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U.S. State Department Tackles Gender Gap in STEM Participation

By Taylor Lewis — August 30, 2016 7 min read
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They have traveled from Tunisia and Algeria, from Lebanon and Palestine.

One teenage girl wants to be an engineer, another to work in astrophysics. They are “TechGirls,” participants in a summer program that brought them to the nation’s capital this summer to nurture their passion for leadership and sharpen their technology skills.

The U.S. Department of State-sponsored program is one of a growing number of efforts that are providing real-world, in-depth experiences to get girls more engaged in science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM. Men still largely outnumber women in STEM fields, and the State Department aims to pick away at that gap.

TechGirls is run by Legacy International, a nonprofit group with a long history of supporting local community-building around the world. The itinerary for the program brings girls from the Middle East and North Africa on visits to tech companies, and has them take part in a coding camp and in community-service activities, all designed to cultivate their interest in math- and science-related studies and professions.

The intersection of technology experience, cultural exchange, and leadership training is what attracts many applicants, including 17-year-old Vera Murad. TechGirls alums, some of whom have gained international recognition, brought back stories that intrigued the young Palestinian, who had helped build a job and scholarship search app with her high school tech team.

“You get to learn more about other people’s cultures, traditions, and you get to make long-lasting friendships,” said Vera. “You get to learn leadership skills, and how to be a successful leader and change-maker.”

Seeking to Inspire

The TechGirls program emerged from the success of TechWomen, an initiative created in 2011 by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for career development in STEM fields, focused on 20- to 30-year-old women around the world.

“By increasing opportunities for women and girls in the STEM fields, we are getting closer to realizing greater equality for women across the world and widening the pipeline for the next generation of female leaders,” Sarah Shields, the State Department’s program officer for TechGirls, said in an email.

The State Department also sponsors the WiSci Girls STEAM Camp, which brings together high school students from around the world for a STEM and art-focused summer camp. Started as part of the “Let Girls Learn” initiative, the camp first took place last year in Rwanda, bringing African and American girls together in the southern city of Gashora. This year, Americans joined girls from Latin America in a different location, Peru.

Let Girls Learn” was launched in 2015 by the White House to promote girls’ education on a global scale. Earlier this summer, Oracle announced a $3 million investment in the initiative. That commitment includes technology-based teacher training and curriculum development for STEM high schools in Egypt. The nine schools that Oracle is supporting include a girls’ boarding school, funded through the United States Agency for International Development.

The U.S.-based tech company AOL also launched the Let Girls Build challenge as a part of the same initiative Oracle is supporting, inviting American high school girls to find tech-enabled solutions that will help girls around the world who don’t have access to education.

The goal is to make sure girls are “provided with resources, and educators and mentors who are not only going to inspire them to get interested in computer science, but to stay in computer science,” Alison Derbenwick, the vice president of Oracle Academy, said in an interview.

The 2016 TechGirls class included girls from Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco.

Part of the TechGirls program includes a weeklong coding camp at American University, hosted by iD Tech Camps, which provides students with hands-on technology summer experiences around the country.

Thanks to a grant allowing iD Tech Camps to expand their focus on girls’ education, the TechGirls program was able to start bringing in American girls last year to join their peers from Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and other countries for the week.

Culture and Coding

While attending the iD Tech camp, the TechGirls primarily focused on Java and C++ coding. In one of their classes, an instructor led four girls through graphic design.

They worked on desktop computers labeled with account names: Albus Dumbledore, Nemo, Dobby, occasionally turning to journals full of coding notes laid out alongside them. They spoke mostly with their instructors in English, and when chatting with each other, sometimes shifted into Arabic.

One of the TechGirls from the United States, Alexandria D’Antonio of Madison Heights, Mich., heard about the opportunity from a travel agent who organizes trips for her school’s service club.

Though she and the four other American girls were only with the program for a week, D’Antonio bonded quickly with the other TechGirls. She talked about violence against women with Hadil Daif, a participant from Algeria.

Another participant, Jana Sebaali, spoke about the isolation that comes with being interested in engineering. When technology education opportunities are offered at her school in Lebanon, the 16-year-old often feels alone in her eagerness to pursue them.

“I’ll be the only girl raising my hand,” she said. “It gets a little bit uncomfortable, or intimidating.”

Hadil, a 16-year-old who wants to work in technical mathematics, observed that in her school, girls often outperform boys. Whether it is in North Africa or in the United States, she believes that one of the greatest barriers to women pursuing education and careers in STEM fields is themselves.

“Most of the girls ... have this idea stuck in their minds that they can’t be geeks, they can’t be brilliant computer geniuses,” Hadil said. “Well, the reality is the total opposite,” said the young Algerian.

According to the World Economic Forum, women in Middle Eastern and North African countries graduate with STEM degrees at a higher percentage than in the United States. In 2015, 30 percent of American STEM graduates were women. The average between Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia was 43.8 percent the same year, with Tunisian women leading—earning 55 percent of STEM degrees awarded in the North African nation.

Nour Atrissi, co-founder and president of the Lebanese coding academy Teens Who Code, believes that a significant obstacle to proper STEM education in her country is curriculum. Many schools in Lebanon do not offer adequate exposure to STEM subjects, she said in an email. A report released this summer by the Information and Technology Innovation Foundation cited similar shortcomings in schools in the United States.

Programs like TechGirls help bridge that gap, but Atrissi said that to be successful, they must complement what is already provided in schools and allow students to explore the subjects that they are interested in. Pressuring students to take a particular academic focus, she said, is rarely effective.

Once the TechGirls participants return to their home countries, the work does not end. The program requires them to complete a project related to technology following along the lines of the service and leadership mission that TechGirls emphasizes.

Future Plans

Many in the 2016 class already had ideas about those projects before the program even ended. Meriam Gaied, 16, wants to hold motivational conferences in her native Tunisia, and in Lebanon. Jana Sebaali plans to help bridge the divide between refugees and the local population with a club for children. Hadil Daif aspires to create an image-processing club for elementary-age children in Algeria, as well as hold conferences meant to inspire people to get into technology, both within the country and internationally.

TechGirls alums have gone on to create apps and websites for family businesses. Nourhan Fooda, an alumna from Egypt, was cited by Michelle Obama in a speech for her desire to be “the youngest Nobel Prize winner for nuclear physics.” She currently attends the Cairo Maadi STEM School for Girls, the same girls’ boarding school that Oracle is supporting as a part of the “Let Girls Learn” initiative.

Mary Helmig, Legacy International’s vice president of youth initiatives, pointed to the power of the program to shatter preconceived notions. “It’s really important to expose teenagers to each other, and find all of these stories of great people that are doing community work,” she said.

As Hadil put it, in summing up her experience with the program, “TechGirls rock!”

A version of this article appeared in the August 31, 2016 edition of Education Week as U.S. State Department Tackles Gender Gap in STEM Participation

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