From Windhoek to Tbilisi: Empowering Women Towards STEAM

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Two girls sit at a table in a laboratory, they are looking at a smart phone and another piece of equipment, as a third girl stands behind them demonstrating something on the smartphone.
Girls attend the 2018 WiSci STEAM Camp in Tbilisi, Georgia.

From Windhoek to Tbilisi: Empowering Women Towards STEAM

When asked to provide examples of public-private partnerships in action, I often share our role in our Boldline Accelerator, P3 Impact Awards, and Diplomacy Lab, just to name a few. However, a partnership I point to as especially indicative as “successful,” by its sheer force of committed partners and impact on participants, is our WiSci (Women in Science) STEAM Camp. For the fourth consecutive year, we’ve brought together high school girls from around the globe to empower them to pursue education and careers in the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and design, and mathematics) fields. 

With each camp, we’re humbled by the inspirational nature of multiple partners investing in a shared purpose: enabling girls to gain the skills and confidence to become engineers, programmers, doctors, microbiologists, or any role they set their mind to, while also narrowing the gender gap in these fields. Following camps in Rwanda, Peru, and Malawi, this year we set our sights on Windhoek, Namibia and Tbilisi, Georgia. The following is a reflection on what I saw at each of the camps, along with an acknowledgement of the WiSci partners that changed the lives of these girls and future generations to come.

WiSci Namibia

Somewhere over Africa, June 2018

Hour twelve. I’m heading to Namibia and marveling once again at the sheer magnitude of the African continent. As I sit and look out the window, I reflect on the many special young women, educators, engineers, diplomats, and scientists I have met through the WiSci public-private partnership, and my pulse quickens in anticipation of the camp I am about to visit in Windhoek, our fourth WiSci camp. 

Windhoek Arrival, June 2018 

It is dark when I arrive. As I step off the plane and walk across the tarmac, I notice the crescent moon in the distance. It’s upside down! I really am on the other side of the world.

Namibia University of Science and Technology, Day 1, June 2018

Fresh from sleep and breakfast, I’m off to visit the WiSci Namibia camp at the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST). When I arrive the classes are in full swing, and I sneak into the back of a NASA session taught by Emily Adams, a young American scientist herself. She is teaching our WiSci campers how to use satellite data’s many uses, such as flood forecasting for dam failure and frost monitoring for tea farmers through the NASA/USAID SERVIR project. Throughout the next few hours, I feel gratified to see the WiSci participants helping one another with often challenging concepts and curriculum. 

Some campers come from backgrounds with previous exposure to technology utilization in the classroom, but for many, this is the first time they get to apply the mathematics and science concepts they learn in textbooks to real-life scenarios using computers. I am sitting behind a young woman who through the course of the lesson goes from tentative and unsure to confidently using the mouse and typing answers on her own. Aside from the technical skills and exposure these girls are gaining, it is their own growth, self-discovery, and increased cross-cultural awareness of others that keeps my team and myself motivated to do WiSci year after year.

Namibia University of Science and Technology, Day 2, June 2018

This afternoon I observe a class taught by Google. Googlers from around the world jump at the chance to teach classes for WiSci, and we feel lucky to have such an amazing array of talented, intelligent, and worldly teachers train our WiSci girls. 

Not only are they teaching the girls new concepts and skills— like using Raspberry Pi computer boards and their phones to create apps—but they are showing them that becoming a computer scientist or engineer does not require them to be from a certain background, look a certain way, or study one specific field to succeed.

Namibia University of Science and Technology, Final Camp Day, June 2018

After two weeks at WiSci, the girls are giddily waiting for their final presentations to be reviewed. I am amazed at how they have used the concepts and tools learned at the camp to create project ideas and concepts that will benefit their communities. Many will go on to implement these projects with the WiSci mini-grant program— an opportunity we provide for WiSci campers to further scale their projects—though the girls don’t know this surprise yet. Not for the first time, I feel lucky to do what I do.

