Equipping the next generation of Lebanese girls with STEM

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Event participants take a group photo during the closing ceremony of the event (Image via Girls Got IT)

"I used to think technology was only a time killing tool but learned that there are a lot of benefits in it, I would definitely participate next year," said Mariam Zaatariya.

The teenager was taking part in an event called Girls Got IT. The event, which took over 400 girls from public and private high schools across Lebanon, for a full day of career orientation and hands on encouragement activities revolving around STEM subjects.

At high schools in Lebanon it’s not too uncommon to see career orientation being a mild and side subject, with many students possibly following social expectations and planning their careers accordingly.

The problem is even greater when it comes to female students. In Lebanon, career options for girls are heavily affected by culture, expectations and most commonly stereotypes. In many social and family settings, one can easily hear things like "engineering is not a woman's job".

This problem is not unique to Lebanon or MENA.

Some studies in the US have shown that, beginning at the age of 12, girls begin to like math and science less, expect not to do as well in these subjects and attribute their failures to lack of ability.

A recent Verizon ad video highlights the powerful statements that girls hear throughout their childhood that discourage them from pursuing studies in STEM.

"In schools students learn too much theory and when it comes to application,” said Sabine Kaahi of Kids Genius, an organization aimed at helping young people discover and learn about technology, manufacturing, and open source tools. “Teachers always ask students to create the end product that is in the teacher's mind, it's not the students who design or the to solve their own challenges. Which isn't motivating enough for students to solve new problems.”

With the global rise in demand for STEM positions and the ever growing gap in representation and leadership of women in that field, something definitely needs to be done.

On March 12, five female-focused associations in Lebanon - the Lebanese League for Women in Business (LLWB), Arab Women in Computing Lebanon Chapter (ArabWIC Lebanon), IEEE Women in Engineering Affinity Group – Lebanon Section, Women in IT (WIT), and the Digital opportunity Trust organised Girls Got IT.

Establishing a connection

Throughout the day, positive and inspiring feedback from the participants was heard.

One of the core ingredients of such a success was establishing a solid exposure between high school girls and inspiring female role models in STEM. Leading women in STEM such as Desiree Chbeir, project leader at Amazon, and Sylvia Yammine, an engineer and Miss Globe 2016, took to the stage to talk about their career experiences.

Additionally many of the workshop sessions were led by women such as Sabine Kaahi from Kids Genius and Rana El Chemaitelly from The Little Engineer who contributed to breaking many cultural stereotypes that many of the high schoolers had in mind.

Wamda’s Stephanie Nour Prince, leading a session on the design thinking approach for turning problems into product solutions. (Image via Ayman Farhat)

Exposure to practical applications of STEM

The second component of this event was right on target, focusing on hands on practical and technical applications while introducing the different STEM disciplines in a fun and positive environment.

Around 20 break-out sessions were available for the students to engage in different activities and gain technical hands-on skills in different domains.

Several Lebanese startups ran the workshops throughout the day, topics ranged between software, hardware and product development including, android mobile application development by EDUTEK, Introduction to Web Development by Le Wagon, city planning and building by Urbacraft and hands on internet of things workshop by Scriptr.

Game development workshop by Wixel Studios. (Image via Wixel Studios)

For Mohammad Doughan, head of operations at The Little Engineer, practical application is a base ingredient in all orientation workshops that they organize.

He told Wamda that before each workshop they ask the students about their expectations for their career futures. "Students get a real taste and feel for engineering, this helps them evaluate their initial plans on whether they enjoy STEM or something else. We help them discover themselves through practical work."

A team of girls from the Little Engineer workshop after assembling a real life model of the Airbus A380 aircraft. (Image via Girls Got IT)

This application driven approach turned out to be very helpful to students in exploring their university major of choice.

Another team of students explore with carpentry and woodwork with the Kids Genius workshop. (Image via Kids Genius)

One student, Christy Zayda, told Wamda that learning how to code and publish her own website gave her a new perspective. "Now I can express myself towards the world individually by designing and building what I want, moving from being a user to creator of technology.”

At the end of the day, 20 awards were distributed to the best participants, followed by an open mic session where many of the participants rushed to stage, stood up and expressed their feedback on the event.

"This event already falls within the perspective I have towards supporting women in STEM because it shows technology in its reality to students,” said student Maya Moussa. “I am now more motivated and confident of my future career in this domain. I look forward for next year and for similar career orientation events targeted equally at both genders in high school.”

Throughout the day, students were solving different real life problems as they were acquiring different skill sets in computer programming, robotics, design thinking, game development and architecture. Every booth provided a simulation of real world technology and science environments to dream, think and apply creative solutions to different problems.

While the the world is continuously facing a deficit in solid technology and science talent, Lebanon's bright STEM future could certainly now be resting in the hands of high school girls.

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