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WiSci Summer Camp Brings Girls to Malawi to Break Down Barriers

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Redeat Gebeyehu grew up in Ethiopia where her parents spent most of their savings so that their children could attend the best schools they could afford. Her dedication to learning landed her a scholarship at a highly selective academy in South Africa and has now brought her all the way to California, where she attends Stanford University.

A much briefer but no less memorable educational opportunity was sandwiched in between these monumental achievements, when she was selected to attend WiSci Girls STEAM Camp in 2015 in Rwanda. It was less than a month long and still in its pilot year, but it allowed Gebeyehu to work with international leaders in STEM, build a robot car and meet young women from around the world with big dreams like her.

WiSci (women in science), a summer camp that empowers girls interested in science, technology, engineering, the arts and math (STEAM), recently wrapped up its third consecutive year, this time hosting nearly 100 high school-age girls from the U.S. and several African nations at the Malawi University of Science and Technology (MUST) in the Southern African nation.

“I have always advocated for women empowerment in countries like mine, where a combination of extreme poverty and deep biases against girls creates a remorseless cycle of discriminations that keeps girls from living up to their full potential,” Gebeyehu wrote to The Diplomat. “WiSci was a confirmation that education is the tool that can help break the pattern of gender discrimination.”

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WiSci Core Values

WiSci is just like any other summer camp. Groups of 10 are split off with different counselors, friendships are formed in dorms late at night — except that the girls hail from seven different countries, six of which are developing African nations — and they spend their days working with global leaders in STEM.

It’s a partnership between groups from the public, private and nonprofit sectors that intends to empower a demographic that is often told that STEM careers aren’t for them. The initiative is led by the United Nations Foundation’s Girl Up campaign, the U.S. State Department and Intel Corp., who are the founding partners, along with sustaining partner Google. NASA, the nonprofit World Learning and other groups contribute as well.

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Nearly all the costs are covered, and days are packed with a combination of hands-on lessons taught by representatives of partner groups and counselor-led leadership training. Campers learn about coding and app development, engineering and robotics, micro- and molecular biology, satellite mapping and sustainable development. 

During the final portion of the camp, the girls are divided into groups of four and tasked with creating a project that uses a skill they learned at WiSci to address a social issue or development challenge in their home community. Gebeyehu’s team thought up a “high-tech dustbin” to attack pollution.

WiSci was piloted in 2015 in Rwanda followed by Peru in 2016. This year, youth in Malawi, Rwanda, Uganda, Liberia, Tanzania, Zambia and the U.S. were eligible to apply, and 1,200 did.

“We’re looking for the girl who has an interest in STEM but maybe those classes aren’t offered at a higher level at her school or maybe she’s not able to go to the afterschool club because she needs to start her job when she leaves high school in the afternoon,” said Bailey Leuschen, an officer of the U.N. Foundation’s Girl Up campaign. “That was the camper that we were targeting that … this would be the experience of a lifetime for.”

The program also connects the girls with mentors who can continue to guide them once the camp is over. Representatives are available for office hours so that the girls can visit in their free time and develop relationships.

Gabriela González, deputy director of the greater Americas region at Intel, one of WiSci’s corporate implementers, has attended WiSci all three years. As a role model for the campers, she doesn’t simply want be an example, but also tries to connect with each participant on an individual level. She feels deeply invested in all of the girls and in her company’s commitment to social responsibility.

“The projects that they put together are literally just outstanding,” she said. “They are, for lack of a better word, visionary in their sense of community and responsibility as a citizen of the global community and also as girls. Girls who have power. Girls who see themselves as not just a second-class citizen but as women who can be the bosses at big corporations, the women that can go and start their own companies, the women that are going to lead their country to the next century.”

This Isn’t for You

Nearly every woman working in technology can recall a moment when she was told that this wasn’t the path for her, said Penny Rheingans, director of the Center for Women in Technology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).

That’s true in both developed and developing nations. In one Girl Up discussion at WiSci, many girls spoke about being discouraged from pursuing STEM as young children, Leuschen said.

STEM education is fairly gender balanced in U.S. elementary schools. In middle school, however, society’s traditional concepts of gender roles begin creeping in, dissuading girls from pursing science and technology while steering them toward subjects more commonly associated with women, namely the humanities and social sciences. From there the split only deepens, continuing through university studies and the careers that follow.

c1.education.wisci.girls.storyWomen are well represented in the life sciences. They earned more than 58 percent of U.S. bachelor degrees in the biosciences in 2014, according to the National Science Foundation. That same year, however, they made up only 19.8 percent of bachelor degrees in engineering and 18.1 percent of those in computer science.

Girls Up cites one study conducted in 14 countries showing that the probability of female students graduating with a bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate degree in a science-related field is 18 percent, 8 percent and 2 percent, respectively, while the percentages for male students are 37 percent, 18 percent and 6 percent.

Girls in developing countries have the added obstacle of obtaining an education in the first place. In 2015, approximately 89 million youth over the age of 11 in sub-Sahara Africa did not attend school, according to the World Bank. Geographical inaccessibility of schools, especially for youth living in rural areas, as well as school fees and gender discrimination contribute to this long-running challenge.

“That manifests in child marriage and families with limited resources choosing to send their sons to school and not their daughters,” Leuschen said.

