WiSci Partners Coding the Trail

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WiSci campers observe as a trainer from The American Society of Microbiology sets up an experiment.
WiSci campers observe as a trainer from The American Society of Microbiology sets up an experiment.

WiSci Partners Coding the Trail

After a phenomenal two and a half weeks, the third iteration of the WiSci (Women in Science) STEAM Camp --  led by the Department of State in partnership with the United Nations Foundation’s Girl Up campaign; the Intel Corporation; Google; Merck KGaA, Dardmstadt Germany; American Society for Microbiology (ASM);  NASA; and World Learning -- is officially in the books. The Department of State is proud to be a founding partner on this amazing program— with a focus on enhancing high school girls’ skills in Science, Technology, Engineering, Art & Design, and Mathematics (STEAM) while encouraging their leadership potential -- since its inception in Rwanda in 2015 following the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. Upon arriving in Malawi to attend this year’s camp and seeing once again, the partners’ unified efforts on the ground, I was reminded of WiSci’s standing as an extraordinary example of partnership at work and the power of brilliant young minds collaborating to solve global problems in the same manner many of my colleagues in international diplomacy do every day. 

The opening ceremony included a WiSci panel discussion with native Malawian professionals & led by U.S. Embassy Lilongwe’s Faith Chitawo.

The participants’ intelligence, courage, and resiliency would not have been on display at WiSci had it not been for the significant investment of the dedicated WiSci partners.  Anyone who spent just one day at WiSci likely witnessed the substantial impact our partners had on the girls through lessons and mentorship. This year, we were able to bring together a superbly diverse group of organizations to WiSci which exposed the girls to the wide career opportunities available in the STEAM fields. Each of the partners brought a unique and imperative element to the camp, solidifying the value of partnership. ASM and NASA both provided thoughtful curriculum that incorporated aspects of the girls’ daily lives. For instance, ASM helped the girls turn their cell phones into microscopes in order to identify bacteria in staple crops. NASA showed the importance of satellite images in mapping initiatives and how mapping can play a key role in setting up safety guidelines for towns and cities.

I would also be remiss if I did not thank the people of Malawi who brought to life the country’s reputation as “The Warm Heart of Africa.” Aside from rolling out the WiSci Welcome Wagon with distinguished guests—such as the First Lady of the Republic of Malawi, the Honorable Gertrude Mutharika—many Malawi based organizations showed their support for advancing women in the STEAM fields. Malawi based PressCane Ltd., for example, showed the girls how it uses biology, chemistry, and engineering to convert sugar cane into ethanol. In addition, staff representatives from Malawi Airlines, Malawi Shipping Co., and University of Malawi’s Chancellor College shared personal stories of overcoming obstacles in the pursuit of their dreams. They showcased many ways that challenges can be channeled into lessons and turned into strengths.  The campers also spent a day at the Green Malata Entrepreneurial Village, learning about sustainability, renewable energy, and vocational training for women and orphaned youth in Malawi. I also want to thank Leland Melvin, who told his personal story of how he chased his dream of becoming a NASA astronaut. Do not be surprised if you see one of our WiSci alumnae launching into space within a few year.

WiSci participants at the Closing Ceremony with the First Lady of Malawi and distinguished guests

Perhaps the most telling example of the partners’ contributions came to light during the campers’ final group projects, which I had the opportunity to evaluate closely as one of five judges. The objective of these projects was for the girls to work together and use technology to develop proposed solutions for a safer, more secure society. Challenges they addressed included: world hunger, gender-based violence, and countless other issues. During the camp’s classroom curriculum, one of our WiSci founding partners, Intel, showed the girls how to work with computers to program robots. An ambitious group of students parlayed this knowledge into devising a solution to deliver medicine in remote areas via drones programmed through the Arduino system Intel taught them to use. The campers also learned new skills from Google employees, including how to code apps with the MIT App Inventor, which led to a final project detailing how farmers could access market prices for their crops more quickly and efficiently. Every year, we get a new batch of motivated young women who are paving the way forward. As their final group projects showcased, this year’s campers are now part of a cohort of WiSci alumnae who represent the upcoming generation of young women’s ingenuity and identity as change-makers. 

One of the WiSci group excursions included a hike on Mt. Mulanje.

Helping them become those change-makers could not have been possible without our WiSci partners whose technological acumen was not the only quality that made them such a valuable addition.  Their excitement and vigor for sharing their expertise in the classroom, rejoicing in “culture nights” which celebrated campers’ countries of origins, and serving as leaders and mentors was evident throughout the entirety of the camp. One memory of a partners’ priceless contribution, in particular, stands out. During a hiking excursion to Mt. Mulanje, one of the highest mountains in Africa, the campers and partners stopped for lunch at a spectacular waterfall. While many of the girls were soaking in the scenery, one of the partners pioneered her way into the water, which many had been skeptical to do up until that point. As soon as she took the plunge, the campers were quick to follow. This moment was perfectly emblematic of what WiSci is all about. The girls look up to the partners as role models and trail blazers. If these mentors could take the leap and be successful in STEAM fields, this next generation of female scientists, engineers, astronauts, doctors, and leaders is ready to do the same. 

The girls stop for a lunch break at the basin of a waterfall at Mt. Mulanje.

About the Author: Thomas Debass serves as the Acting Special Representative for Global Partnerships at the U.S. Department of State.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.com.