Why STEM Needs Girls
from Women Around the World and Women and Foreign Policy Program

Why STEM Needs Girls

Maadi girls celebrate STEM
Maadi girls celebrate STEM

Voices from the Field features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is authored by Carol Jenkins, president of World Learning’s global development and exchange programs.

One of the newest asteroids in the galaxy, 31910 Moustafa, is named not after a famed space explorer, but a bright-eyed teen from the El Maadi STEM School for girls south of Cairo, Egypt. Seventeen-year-old Yasmine Yehia Moustafa earned the honor from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) after taking first place in the earth and environmental sciences category at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for discovering a way to turn rice into biodiesel fuel to purify water and produce electricity.

Yasmine’s school is part of a program that is managed by World Learning, and funded by USAID in partnership with the Egyptian Ministry of Education, The Franklin Institute, the 21st Century Partnership for STEM Education, and the Teaching Institute for Excellence in STEM. It is a collective effort to overhaul the Egyptian education system to help to ensure quality, relevant education for both boys and girls. The idea is simple: better science and math education will help close the country’s knowledge gap and create a skilled workforce that can address its most pressing issues. The schools use a project-based curriculum in which students learn to apply their knowledge and skills to design solutions to Egypt’s grand challenges, such as pollution, water scarcity, and energy. This transdisciplinary, experiential approach combines urgency with practicality, attributes missing from traditional Egyptian teaching methods.

When I met with Yasmine and her classmates in Egypt recently, I was awestruck by their dedication to education and the innovative projects they are developing. These teenage girls are using physics, nanotechnology, and fabrication labs to design affordable, self-sustaining houses; new agricultural methods; robotic arms; and alternative sources of energy. Their learning does not come from textbooks or rote memorization, and their teachers are not at the center of the classrooms. Instead, through practical experimentation, these students independently seek out the information and applications they need to tackle a given problem, with teachers acting as facilitators (it is not uncommon for students’ knowledge to surpass their teachers’). The result is a reimagined system of education that is keeping pace with the real world.

The El Maadi STEM School is the first school in Egypt providing comprehensive science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education to young girls, and serves as a model for the seven other schools that the Ministry of Education opened last fall—expanding the STEM School model outside of Cairo. Other countries in the region are looking to Egypt to replicate the model, and it also has positive implications for the U.S. education system. Two of World Learning’s partners on the project, The Franklin Institute and Teaching Institute for Excellence in STEM, have already conducted exchanges with American and Egyptian teachers so that educators from the United States can learn about these innovative teaching methods and apply them in their own classrooms. The El Maadi STEM School has even captured the attention of First Lady Michelle Obama, who recognized it this week during an International Women’s Day event celebrating her signature education initiative, Let Girls Learn.

What Egypt understands is that giving girls a place where they can explore STEM subjects and use their skills to solve the country’s most vexing problems helps them develop the confidence to see themselves as true drivers of social and economic change. In a world where women’s efforts and contributions to many fields are often overlooked, young Egyptian girls are entering—and winning—competitions like the Intel Science Fair, being awarded Egypt’s Order of Distinction, and patenting inventions. This program builds the foundations girls need to advance in higher education and become leaders in their fields, and in doing so, supply Egypt with the skilled professionals it needs to compete in the global economy.

World Learning has embarked on similar missions around the world to empower girls to contribute to economic and social advancement for themselves and their communities. We are increasing girls’ access to basic education in Pakistan and helping Syrian refugee girls integrate into the school system in Lebanon, where they and their families make up a quarter of the population. We are educating young women in Malawi to become nurses and health care workers to help fight the scourge of malnutrition and reduce high maternal and child mortality rates.

Perhaps most importantly, investing in girls helps them cultivate a sense of pride, understand their worth, and believe in the important contributions they can make to society. The benefits are practical, as well: educating women improves their job prospects so they can become self-sufficient and better provide for their families and community.

In fact, research shows that when girls are educated, society as a whole reaps the benefits. Girls who finish secondary school are six times less likely to marry young, children born to educated mothers are 50 percent more likely to survive past the age of five, and educating women increases their salaries and boosts the entire country’s GDP.

This work also has clear economic benefits for the U.S. and other donors. For every dollar spent on development, ten dollars are saved in relief efforts. The U.S. spends about $37.9 billion on foreign assistance each year. That sounds like a lot, but it amounts to less than one percent of our $4 trillion budget. In contrast, the U.S. spends $598 billion, or about 18 percent of the budget on defense. Or to put it another way, the government spends as much on educating women, training health care workers, and building robust civil societies as it does on 10 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.

However, professionals in international development know that our programs are not the quick fixes that governments, funders, and the public want to see. We need to get over this obsession with immediate results and see development as long-term investment that changes the course of communities and lives. It takes time to convince families and community leaders of the value of girls’ education. It takes time to change ingrained beliefs about girls’ capabilities and place in the world. And it takes time for a new generation of girls like Yasmine to hone their skills and overcome the messages they have heard their entire lives—an experience that is similar for girls and women in STEM fields around the world.

The El Maadi STEM School and others like it are laying the groundwork—not for reform—but for a revolution in education that will bear fruit in the coming years. Attending a school like El Maadi will give focus to girls, who might otherwise opt out of education, to channel their goals and aspirations into a school that will allow them to live up to their potential. Whereas it is currently difficult to engage girls in STEM fields the world over, these schools will create fierce competition among the best and brightest young women.

In international development, as in science, progress requires a paradigm shift—approaching problems from a new and unexpected perspective. Yasmine Yehia Moustafa and the other girls of the El Maadi STEM School have shown us the power of coupling development with STEM education, radically reframing not only the idea of how girls should be educated, but how they can change our world.