By: Nadia M. Alhasani, PhD
With a strong foundation in math and sciences, I faced a choice between engineering and medicine for a college education. Personally, I selected the former because mathematics and physics were logical concepts that could easily be rationalized and applied; like any board game, they were to be played with set rules and strategies. As such, my ease of comprehension extended to biology, botany and zoology. However chemistry was anything but rational, so I avoided its path to the extent possible.
In college, I excelled in practical courses in which the application of STEM concepts was an integral part of the problem-solving process. In graduate school, research guided me towards studies in technology transfer and later theories of technology and design development. Subsequently my teaching focused on the theories and applications of innovative solutions to building systems integration, while research focused on formulating hypotheses and theories based on analyzing relevant case studies with the goal of transferring best practices outside the given context.
It remains a mystery, to this day, why women shy away from STEM-related positions even though studies show that such positions paid better (almost 26-33% higher). Those of us, women studying STEM majors in graduate school, were but a handful and most of us at the time were from “developing countries.”
Given the context of the Middle East during the second half of the 20th century, STEM education and its related professions had mostly grown to be gender-neutral with a few exceptions (such as mechanical engineering). In co-educational systems, more women opted to study engineering and sciences, perhaps gravitating to some fields more than others (for example chemical engineering, chemistry, etc.) and they were offered standardized payscale based solely on the job description, location (office vs. site), and other job-related compensation.
My professional experience and passion for STEM has thus been at the core of my philosophy as an educator, administrator, and change agent in the society. In spring 2007, I was offered a unique opportunity to develop an academic program for women to be trained to join the oil and gas industry. Established and funded by the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), the Petroleum Institute (PI) opened its doors to admitting women with the option to study engineering in fields such as chemical, electrical, mechanical, petroleum, as well as geosciences. From the start, the Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) Program’s goals were clearly defined to include:
These four goals were then translated to a related set of six objectives which became the basis for the program’s strategic planning and operations. The objectives included:
From the very beginning, the focus of the WiSE Program was on establishing a solid feminine identity, and engaging in activities that built students’ confidence such as celebrating the Women’s month and inviting women pioneers in non-traditional professions to share their stories with students, etc.
The programme also sought to create and maximize opportunities of non-traditional learning. For example, one academic communication project turned into an award-winning annual event on academic integrity in which the project’s authors took the lead to promote academic honesty and engineering ethics among the WiSE community at large. Another example focused on getting the students exposed to working in the workshop through “Know your Tools,” an extra-curricular short course to address their lack of exposure to the basics of carpentry, electrical wiring, plumbing, and welding. The repeat course was taught over four weekends and its participants received certificates of completion presented by the Provost during an exhibit highlighting their accomplishments. Recognition by PI’s senior management was an integral part of these students’ drive and commitment.
Other initiatives involve exposing our students to the society through educational fairs, high school visits, and science festivals. As STEM Ambassadors, our students were perceived by parents of other students as the new generation of engineers and scientists. Our students communicated to children the wonders of science through the making of soap, perfume, and ‘flubber’ – the green bouncing goo. The experiments were developed at the PI and shared with the general public and children, at large. This high societal engagement conditioned our students as they were perceived as change agents and we achieved an increased retention level and commitment to STEM compared to our previous years.
Senior projects have also witnessed a major change in research philosophy with a greater focus on outcomes that either lead to patents or pilot projects with possible direct applications in the local industry. Senior students are encouraged to enter their projects in local and regional competitions, exhibit in science fairs and industry expos, and are frequently invited to present their outcomes to related government agencies. Seeing future STEM professionals with their projects has changed the image of women engineers and scientists. Most importantly, it has allowed them to withstand the unfounded criticism regarding the inappropriateness of having women pursue STEM careers and prove their commitment to their chosen profession.
The success of the WiSE Program is evident in the number of women enrolled in the Program, their retention rates, and its alumni accomplishments over the past eight years. In 2014, we admitted a cohort of 330 as compared to 104 in 2006. More impressive is the fact that the programme represents 50% of total undergraduate population reflecting parity across genders. The Program’s reputation is actively recruiting on its behalf.
If understood well, the principle concepts of successful technology transfer can be a successful theory of change for encouraging women in STEM as well. As with technology transfer, where context and culture may change but fundamentals remain the same, Women in STEM programmes with broad principles described above can be modified for specific contexts in which they are applied.
Given the vast expanse of the Muslim world, with each region having its own cultural and socio-economic norms, it is important to conduct careful studies of best practices in STEM education with a focus on women. It is of interest to note that many universities in Europe and North America continue to engage in new strategies to increase women’s inclusion in STEM programs and professions. For example women represent, on average, a mere 10-18% of STEM degrees awarded in the US. These are alarming numbers given the large women workforce.
Every student, whether man or woman, has a right to an equitable education leading to gainful employment and fulfilling careers. Thus, institutions of higher education are encouraged to seek the very best curricula available across the globe and guarantee quality of education that can be measured and assessed nationally and internationally. More importantly, however, it must seek programmes that are compatible with the goals and mission of the institution in question. Seeking, cultivating, and integrating non-traditional opportunities of learning with formal curriculum as described above can help organizations achieve that. A quality STEM education is at our reach if only we rationalize its implementation.