UNESCO inspires girls in Kenya to embrace Science and Engineering through Scientific Camps of Excellence

20 January 2016

The shortage of engineers is a major concern in Africa and across the world where there has been declining interest and enrolment of young people, especially women. The graduation statistics from Kenyan Universities have consistently indicated that fewer female students are admitted into engineering and applied science courses. While it is known that admission into university in Kenya is based on marks scored in high school and the cut-off points, it is also possible that there are other factors influencing the choice of engineering and applied science courses among female high school students. The situation is even worse for engineering courses where enrolment continues to decline and even those who enroll continue to dropout before completion of the course.

Technological gaps between developed and developing countries will continue to grow as long as new approaches are not adopted in the teaching of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in primary and secondary schools. Most Kenyan secondary schools’ laboratories are ill-equipped for students to carry out experiments; thus they perceive sciences as dull, theoretical and abstract. They fail to relate what they are taught with its application in the real world. Science will remain an abstract pursuit to learners so long as they are not exposed to its real application in their daily lives. Technology will never be appropriate if students are not afforded means of contextualizing it – this should earnestly begin in the laboratories as emphasized by Prof. Shem Wandiga, a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Nairobi. This explains the need to bring science closer to secondary school students and also to expose them to both the learning and work environments for increased interest in subjects that are gradually becoming alienated from their daily lives.

UNESCO Nairobi’s Scientific Camps of Excellence aim to increase female enrolment into engineering and applied science courses and taking up science-based professions. This approach to mentoring girls in STEM was introduce in Kenya in 2014 with the first camp being organized on 10 November to mark the World Science Day and to give more focus to the need for more female involvement in the STEM courses and careers. A total of 98 girls were mentored in STEM during this first camp which was held at one of the prominent Girls’ Secondary Schools in Nairobi, Kenya. A further 343 secondary school girls from six counties were mentored in the North Rift Region in May the following year. More recently, 100 secondary school girls were mentored from 23rd to 28th November, at Kisumu Girls’ High School during the final quarter of the biennium at a third mentorship camp in the country.

The UNESCO camps are organized in partnership with the Ministry of Education Science and Technology and the National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation (NACOSTI). Other partners include Universities, Institutes of Technology, Women in Aviation, Safaricom, CISCO systems among other key stakeholders in STEM and industries.

UNESCO Nairobi has identified a good number of female scientists and engineers who serve as role models and mentors for the girls during these scientific camps of excellence. Apart from mentoring students on how to succeed, the beauty of the various scientific and engineering fields such as Agriculture, Maritime science, aerospace, space, civil as well as electrical and systems engineering are portrayed to the girls. Life does not exist in a vacuum, hence the importance of equipping the girls with life skills and survival techniques to counter issues that affect girls and women both in school and the work place, as part of the mentorship programme. Aimed at helping students to make informed career choices, the mentors also provided girls with information on the different STEM courses offered at university level and tips on how best to prepare for examinations. Furthermore, students are given the opportunity to visit the learning and work environments where various demonstrations are made on the application of science and engineering and their importance in enhancing a country’s development.

A part from exposing students to life in campus, the learning and work environment for STEM related courses and careers, the visits also provide the girls with the opportunity to link various scientific disciplines with the creation and production of things that are vital for addressing basic human needs, improving the quality of life and creating opportunities at a local, national and international levels.

UNESCO Nairobi’s Scientific Camps of Excellence STEM Mentorship camps offer students the opportunity to think as a young scientists and engineers by availing them the opportunity to focus on their respective environments and identify problems and challenges that need scientific or engineering interventions. The scientists and engineers in the making have the responsibility to propose the most appropriate scientific and engineering solutions to the identified problems through project proposals.

To ensure the interest created among the mentored students is sustained, the teachers who accompany the students to the camps are also mentored on gender responsive teaching of science subjects. A total of 52 teachers have been mentored in gender responsive teaching of STEM in the course of the three STEM mentorship camps that have been organized in Kenya.

The reaction from the participating students and schools has been very encouraging with high demand for the programme coming from other regions and counties within Kenya. While officially opening the third UNESCO STEM mentorship camp in November, the Principal Secretary in the Department of Science and Technology of the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology lauded UNESCO for “initiating such a unique and important programme”, and insisted that her Ministry would ensure that the UNESCO STEM Mentorship camps are rolled out to all the regions in the country.

 

Appreciation for participating in the UNESCO STEM Mentorship Camp

“Start living now, dream big and break the glass ceiling.” This is the phrase Madam Christine and Madam Alice left me with after the one-week STEM mentorship programme at school in May 2015. The UNESCO Scientific camp of excellence STEM camp has since then been a rich source of inspiration for my success. It has actually been a wakeup call every time I fall into a slumber of hopelessness. I am greatly humbled and thankful to have been given the opportunity to attend the camp.

I now can clearly state aspirations, career and goal, courtesy of the inspiring mentoring sessions that enriched the camp. A few weeks after the STEM mentorship camp, the leadership part of me began living and currently I am the Head of House –Sergoit, Head of the delegates Protocol Department as well as Chairlady of creative writers Club. This is just an illustration of how UNESCO STEM camp has transformed me from a shy little girl to a courageous leader.

I would not have written this if the UNESCO STEM camp had not have an impact on my academic life. I now attain grade “A” or “A-“ – an improvement from the “B” bracket where I previously belonged. However, the great mentors and role models in the camp taught me to always maintain an upward trend and I am not going to stop there. I have realized that I can do great things if I set my heart on them. I have also learnt to overlook the “small things” that pose as obstacles on my way to success. Thank you to UNESCO for awakening a great mind.

Jemimah Victoria Ndindi

Moi Girls High School, Eldoret

For more details on the STEM camps, contact Alice Ochanda at:a.ochanda(at)unesco.org