Girls in Engineering, Math and Science Programme Leaders
Actively redefining the role of a woman through education, much has been said about the Girls in Engineering, Math and Science (GEMS) programme run by Arus Academy over the years. Founded as an initiative by students for students back in 2015 at SMK Taman Sejahtera, Bukit Mertajam, the programme allowed girls to redefine what the tech culture should look like with them being an active contributor.
The girls-only programme aspires to increase the confidence, awareness, interest and grit of its students to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, and consequently create more female role models.
Since its inception, GEMS has empowered 51 female students from 10 schools in the Bukit Mertajam area.
We speak to the two dedicated women, Felicia Yoon – who is also the co-founder of Arus Academy – and Nur Nabihah Hashim, who are currently leading the GEMS programme to greater heights.
Felicia and Nabihah, how did both of you come to lead GEMS?
Felicia I graduated back in 2012 with a Bachelor’s degree in Actuarial Science from London School of Economics. I joined Teach for Malaysia as a fellow and taught for two years in Penang. During that time, I witnessed first-hand the education gaps for our students. I then stayed in education as I saw how much is needed to bridge the equity gaps in education. I co-founded Arus Academy with Alina Amir, David Chak and Daniel Mohanraj who were all from the same Teach for Malaysia cohort as me, because we saw the need to help make learning relevant and applicable for students. We realised during our time teaching at school that students were not motivated to learn because they could not see the relevance and application of education in their daily lives. We wanted to use technology to change their perspective.
I started working with GEMS at the beginning of 2015 when it was just an initiative by four young girls. I remember back in 2015, after our first semester with our students, many of their peers in school were very interested in what they were learning at Arus and wanted to join. However, they also realised that the peers that were interested in joining Arus were mostly guys and they didn’t understand why it was so. So the girls conducted a focus group with a few groups of girls in their school and did a few free programming sessions to build interest in their community of girls. This became a project they pitched and won seed funding for. We saw the impact the girls had on the female students in their school and decided to continue their efforts and made GEMS a permanent and important programme at Arus.
Nabihah I studied molecular bioscience and biotechnology at Rochester Institute of Technology, New York. My journey started in 2012 when I did an internship with Education Malaysia at the Embassy of Malaysia, Washington D.C. Even though I grew up in a family of educators, I did not intend to join the field.
However, I saw the gap when underprivileged students did not have quality access to education and decided to teach in a secondary school in Kedah under the Teach for Malaysia programme. For two years from 2016 to 2018, I provided robotics classes in more than 30 schools in the Klang Valley.
At the age of 28, I joined Arus and I am now based in Penang. I strongly believe that education is evergreen. No one wakes up one day and says we don’t need education anymore. In 2019, I was part of US-ASEAN Women’s Leadership Academy for the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative and was also selected for the Global Girls’ Education Fellowship. I started to lead GEMS in early 2019 and conducted classes in two schools. I travel to the schools to teach, provide materials such as compatible robots and I am also looking for funders to support this programme. We have explored robotics, design thinking and leadership skills.
Out of the three subjects, engineering, mathematics, science, which one do you think falls under the subject of least interest among young girls, and how is GEMS helping them embrace that?
Felicia In GEMS we do not look at STEM or even now referred to as STEA(rts)M by the individual subjects, but rather incorporate them all to enable students to use these skills and knowledge to solve problems around them and their community. GEMS runs in the style of project-based learning where students are given real-life problems to solve using STEM skills and knowledge. Oftentimes, they don’t feel like they are learning science, engineering, mathematics but rather learning skills to solve problems.
Demand for workers with tech skills will grow by as much as 90% over the next 15 years, and business leaders are projecting a shortfall within the next two years. Therefore, there is a need for initiatives focusing on empowering girls to be equipped with tech skills to stay competitive for the future job market.
How does the GEMS programme aim to empower our women community in the long run?
Felicia & Nabihah In Malaysia, fewer women are graduating from STEM fields due to gender stereotyping and “modern” career paths not being promoted to them. GEMS is more than just a programme to inspire girls to pursue STEM. It is primarily a programme to empower girls through technology. In GEMS, girls explore how they can have a positive impact and contribute to solving world problems by equipping them with STEM skills and knowledge. GEMS also provides a platform for girls to bravely share their inventions.
There are more Malaysian women in STEM they can emulate. A lot of evidence from a diversity of contexts and across generations shows the enormous benefits that girls’ education has not only for the girls themselves, but also for their children, families, communities and country. Education is empowering, so does teaching leadership skills to girls. So we can’t afford to not educate girls.
Do you think women still face discrimination at the workplace, especially when it comes to so-called “male- dominated” industries like science and engineering? How does GEMS aim to contribute towards the change of this mindset?
Felicia & Nabihah Girls need to see women in science. Over time, there are many female role models in STEM that many do not know of. In GEMS, we expose the girls to Malaysian women leaders such Dr Jemilah Mahmood, Dr Hartini Zainuddin, Surina Shukri and Dr Amani Salim. Scientists such as Dr Siti Khayriyyah Mohd Hanafiah who bagged the top prize in the FameLab International 2018 competition in the UK is one of the many inspirations to female students. We address gender norms and attitudes in education through awareness in school to ensure equal access to productive jobs. We believe that societal attitudes towards career women do change over time, which education and media can help develop.
With GEMS’s inspiring dedication in educating the women of our future, are there more girls-only programmes in the pipeline?
Felicia & Nabihah This year, we have a new club under GEMS called Girls’ Maker Club (GMC). GMC, specifically for girls aged 10 to 13 years old, includes comprehensive project-based lessons on computational thinking, problem solving, coding, presentation and design thinking skills using open-source software and compatible hardware such as Micro:bit. We are currently recruiting for our GMC March intake that begins on March 6 at our Bukit Mertajam centre. If anyone is interested in joining GMC now or in the future, you can contact us via our website. We also provide scholarships to girls from B40 families to join GMC, therefore, we also welcome anyone that is interested in sponsoring a scholarship for girls in GMC.