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This is Why STEM Needs More Girls

girls from the el maadi school for STEMNASA recently named a new asteroid in our galaxy. Now, that might not seem like significant news (NASA names objects in our solar system all the time), but the reason behind this particular asteroid’s new name is newsworthy. Unlike most objects in space being named after Roman gods or characters from Shakespeare’s plays, this asteroid (31910 Moustafa) is named after a bright-eyed teen from the El Maadi STEM School for girls south of Cairo, Egypt.

Seventeen-year-old Yasmine Yehia Moustafa earned the honor after taking first place in the earth and environmental sciences category at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for discovering a way to turn rice into biodiesel fuel to purify water and produce electricity. Her name is now “enshrined in the heavens,” so to speak, because of her work in the sciences, and we couldn’t be happier for her.

A recent visit by the Council on Foreign Relations gave us a glimpse into the amazing efforts that young women in Cairo are making to bridge the skills gap in that country. These teenage girls are using physics, nanotechnology, and fabrication labs to design affordable, self-sustaining houses; new agricultural methods; robotic arms; and alternative sources of energy!

Their learning didn’t come from textbooks or rote memorization, and their teachers were not at the center of the classrooms. Instead, through practical experimentation, these students independently worked out the information and applications they needed to tackle a given problem, with teachers acting as facilitators. (It is not uncommon for students’ knowledge to surpass their teachers’.) The result is a reimagined system of education that is keeping pace with the real world.

How is this possible? The answer is the El Maadi STEM School is the first school in Egypt providing comprehensive science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education to young girls. Part of its funding comes from the global organization World Learning, which provides the technology and tools to help these young female students learn. Already, other countries in the region are looking to Egypt to replicate the model, and this also has positive implications for the U.S. education system.

What Egypt seems to understand is that giving girls a place where they can explore STEM subjects and use their skills to solve the country’s most vexing problems helps them develop the confidence to see themselves as drivers of social and economic change—true role models, if you ask us.

In a world where women’s efforts and contributions to many fields are often overlooked, young Egyptian girls are entering—and winning—competitions like the Intel Science Fair, being awarded Egypt’s Order of Distinction, and patenting inventions. This program builds the foundations girls need to advance in higher education and become leaders in their fields, and in doing so, supplies Egypt with the skilled professionals it needs to compete in the global economy.

World Learning has embarked on similar missions around the world to empower girls to contribute to economic and social advancement for themselves and their communities. They are increasing girls’ access to basic education in Pakistan and helping Syrian refugee girls integrate into the school system in Lebanon, where they and their families make up a quarter of the population. They are educating young women in Malawi to become nurses and health care workers to help fight the scourge of malnutrition and reduce high maternal and child mortality rates.

And, perhaps most importantly, investing in girls helps them cultivate a sense of pride, understand their worth, and believe in the important contributions they can make to society. The benefits are practical, as well: educating women improves their job prospects so they can become self-sufficient and better provide for their families and community.

This is why STEM programs around the world need more girls! The El Maadi STEM School and others like it are laying the groundwork—not for reform, but for a revolution in education that will bear fruit in the coming years. Whereas it is currently difficult to engage girls in STEM fields the world over, these schools will create fierce competition among the best and brightest young women. And that, in turn, is great news for the world as a whole!

Photo credit: Zeina Hariri, World Learning via Council on Foreign Relations

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