Is promoting science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics education enough to lift a country out of poverty? How do you promote STEAM education in rural schools that lack laboratory supplies and electricity, and have pervasive gender stereotyping?
Through my volunteer work with the U.S. Peace Corps, I found that STEAM education, if used with an appropriate cultural, gender, and economic lens, can have a significant impact by moving people out of poverty and promoting gender equality. The Peace Corps, in partnership with the Ministry of Education and Training for Lesotho, Africa, hosted the first STEAM camp specifically for high school students in the landlocked country, located in southern Africa and known as the Mountain Kingdom. The program aims to increase the number of youngsters who pursue degrees and careers in STEAM fields and provide hands-on training to educators. It also works to broaden the participation of women and other underrepresented groups.
The program does that by providing lesson plans to teachers, working to overcome the perception that STEAM subjects are difficult to learn, sharing information about careers in the fields, and holding classes closer to students’ homes. The program aims to stave off a “brain drain” by encouraging students to stay in the country and help grow its economy, rather than migrating to another that could provide them with more opportunities.
CHALLENGES FOR EDUCATORS
People in Lesotho are working hard to educate the next generation of STEAM workers, but students encounter several hurdles including hours-long walks to school, a lack of resources, and daunting weather conditions.
As the team leader of seven Peace Corps volunteers in Lesotho, I helped craft a camp program for 10 teachers and 66 students from 11 high schools. Curricula and resources were tailored to local conditions. To help build widespread support for the program, schools from throughout the country were included.
We began by gathering data from teachers about the challenges they face. Hurdles include language-translation issues, uninterested students, and a lack of equipment.
One physics teacher, for example, said his students just weren’t interested in taking STEAM classes. He said they often didn’t understand the lessons—in part because the school lacked proper supplies—and there was a perception of difficulty around the subjects. “We need to change attitudes,” he said.
A team of like-minded teachers gathered for a weeklong camp designed to overcome the challenges they encounter. We began by holding a two-day workshop with 12 advisors. One outcome was the creation of a book featuring hands-on activities that can be completed without a lot of resources.
The camp for students spanned five days. It was the first time many of the children had touched a computer. Others had no idea what engineering was.
Every morning began with an activity that represented each letter in STEAM. For engineering day, the students built a free-standing tower out of only straws and tape. In the afternoons, they worked on the weeklong Build a Bridge group project. Emphasizing how STEAM topics intersect, the bridge project covered how to make a budget and how to construct prototypes.
Other organizations participated. The Girls Coding Academy introduced Scratch, a free online coding community where users can create interactive stories, games, and animations. The Morija Art Centre taught the students how to make felt material using local resources. The Bethel Business and Community Development Center explained how solar energy systems work.
The camp achieved a number of astounding results. Some students learned how to code without using any technology at all. After about 15 minutes of instruction, they were working at the same pace as those who use computers regularly.
All 66 students improved in at least one STEAM area. And all the teachers reported feeling more confident in teaching STEAM-related subjects.
The camp was designed to continue for years and could be held in other countries.
The effort would not have been possible without my experience with the honor society IEEE-Eta Kappa Nu (IEEE-HKN), the Missouri University of Science and Technology, the Peace Corps, and the inspiring STEAM-minded teachers and volunteers.
A PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE
IEEE-HKN was founded on a commitment to service, a value that I tried to instill in others during my time with the university’s Gamma Theta chapter and a value that I still remind myself of every day. In today’s tech world, it’s easy to forget the struggles of others, whether they are of another gender or another culture entirely. My experience of service with IEEE-HKN and STEAM disciplines at Missouri S&T drove me to turn words of problems into actions of solutions.
I believe our story should inspire younger STEAM professionals, like myself, who may have come from a small college town, are a first-generation college student or first-generation American, and use our privileged college experience to find a way to help society. Keeping cultural diversity in mind, and with the right tools, we can find ways to assist others with the spirit of discovery.
STEAM education alone cannot lift up a developing country, but with the helping hands of generations of teachers, students, and those from other countries, the margin of disparity can begin to dissipate. An IEEE-HKN member should live out the value of volunteerism and service while a student and continue such activities as a professional. Whether the service is across the globe in a developing nation or in your local community, you have the background to make an impact.
“On our way to the impossible, we might just find something eminently doable.” —NASA
Kayla Ninh is an alumna of the Missouri University of Science and Technology. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 2016, Ninh entered the U.S. Peace Corps, where she served for two years as a secondary math educator in Lesotho, Africa. She is an IEEE-HKN member and former president of its Gamma Theta chapter.