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I Never Wanted To Be An Engineer, Yet Here I Am, Says Alice Githinji

When she joined Form One in 2019, Alice Muthoni Githinji believed that the field of science and technology was the preserve of men.

She still held to the misconception that girls ought to get ‘soft-skills’ and pursue subjects that will lead them to ‘soft-careers’ such as nursing, teaching and secretarial work among others.

Ms. Githinji often felt less confident about her abilities in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects even though she would perform better than some of her male classmates in these subjects.

The 19-year-old vividly recounts events of the day a female Chemistry teacher walked into their classroom and asked students what they wanted to be in future. The answers were impressive. Some said lawyers, architects and doctors, others aspired to become aeronautical engineers, pilots and neurosurgeons.

With each proclamation, she noted the escalating disappointment on the teacher’s face. Very few girls wanted to pursue careers related to STEM and they told the teacher as m

When pressed to justify their decisions, most of the girls ‘confessed’ that they considered STEM related subjects and careers prestigious and reserved for academically outstanding male students. This was perpetuated by the belief that men perform better in technical professions.

Today, Ms. Githinji who had trained her sights on becoming a saleswoman is a second year Electrical Engineering student at the Kenya Industrial Training Institute (KITI) in Nakuru. She is among the only 3 women in a class of 15 male students.

Her story is a testament of how interventions meant to encourage girls and women to pursue STEM related careers in Kenya are bearing fruit.

For Ms. Githinji, being enrolled into a career guidance and mentorship program at Youth African Women’s Initiative (YAWI) was life changing. She was then a form two student at Kiungururia Mixed Secondary school in Gilgil Sub-County.

According to her, YAWI’s confidence-building initiatives, mentorship programmes, and showcasing of successful women in
STEM served as catalysts, reinforcing the belief in her that gender should never be a barrier to aspiring young minds.

Through YAWI’s personalized narratives, her cohort that comprised 20 girls began to embrace these subjects perceived as ‘hard’ and exerted effort in becoming the women they admired.

‘This enhanced my sense of identity in my cohort and paved the way for us to seriously embark on the journey of becoming future women scientists, engineers, researchers and innovators,’ Githinji revealed.

Through the mentorship program Ms. Githinji was linked to the Ajira Digital Program and has undergone rigorous training in digital marketing, web design and logo design.

Armed with knowledge and skills acquired she is currently providing highly innovative IT services to transform the society and business services.

Some of the services include web creation and management, graphic design, online marketing, building websites, freelance writing, virtual assistant and content creation among others.

Her trajector
y from an aspiring saleswoman to a budding electrical engineer who has, in addition, established a thriving online ICT venture underscores the transformative influence of mentorship, vocational education, and unwavering perseverance.

The dynamic nature of technology now inspires a girl who once dreaded STEM careers and, in her own words, the new challenges she faces each day, provide daily motivation to innovate and find solutions in technological spheres

Ms. Githinji says the initiative by YAWI to spearhead formation of STEM clubs in schools has helped in organizing STEM competitions for female students at the sub-county levels to recognize outstanding females and this is inspiring more girls to pursue STEM courses.

The competitions also expose the girls to trailblazers in the technology and science disciplines, further busting the myth that STEM-related disciplines are a reserve for boys.

The YAWI initiative inspires many high school girls to pursue STEM subjects by providing them with the opportunity t
o interact with women captains of industry and receive computer and technology training.

She added that, through interactions with professionals and industry players, female students gain career guidance, information about technology and business roles. Some of these events are virtual, allowing girls from Kenya to interact with role models and mentors locally, regionally and internationally.

Ms. Githinji indicates that once she completes her studies in Electrical Engineering, she hopes to use her expertise in ICT to enable her customers to better engage with her electrical services and products and create brand awareness for her businesses.

By enabling more customer engagement, Ms. Githinji said that her business will get more valuable insights and data about consumer preferences. Through this, she hopes to make data-driven decisions, provide products and services that are relevant to her customers, create better customer experiences, and have better approach to new customers.

According to YAWI Executive
Director Ms. Fidelis Karanja, in order to improve STEM uptake for girls, they have been working with teachers, women professional associations, ICT experts and career guidance counsellors among other partners to conduct camps for secondary school students where girls are coached.

Ms. Karanja notes that Kenya, like many countries, grapples with gender disparities in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields.

The Executive Director cites data provided by Engineers Board of Kenya, the body that registers engineers and accredits engineering programmes offered by universities in Kenya, which indicates that out of 2,501 registered professional engineers as of 2022, only 211 are women, representing a paltry 8.4 per cent.

She states that in sub-Saharan Africa, women researchers constituted a mere 18 percent to 33 percent as of 2020, highlighting the urgent need for their increased representation and inclusion in science.

‘Empowering young girls in STEM involves more than just providing educat
ional opportunities; it requires instilling confidence and reinforcing the notion that they are equal to the task and just as capable as their male counterparts’, noted Ms. Karanja.

Far too often, she adds, girls wrongly believe that they’re not good in science; they think they’re best in the arts. She explains that through STEM Clubs the girl’s abilities are being acknowledged at a young age and therefore giving them confidence to choose science as a career choice.

Ms. Karanja underscored the importance of role models in the initiative saying the mentorship program has been spotlighting successful women scientists and engineers that the girls can look up to and emulate.

‘They need to feel that anything is possible, and the best way for us to do this is to tell the story of female pioneers, both past and present. And there are so many women scientists and engineers who are making a difference every single day,’ Ms. Karanja indicated.

The Executive Director reveals that the initiative is also addressing cu
ltural factors, gender stereotyping, societal negative perceptions, parental attitudes, institutional factors and policies among many other challenges that girls face.

