Kofi was instrumental to us pulling it off.”
Due to his key role in developing the cargo tracking system, Frimpong’s name is included on the U.S. patent application Boeing is submitting for the new technology. It is expected to be implemented on planes beginning in 2027.
“When I found out my name was being included in the patent, I was truly shocked,” Frimpong said. “At that moment I thought back to when my grandfather, who died earlier in the year, told me to ‘make us proud,’ and I really felt I was living up to his words.”
Although Frimpong’s involvement with that project has ended, he continues to work with Boeing as his time allows and the company has already offered him a job when he graduates this spring.
‘Amazing’ people at WSU
Frimpong said the opportunities he had at Boeing would not have been possible without the help of “amazing” people at WSU like Jessica Samuels, retention specialist in WSU’s African American Student Center, and electrical engineering professor John Schneider.
It was Samuels who encouraged him to attend the annual National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) conference, where he crossed paths with a WSU alum who works at Boeing. That alum helped Frimpong make connections that led to his internship.
And it is Schneider’s excellent teaching and mentorship, Frimpong said, that has helped prepare him to be successful when opportunities arise.
Schneider said Frimpong stood out right away when he enrolled in his introductory circuits class in the fall of 2021. He earned perfect scores on the first two exams, and in another course taught by Schneider, aced a basic competency test given on the first day of class — the only student to do so.
Frimpong said he has always been a curious person who thrives when presented with challenges.
“One thing about me is I don’t like things to be easy,” Frimpong said with a grin.
Schneider, who quickly invited Frimpong to serve as a teaching assistant in one of his classes, said he is impressed with Frimpong’s ambition, his ability to lead and take initiative, and his passion for helping fellow classmates succeed.
“In my 34 years at the university serving in multiple faculty and administrative positions, I’ve seen thousands of students in classroom settings, research labs, and in mentoring roles,” Schneider said. “Kofi is in that category of students that you can be confident he’s going to be very impactful and an asset to your program.”
Frimpong’s impact stretches beyond the classroom – he’s having a positive effect across campus. In addition to his rigorous studies and his work at Boeing, he is involved in numerous student organizations, including serving as president of WSU’s NSBE chapter. He has emceed programs such as the Black Excellence and Chosen Coug Award ceremonies, and he helped plan the 2024 MLK program.
As busy as he is, Frimpong is careful not to forget what brought him to WSU in the first place — getting a degree in electrical engineering. It is a goal he has been working toward ever since he studied by candlelight in Ghana years ago.
His advice to other students is to have an end goal in mind. You don’t need to know exactly what you want to do or how to get there, but having an idea of what kind of life you want to live after graduation makes it easier to navigate college. For Frimpong, one end goal is to work with the people of Ghana to develop a more reliable power grid system.
“Now, my trips to Ghana aren’t just for vacation,” he said. “I make sure to engage with the community and local institutions as a way to help the nation develop.”