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Sara Narimene Boukais discovered last summer that she can change the world.
As a member of Algeria’s first-ever robotics team, the 18-year-old spent months designing a machine that can clean polluted water—or, at least, clear a replica of a river littered with colored plastic balls.
Sara had never studied robotics, nor did she have experience in Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM) education. But alongside her peers in Algiers, she built a working, remote-controlled robot that they successfully launched at the FIRST Global Challenge, an international high school robotics competition held in July in Washington, DC.
“I saw how powerful robotics are,” Sara says of the competition. “We can do a lot with robotics. We can help people. We can solve the world’s problems.”
We have made great strides in encouraging women and girls like Sara to enter STEAM fields, but we can do better. Women hold less than 30 percent of jobs in STEAM, which encompasses the fastest-growing and highest-paying professional fields, particularly in low-and-middle income economies. There are leaks in the pipeline: globally, women are entering bachelor’s and master’s degree programs at the same levels as men, but the UNESCO Institute of Statistics finds that women are far less likely to pursue doctoral degrees. UNESCO suggests this attrition is caused by the stereotypes and biases that girls encounter in their careers. As long as women are not able to take full advantage of this growing sector, talent and economic potential are being left on the table.
This week, as we recognize the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we must ensure that girls from all backgrounds have access to STEAM education and to the dream of becoming a bioengineer, chemist, tech entrepreneur, or astronaut. Through STEAM education, girls can build confidence in themselves and know that their ideas are powerful and valuable. Girls' participation in STEAM education also expands their access to jobs in high-growth industries, advancing economic opportunities for women, their families, and their communities.
World Learning’s Women in Science (WiSci) Girls STEAM Camp provides an excellent model of building a foundation that will sustain girls throughout their careers. WiSci—a public-private partnership with the U.S. Department of State, the United Nations Foundation’s Girl Up campaign, and tech companies Intel and Google—brings together one hundred high school girls from across Africa and the U.S. for two and a half weeks each year. Held in Malawi last summer, the girls discovered how to turn mobile phones into microscopes, took leadership seminars, and worked together across cultures to design innovations like a shoe with a built-in battery charger that uses the wearer’s movement to generate energy. They also connected with mentors in scientific fields who advised them on their projects and their careers.
In last year’s post-program survey, more than 90 percent of the girls said WiSci had improved both their self-confidence and their leadership skills. Around 95 percent of the girls reported an interest in pursuing a career in STEAM-related fields. “There are more people in this world that believe in me than I had originally thought,” wrote one student. “It gives me hope that people care so much about youth.”
World Learning is committed to empowerment and inclusion in all our programming. In 2018, we’ve pledged to adopt the Minimum Standards for Mainstreaming Gender Equality, a roadmap for international development organizations to ensure gender equality in their programming. Our Pathways to Success program in Pakistan recruits girls from underserved communities and provides them with stipends and scholarships, mentoring, and a variety of vocational and life-skills trainings. And our STEAM Center in Algeria shows girls like Sara how to use science to tackle global challenges.
I’ve personally seen the amazing things girls can do in science. Two years ago, I met Yasmine Yehia Moustafa at one of the eleven STEM schools that World Learning has established across Egypt in a program that pressed for gender parity in enrollment. Just 18 years old, Yasmine had devised an innovative water filtration system that also produces sustainable energy sources. It was a breakthrough that can help Egyptian communities both access clean water and reduce air pollution.
We need women and girls to contribute their ideas in order to solve the world’s thorniest problems. Let’s start by strengthening their foundations in STEAM. When girls are equipped to change the world, they will.