To this end YAWI has incorporated a sensitization component on the importance of STEM to teachers, the communities and parents who to a large extent, influence their children’s career choices and motivation.

‘We are also challenging the perception that only learners with very high grades can study engineering, especially for girls who may not have qualified to study engineering at the degree level. In fact, a lot of the everyday engineering needs at the community levels require the skills of diploma and lower-level graduates,’ states Ms Karanja.

According to the Executive Director, since gender gaps are particularly high in some of the fastest-growing and highest-paid jobs of the future, like computer science and engineering, the program has also roped in ICT experts to train and mentor the current cohort of 60 girls.

During mentorship sess
ions, science and computer coding take centre stage for the small segment of a growing army of female coders trying to solve everyday problems in a field dominated by boys and men.

Ms. Karanja indicates that Kenya, one of the most technologically-advanced countries in Africa, known for its pioneering mobile money transfer apps, is like many of her counterparts and needs to get more girls interested in coding.

‘We have templates for each of the girls, where every term we compare whether their grades in STEM subjects have improved. If they have not improved, we look at the likely causes, challenges and possible solutions,’ she states.

For Ann Wanjiru, a Form Three Student at Hillcrest Secondary School her interest has been enhanced during the YAWI mentorship program where she has had the opportunity to interact with various professionals, including ladies who had specialized in STEM courses.

Ms. Wanjiru says that by fostering a supportive environment consisting of teachers, parents and male classmates that
value and nurtures their abilities, the young girls have been inspired to pursue STEM courses with the assurance that their contributions are invaluable and essential.

The 17-year-old offers that once she changed her attitude her performance in mathematics and chemistry has tremendously improved and that she has been made aware of career choices.

Sophie Nganyi, a Form Four student at Kiungururia Secondary School who aspires to be a neurosurgeon reveals that she, for the first-time last term, scored a B plain grade in both chemistry and biology after she developed a keener interest to study the subjects following YAWI’s mentorship.

To bust the stereotype of STEM as difficult, boring courses, Ms. Nganyi notes that her teachers were engaging young learners in a fun way, to help build their interest in the subjects.

Involvement of women teachers of STEM in the initiative she says has also helped build their capacity to deliver content professionally and competently.

Shakira Maritim, a Form Two Student at Hil
l Crest Secondary says through the YAWI mentorship she has benefited from career guidance which she believes will help her get a job to suit her aptitudes and interests.

Ms. Maritim states that after being helped to know her talents and limitations and also being made to understand what is involved and required by the various types of work, she has chosen to pursue a career in medicine as is the one that best suits her personally.

‘When my performance in mathematics, chemistry and biology improved drastically, I realized that all a girl needs to do is to change her mindset that these are subjects where only boys who are exceptionally gifted academically can excel. It is a stereotype that should be debunked.’

Mr Joseph Wanderi, an ICT expert involved in the mentorship program, noted that in the 21st century, digital literacy is a key driver during teaching and learning the initiative. He also emphasized the need to include ICT integration during the learning process.

He says the girls are trained on coding
, robotics, digital literacy and Scratch block-based programming language.

Mr Wanderi indicated that coding is a critical skill that can enable every household to actively participate in the digital economy in creating virtual jobs.

According to the ICT expert, mastery of coding will help learners to think differently, be more creative, grasp mathematics easily and be collaborative. He added that it will accord them valuable life skills and prepare them for work.

‘We need to know how to grow our technology from primary school. You have heard about coding that is now going to be part of our curriculum to ensure technology becomes part of our journey from primary school all the way to university,’ he explains.

Mr Wanderi pointed out that promoting coding in schools exposes young learners to technology and creates a path to a new world of innovation and creativity.

‘Coding is really key in the CBC curriculum and in the world we live in today. We are now looking at virtual reality, machine learning and even
artificial intelligence. The world is moving away from computers to automation, engineering and robotics. People want to automate systems without having to be there.’

He says Scratch is a creative learning tool in coding that is very experimental.

‘The Scratch coding programming experience allows young people to build on their passions and interests as they get a chance to learn new things about themselves and the world,’ Mr Wanderi adds.

Chemistry and Biology teacher at Kiungururia Secondary School Ms. Loice Mwai says elimination of stereotypes and prejudices on the ‘masculinity’ of Stem would be a step in the right direction.

The mentorship program, she observes, was an excellent example of a platform that showcases innovation and develops interests and talents in Stem.

‘Stem drives economic growth. We must redouble our efforts to boost the number of girls and women in Stem. By harnessing their skills and smart ideas, we will realize important progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) a
nd a more peaceful, just and prosperous world.

She states other strategies being employed in the initiative specific for motivating female learners and improving their self-perception include use of role models and vibrant career guidance.

The purpose, she said, is to make the possibility of women scientists and innovators visible to students pursuing STEM-related courses and children, particularly girls, so that it can broaden their minds to not only pursue science but also become entrepreneurs.

While admitting that negative perception towards technical subjects was a cause for concern, Faith Wanjiru, a mathematics and physics teacher, is optimistic the initiative will pay off.

According to Ms. Wanjiru, many students are not conversant with the vast array of careers and hobbies that exist in science.

Through the use of modern and interactive learning materials, Ms. Wanjiru said learning of STEM subjects can be made fun and interesting and thus improve students’ attitude, achievement and confidence, and
trigger creativity.

Additionally, many female students do not believe they can perform well in science and carry the perception that it is too difficult, hence the need for such spirited initiatives to debunk such beliefs.

‘Teachers play a key role in encouraging or discouraging students from taking up science subjects in secondary school. As a mathematics teacher, girls always tell me the subject is hard, which is not the case. Teachers should be trained and empowered to teach these subjects in a way that makes them attractive. We must find ways of changing this attitude,’ she concluded.

Source: Kenya News Agency