WiSci Georgia

“Buzz. Buzz.” I reach for my phone's alarm on the bedside table. It’s 6am here in Tbilisi, and I'm up early. We're full STEAM ahead into WiSci Georgia's first few days, less than two months since our WiSci camp in Namibia.

The first to take place in the Caucusus, WiSci Georgia has brought together 100 high school girls from Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the U.S. This particular one is slightly different from previous camps as we test the waters on a new model of implementation for future WiSci camps. Girl Up, an active partner since our first WiSci in 2014, has taken the reigns on the management of WiSciGeorgia with significant support from a new WiSci partner: Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC)/Millennium Challenge Account-Georgia. The later has already helped immensely on the ground in Tbilisi, and we look forward to continued partnership with both Girl Up and MCC on future WiSci camps. We are also fortunate to have Google and Intel join us for WiSciGeorgia just weeks after their partnership on WiSci Namibia. Also with us in Georgia: American Society for Microbiology (involved in past camps) and Microsoft.

Week 1

Even in the camp's first few days, I am inspired by all partners’ dedication to the camp and our campers’ enthusiasm. Girl Up starts each morning leading the WiSci participants in leadership trainings that are both interactive and help start each day with a positive mindset. As the campers then transition into the classroom ready for a week’s worth of curriculum with Google, I wonder how many of these girls could be propelled into careers they never thought might be possible for them before their WiSci experience. Our future astronauts, software engineers, and real-life heroes spend the next few days developing their coding skills while getting to know each other’s heritages through culture nights: showcasing traditional songs, dances, and customs from their countries of origin. A field trip to explore Georgia’s Innovation and Technology Agency and Tbilisi’s famous amusement park on Mount Mtatsminda, along with a special dinner overlooking the cityscape, rounds out the week.

Well, partially. And then it’s finally the weekend—some rest and relaxation for all!

In an effort to keep the momentum going on the girls’ newfound skills and significant engagement from other partners, we’ve kept the girls working hard into the weekend! Saturday, our campers put on their lab coats and learn how to turn their smartphones into microscopes with American Society for Microbiology, a clear favorite activity for many who haven’t had any previous exposure to hands-on lab experience in their school science classrooms. Keeping the A for Arts & Design in STEAM, the girls also get the chance to meet representatives from the Tumo Center for Creative Technologies to further explore the intersections of art and technology and open their eyes to paths of study and future careers that blend many of their passions.

Week 2

As the camp rolls into week two, I wish I were a camper after seeing Microsoft’s curriculum using Minecraft and Intel’s hands-on activities, including showing girls how to program their own drones and build their own robotic cars. Intel has been one of our founding partners, and they’ve been on the ground since day one. Their WiSci Georgia team—led by Laurie Horenstein, alongside her dedicated team of engineers and project managers—has proven to be a big hit with our campers, even participating in the camp-wide talent show!

And with a blink of an eye, we’ve come to the end of the camp. Girls present their final group projects that apply what they’ve learned over the last two weeks to address real-life global challenges. The sophistication of the projects, with some groups developing fully functioning apps and business plans to back their ideas, proves to me that our future is in good hands.

On the final day of camp, we all head to the WiSci final ceremony kindly hosted by the Mayor of Tbilisi. Campers provide their testimonies on how the WiSci experience has changed their lives, along with rounds of parting encouragement from our partners at Millennium Challenge Corporation, Girl Up, Intel, and all involved who made WiSci Georgia such a smooth and successful camp.

Final Thoughts

Fast forward to fall 2018 and upon reflection of the success of this year’s camps in Namibia and Georgia, I feel confident that collectively with partners we can continue to make an impact on young women’s futures in STEAM for years to come through more WiSci camps, steadily closing the gender gap once and for all. We need as many smart brains as we can get in the STEAM labor force and young women’s participation is no exception. At WiSci Georgia, one of the Intel engineers said it best: The question isn’t, “Why should these girls be inspired to pursue education and careers in STEAM?” It’s “Why shouldn’t they?”

About the Author: Connie Tzioumis is Director for Partnerships in the Office of Global Partnerships at the U.S. Department of State.

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