For Global Girls, A STEM Program That’s Anything But Old School

July 19, 2016
Ghanaian campers, Anne Marie and Grace, display their robotic car, built and programmed using Intel's Galileo microcontoller board at the 2015 WiSci Girls STEAM Camp in Rwanda.

As she prepared for her first week of summer camp, Anne Marie imagined the worst, picturing lessons on how to use spreadsheets.

She had traveled from Ghana to Rwanda to join 120 girls from eight African countries and the United States for a three-week camp, where the girls would learn about science, technology, engineering, arts and design, and math (also known as STEAM).

Like some of her fellow campers, Anne Marie was skeptical. But the first week of camp, it turned out, would not be an introduction to spreadsheets. Instead, the girls learned how to create animations and game -- and while it wasn’t easy, it was fun.

“Was my perception changing?” Anne Marie asked in a reflection on her experience. “Could I develop a love for the sciences?”

The State Department, along with private sector partners who joined in making the WiSci (Women in Science) STEAM camp a reality, knew the answer would be a resounding yes.

I had the chance to attend the opening ceremony of the WiSci camp last July, which took place as part of the Let Girls Learn initiative. I could tell the campers were anxious about being far away from home and making friends from other countries (and, perhaps, about spending three weeks learning about technology).  

But by the end of the camp, the girls had created amazing projects to tackle problems in their communities, from helping cities deal with flooding disasters in Ghana to preventing car accidents in Nigeria. And they had found not only friendship but confidence from being with other girls who shared their interests.

Clearly, we couldn’t let this be a one-time program, so the State Department and partners from the United Nations Foundation’s Girl Up campaign, Google, and Intel Corporation have joined efforts to support another WiSci camp this July, this time as part of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).

The United States has been part of an APEC project that measures progress for women in APEC economies across a number of indicators. We found that APEC economies, including the United States, fall short when it comes to including and advancing women in STEM fields.

That’s why, earlier this year, the United States announced a new APEC initiative to break down the barriers women face in STEM fields across the 21 APEC economies. The STEAM camp is one way we can ensure that adolescent girls -- including girls from different socio-economic backgrounds and indigenous populations -- are moving along the pipeline to careers in STEM.

This week girls from Peru, Mexico, Chile, and the United States will come together for the camp, which will be held in Lima. Conducted in Spanish, the camp will give the girls hands-on, exciting experiences that we hope inspire and prepare them to go into these fields. There will also be opportunities to apply technology as a tool that can shape their futures and improve their communities.

For example, Google will teach girls how to develop their own apps from scratch using App Inventor. By training the girls to think like software developers, Google will challenge them to create an app that can make technology more accessible for people with disabilities. Intel’s training will help the girls learn how to improve or even save lives in their communities by building heart-rate monitors, digital music players, robotic cars, and windmills.

I met with some of the Peruvian girls who will attend the camp during my trip to the region last month. These girls view STEAM as more than a future career. To them, the camp is a way to advance gender equality in their country by getting more women in to male-dominated fields, like engineering.

Myriam, who is in her fourth year of secondary school, said the only people she sees in technology are men. She told me she wants to combat stereotypes and make a difference in the way women in technology are perceived.

“I am a representative for girls everywhere,” she said. “Everything I learn, I will share with others. I have a responsibility to succeed in STEAM and to let other girls know that they can do it too.”  

Could we ask for anything more from the next generation? By inspiring more girls to see a future in STEAM, we can give them the tools they need to make a difference in their communities -- not to mention open doors to fast-growing, well-paying careers. 

If we want our economies to be competitive, countries need women on every team, including in the STEAM fields.

By investing in the next generation while they’re still making decisions about their futures, we can make sure that girls like Anne Marie and Myriam bring their talent, ideas, and energy to these industries and can contribute to the innovation that drives economic growth and social progress. 

About the Author: Catherine Russell serves as Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues at the U.S. Department of State. 

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