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STEM as stepping stone for Nigerian girls

By Iyabo Lawal
25 November 2021   |   4:15 am
On August 6, the Federal Government renamed the Ministry of Science and Technology as Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation.

Children learning STEM

On August 6, the Federal Government renamed the Ministry of Science and Technology as Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation. Nigeria is desirous of turning technological know-how into innovative successes. According to the country’s National Policy on Science and Technology Education, the pass rates in mathematics and sciences have been consistently less than 50 per cent. Also, Nigeria is yet to achieve the 60:40 ratio in enrolments for science and technology versus arts/humanities, as interest in mathematics, science and technical studies is decreasing.

The Federal Government’s policy and implementation of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) is not clear. It is difficult to see a specific document of government targeting female students with regards to STEM.

President Muhammadu Buhari had in the wake of his re-election pledged to focus on education, particularly science education among girls.

“Perhaps our biggest ambition yet is the overhaul of our education sector. Every child counts – and simply, whatever it takes to prepare our teachers, curriculum and classrooms to attain the right educational goals that grow our country, will be done. We will remodel 10,000 schools every year and retrain our teachers to impart science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics using coding, animation, robotics to re-interpret our curriculum,” he said.

“A lack of good education in STEM subjects is holding back the nation’s growth and depriving its youth of career opportunities. It is well known that Africa’s long-term economic prospects are being constrained by severe skills shortages in many vital sectors; one of the areas that require immediate attention is STEM. If Africa does not start building capacity in these subjects, its progress towards achieving sustainable and comprehensive growth will be severely challenged,” the president said.

In his opening address at the Pan African Conference on Education in April, the assistant director general for education at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), Firmin Matoko, had said: ‘We need to help Africa tap into scientific inventions and discoveries that are happening around the world, and step up investments in scientific research to enable Africans be producers of knowledge rather than consumers by embracing the advancement in technology and equipping the youth with relevant knowledge and skills 21st century demands.”

According to a non-governmental organisation, Give Girls A Chance, the solution to overcoming the girls’ challenges lies in empowering and educating them.

Asserting that notion, the group noted that education is the bedrock for national development, “and when you educate a girl, you educate a nation, leading to a better society for future generations.” It explained that science, technology, and innovation are the “forces” that drive the economy of the nation, and encouraging girls participation in STEM will help in building the nation. Many other organisations believe in STEM as a means to emancipate and empower Nigerian girls. This belief requires from the Federal Government a political will and institutionalising of that conviction.

Last September, engineers called for a deliberate policy that will boost the participation of women and girls in STEM during the inauguration of the Association of Professional Women Engineers of Nigeria (APWEN). Managing Director of Nigerian Printing and Minting Company, Abbas Masanawa, said with half of the population under-represented in STEM, increasing representation of women and girls is a national imperative with global ramifications. Masanawa suggested that state, local governments and women could engage school boards and ministries of education to incorporate education policies that actively encourage girls to focus on STEM. This could be achieved by launching state and local government campaigns that showcase strong female role models, leadership and expertise, especially within STEM professions.

A technology expert, Victoria Ezenwa, urged the Federal Government to consider the approach of the Visiola Foundation, saying its out-of-school STEM programmes, which “specifically target girls,” have proved successful in many countries worldwide. According to Ezenwa, the approach combines formal and informal instruction with challenging activities, leading to a stronger understanding of STEM concepts, improved academic performance, and a higher interest in pursuing careers in science fields.

Uchenna Onwuamaegbu-Ugwu, a 2017 Mandela Washington Fellow, is providing STEM learning and resources to schools and students in Southeast Nigeria. She hopes to get girls inspired through science classes to help them “not just to be scientists, but to create a generation of scientists that will think of African problems, diseases, shortfall, economic down turn and problems, and proffering solutions.

Francisca Okeke, the director of ICCSEE-UNN (Institute Of Climate Change Studies International and the University of Nigeria, Nsukka), noted that STEM is a key factor in the growth and development of a nation, but lamented low enrolment of girls in the field.

According to her, the lack of encouragement of young women and girls to develop interests in STEM poses a big obstacle. Okeke noted that driving things in the right direction requires a shift in mindset and culture. She lamented that in as much as private organisations and individuals are bent on making Nigerian girls STEM-compliant, something remains missing.

Okeke said: “It is disheartening to note that STEM policymakers do not involve women in developing policies. There is need to address the striking fact that lack of fund and facilities needed for innovative research work is very far out of reach of women and girls. There should be more scholarships for girls and sponsorship for female scientists.

In looking ahead, Okeke advocated the need to consider that “deep change is generational. She added: “As we work to and beyond 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), we must not forget that the participation of girls in fields of science, technology engineering and mathematics will play a large role in the sustainable development of Nigeria.”

Dr Rabia Salihu Sa’id, a professor of Atmospheric Physics at Bayero University Kano (BUK), said for young girls, opting for a STEM degree can mean breaking away from the social norm of marrying after high school and having children. As one of the winners of the TWAS/OWSD/Elsevier Foundation Awards for Early Career Women Scientists in the Developing World in 2015, Sa’id was featured in Nature (The international Weekly Journal of Science) and the BBC Radio Programme: Discovery Science. Also, Sa’id was listed on the BBC 100 inspirational women of 2015.

She noted: “Personally, I have seen girls studying in this field who have felt obliged to portray their seriousness in a male-dominated field by not using make-up, deliberately avoiding wearing fashionable clothes and trying to hide their femininity. This image, combined with the pressure of marriage and motherhood, has dissuaded many girls from studying STEM subjects in favour of courses that are considered more appropriate for their gender.”

With government’s lethargy towards schoolgirls’ involvement in STEM, Give Girls A Chance suggested creating a favourable environment that is inviting to girls in schools. The group noted that when girls are exposed to science and technology, they are encouraged to study these disciplines.

While the government continues to lag in creating such an environment, many NGOs are already carrying out STEM-based programmes for girls.

The organisation added, “We need to support the participation of Nigerian girls in STEM and give them the opportunity to be curious and adventurous.,” pointing out that when these girls grow into women with skills in science, technology, and innovation, they, in turn, “will contribute meaningfully to building and advancing our nation.”

Without waiting for government, experts suggested “mentoring and role modelling. They agreed that these interventions are important for supporting female participation in science from the early grades and throughout a woman’s career in the sciences.

A scholar, Adefunke Ekine, said female scientists could serve as mentors for girls of university age, who could in turn serve as mentors for girls in secondary school. “These layers of mentoring can benefit both the mentors, as they develop leadership skills and receive advice and encouragement, and the mentees, as they learn from someone who has faced similar obstacles relatively recently.”