Once women do enter professional positions in technology, they often continue to be marginalized by a male-dominated culture, colloquially referred to as “brogramming.”

“It’s sort of a locker room culture, and that can be a very uncomfortable culture for women,” Rheingans said.

Companies are increasingly fostering diversity initiatives. Google, for example, has employees instruct classes at historically black colleges and universities, encouraging participation in computer science and providing a potential pipeline into positions at the company.

But as evidenced by the sexist memo that circulated around the company’s headquarters in early August, such initiatives aren’t without pushback. James Damore, at the time a Google software engineer, sent out a manifesto suggesting that underrepresentation of women in technology is because “abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes” and that diversity initiatives at tech companies are therefore discriminatory.

The controversy exposed the larger problem of sexism in Silicon Valley, as a spate of harassment and discrimination complaints emerged against venture capitalists and tech giants such as Uber, Microsoft, Tesla and others. Like many other industries where leadership positions are dominated by white men, as they have been for decades, women and people of color often struggle to be taken legitimately.

Meanwhile, far off in Malawi, 98 girls were too preoccupied by days packed with projects to concern themselves with Damore’s grievances.

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‘Warm Heart of Africa’

One of this year’s campers is Promise Chipeta, a 15-year-old from Malawi who is interested in creating cosmetics and learning about entrepreneurship.

“I will use this time wisely,” she wrote on the Girl Up blog about her two weeks at WiSci. “I want the world to know that I am an intelligent girl.”

Chipeta’s father died when she was 6, and her mother struggled to raise her alone, having her attend a free public school and later placing her in an orphanage. Despite the circumstances, Chipeta thrived.

“I became the president of my class,” she said. “Donors from the United States would come and visit, and one day one of the donors was interested in my talent and gave me a scholarship to learn at Mzuzu International Academy.”

She described her fellow WiSci campers as family. One day she hopes to be able to give back to her orphanage and support other girls who can’t afford school. She wants to make her mother proud.

Malawi is one of the world’s poorest countries and has been severely impacted by the AIDS epidemic.

Indications of progress are small but happening, such as an increase in the legal age of marriage from 15 to 18 last February. Considered the “warm heart of Africa,” WiSci has found the country and campus to be a welcoming host.

The counselors led the girls on a hike at Mount Mulanje and brought them to a tea plantation to learn about the local industry. They also visited Green Malata, an organization that provides vocational training for young locals to equip them with marketable skills, including courses in renewable energy and information technology.

“It really complemented the hard skills that the girls were learning in the classroom and really allowed them to see firsthand how STEAM projects can affect real lives,” camp director Jessica Ellerbach of World Learning said.

Throughout the two weeks, the girls bonded deeply, whether they were from a rural town in the U.S. or an African village with little internet access. Some of the American participants were of African descent and had the opportunity to discuss their culture with their African peers.

An astronaut, the U.S. ambassador to Malawi and women leaders in Africa’s tech industry came and spoke. Malawi’s first lady was at the camp’s closing ceremony.

“I don’t think anyone really knows what Malawi (or Africa for that matter) is going to be like until they get here,” Kansas City’s Ruby Rios, 17, wrote in a Girl Up blog. “There are so many stereotypes and ideas about what people and the scenery are like that it was difficult for me to know what I was walking into until I stepped off the plane.”

She learned about the similarities and differences between her and her African peers through conversations and close friendships with girls in her cohort. She learned that some girls have to travel hours to get to school every day and that many can also sing along to Ed Sheeran tunes word for word just like her.

Looking Ahead

There isn’t a single solution to remedying the underrepresentation of women in tech. It’s smaller initiatives that elevate individual girls and women that will eventually add up to significant progress, Rheingans said.

c1.education.wisci.bag.storyPrograms like WiSci are just one example. The center that Rheingans directs at UMBC is another.

The university’s Center for Women in Technology (CWIT) provides students with an empowering and supportive community as they pursue degrees in technology. They participate in seminars, mentorship sessions and networking events and live in dorms with their peers.

While the majority of CWIT participants are women, it is not gender exclusive, with the belief that males can be allies who will advocate for women once they are seated in the technology industry. Some students choose UMBC over bigger-name universities just because of CWIT, Rheingans said.

Another sign of progress is a new computer science Advanced Placement course intended to attract high school students who are underrepresented in technology. The curriculum incorporates applications of the material rather than simply instruction on how to code. When the exam was offered for the first time last May, female participation in AP computer science was up 135 percent, according to Code.org.

As for the future of WiSci, a representative of the State Department’s Office of Global Partnerships said that the prospects of Congress approving two more years of funding for the government’s contribution to the program look promising and that female empowerment is a fairly bipartisan issue.

Every year, the camp leaves a group of young women equipped with the foundation they need to enter a world where the glass ceiling remains stubbornly high. At Stanford, Gebeyehu has found her most challenging academic trial yet, as she tackles rigorous coursework in a new country, but she said it has been a supportive institution and a great place to learn. She studies human biology and African studies and hopes to enhance medical systems in the developing world and empower women in sub-Sahara Africa.

How did WiSci change her?

“I feel a sense of mission in creating a change,” she said.

And that’s just one camper’s story.


About the Author

Teri West is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on September 7, 2017

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