‘STEM Connect’ program brings together students from across the globe

May 17, 2017
NYHQ2010-1842Submitted by Hanya Qureshi, co-developer of the UN Ivy STEM Connect Program. This blog is part of the UN Girls’ Education Initiative’s #STEMtheGap series,  focussing on women and girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. 

After months of research and planning, in October 2016, the “UN Ivy STEM Connect Program” was piloted under the leadership of UNGEI in collaboration with students from Ivy League universities. The program matches students in high school STEM clubs abroad with STEM peers from Ivy League universities.  Students planned connecting once a week for an hour virtually through Skype, bringing together high school students from the Bagamoyo Secondary School Tanzania, Masters’ students from African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) Tanzania, and students from Ivy League universities, including, Columbia (Hanya Qureshi ’19), Brown (Nour Asfour ’18), Yale (Stephanie Spear ’19), Cornell (Aydin Kaghazchi ’19), Princeton (Dina Chotrani ’18) and Harvard (Francisco Alvarez ’19). Though not initially without logistical challenges related to time zones and technology, this weekly peer-to-peer educational and cultural exchange has been surprisingly successful.

For many students, cultural dictates can serve as barriers to educational involvement. One of the most pressing issues the global community currently faces is women’s empowerment through successful integration of women into high-end research and job markets, especially those involving science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).  For example, in the United States, although women’s representation in STEM occupations has increased since the 1970s, it remains significantly lower than men’s representation.[1]   In fact, according to a US Census Bureau report issued in 2013,[2] men are employed for STEM jobs at twice the rate of women, resulting in a declining percentage of young women involved in STEM.  Additionally, minority groups remain significantly underrepresented across the globe in STEM involvement. Clearly, there is an increasing need for revitalization of STEM amongst young, minority women – the question is “how.” How can we support women, especially those underrepresented in the US and around the world, to become more involved in STEM at school, at university, and in the job market?

One way is through outreach exchange projects involving female high school students in STEM clubs.  In Africa, international collaboration has already proven critical to research endeavors.  In 2012, 79%, 70%, and 45% of all research by Southern, Eastern, and Western/Central Africa, respectively, was a byproduct of international collaborations.[4]   In these regions, peer-to-peer programs have the potential to increase STEM participation amongst high school girls, in turn increasing the numbers of young, African women in future STEM research and job markets.

DSC_0096It is this potential the UN Ivy STEM Connect Program aims to develop by fostering educational and cultural exchange through virtual peer-to-peer interactions.  Over the past few months, the secondary school girls have enjoyed the opportunity to speak with similar-aged, like-minded students about their schoolwork, extracurricular activities, and lifestyles.  Similarly, the Ivy university students have relished in sharing their own experiences, fielding questions about STEM, study strategies, and leadership.   We have also addressed non-traditional questions that foster a sense of community dialogue: “What do you eat in America? You look so much older than your age?” “Will you come to my brother’s wedding over the summer?” “Will you sing for us?”

As American college students, some lessons from interactions were totally unexpected. For example, we learned about the differing gender-based cultural attitudes surrounding STEM in Tanzania, realizing that obtaining a STEM degree by girls is often perceived by many in Tanzania as akin to declaring an “irrelevant humanities major” in the United States with “no real job prospects.”  Furthermore, students in Tanzania explained that result requirements were starkly different based on gender, with girls having to achieve a significantly lower letter grade than boys to continue studying a particular subject.  Similar conversations have led to discussions beyond just learning to solve test questions, by also focusing on coping mechanisms to overcome resource scarcity, such as lack of around-the-clock access to textbooks, electricity, and water.

Ultimately, students on both sides will have the opportunity to participate in a team collaborative research project, eventually sharing their results with each of their wider school and local communities.  Through these international efforts, we aim to come together globally by challenging ourselves to push for each of our respective STEM pursuits, while gaining new perspectives and learning from one another’s communities along the way.

[1] Landivar, Liana Christin. American Community Survey Reports: Disparities in STEM Employment by Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin. U.S. Department of Commerce United States Census Bureau, 2013. https://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/acs-24.pdf
[2] Ibid
[3] Ibid
[4] A Decade of Development in Sub-Saharan African Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics Research. World Bank and Elsevier, 2014. http://www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/WDSP/IB/2014/09/26/000456286_20140926094154/Rendered/PDF/910160WP0P126900disclose09026020140.pdf  
IMG_4526 2About the Author
Hanya Qureshi, co-developer of the UN Ivy STEM Connect Program. Hanya is currently a pre-medical sophomore at Columbia University in the City of New York, studying Neuroscience & Behavior. She works on several research projects in conjunction with the Ophthalmology Department at the Sackler School of Medicine in Tel Aviv and the Department of Neurological Surgery at Columbia University’s Medical Center.  Hanya is also one of Columbia University’s Co-Head Delegates to the Ivy Council, an inter-Ivy student organization.

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