STEM Education: Helping to Create Jobs in Developing Countries

February 09, 2017 by Dr. Steve Arar

STEM education can have a significant impact on moving people out of poverty.

STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) education can have a significant impact on moving people out of poverty.

People in developing countries are working to educate the next generation of their workforce in STEM area disciplines. There are many hurdles to jump through: willing teachers, money, and long-held traditions. However, the children benefitting from these efforts are gaining valuable experience in a consistently growing field. 

MIT Grad Starts a STEM School in Nigeria

Obinna Ukwuani, an MIT graduate, started a robotics academy to teach Nigerian children how to code and build robots. The five-week robotics summer school hired students from MIT to mentor and teach 113 students from 2012 to 2014.

Nigerian-American Obinna Ukwuani noticed an imbalance between life in the U.S. and Nigeria, and he wanted to help fix the imbalance. In the U.S., you will have a comfortable life if you work hard. However, this is not the case in Nigeria. He added that Nigeria is currently importing almost everything. Ukwuani blames a lack of education as the main reason why the country cannot produce the goods it needs.

The MIT grad is building the first Nigerian STEM school which gives the students the chance to work with different instruments such as laser cutters, 3-D printers, and more. He has raised $200,000 from four investors. He is planning to open the school, called Makers Academy, in Abuja in 2018 or 2019.

Obinna Ukwuani, the MIT graduate who started a STEM school in Nigeria. Image courtesy of CNN.

There is also international support from different organizations to develop STEM education in some countries. For example, in 2014, 19 universities in West and Central Africa achieved funding from the World Bank to provide education in STEM-related disciplines, as well as in agriculture and health.

The India STEM Foundation is working hard to promote STEM education of children through fun activities and encourage technology-based career paths among the youth. With the aid of several partners such as Lego, John Deere, Caterpillar and United Technologies, the country has started various robotic programs and competitions.

Unfortunately, there are many cultural challenges in the way of developing STEM education.

Gender Stereotypes

Gender stereotypes create a serious challenge and can lead to the girls getting left behind in career pursuits. In general, the participation of women in science and technology fields is unsatisfactory. According to a study, the participation rate of women in physics, computer sciences and engineering is less than 30% in even the world’s largest economies including the United States, the European Union, Korea, South Africa, Indonesia, and India. Moreover, although some countries have tried to increase the number of women receiving a degree in these fields, this has not necessarily translated to a proportionate increase in the number of employed women.

In some countries, the literacy rate of women is almost half that of men. There is a long way ahead to remove this imbalance before an equal employment rate among men and women is a true reality. 

There are international foundations aiming to encourage and recognize women who are making strides in the STEM arena. A good example of such events is the Elsevier Foundation Award for Early Career Women Scientists in the Developing World. In 2014, five women from developing countries won this award for researching methods of treating cancer, malaria, and other diseases.

The obstacles that women face are so serious that Christine Grant has dedicated a book, "Success Strategies from Women in STEM", to the topic.

Winners of 2016 Early Career Women Scientists. Image courtesy of The Elsevier Foundation.

Children losing interest in STEM classes

There is a decline in the number of students willing to pursue a STEM education (PDF). Studies in different countries do not necessarily give easily interpretable data. In developed countries, a connection between the student’s self-confidence and their achievement in science is recognizable. However, they tend not to place a high interest in science and technology. On the contrary, in developing countries, science is a luxury and a privilege. The students are realizing that the route to improving their life is through a STEM-related career, and are more eager to take part in these classes.

In general, many factors such as the teaching methods, the curriculum, and the evaluation have a direct impact on how eager the students will be to take the classes. The high-quality, hands-on teaching is supposed to help students build a connection between what is taught and what they experience in life outside the school so that the students become more interested. 

Another frequently cited reason for the students becoming reluctant to pursue STEM is the fact that these fields are perceived to be more difficult to achieve good grades than in other subjects. Again it seems that modifications to the educational system and its evaluation methods are the main solutions.

Is Promoting STEM Education Enough to Develop a Country?

It is obvious that, in addition to training scientists and engineers, a society relies on many other factors to reach its actual potential. For example, the correct management of these human resources is of paramount importance. Otherwise, burn out could very well happen after spending a large amount of money to train the engineers.

An engineer or a scientist is a problem solver but they are trained to solve certain problems. They are not expected to have the appropriate skills to analyze market-related issues when mass-manufacturing a product, to predict the market, to raise fund for their projects, or answer questions such as when to take a risk and how much risk is acceptable. They simply need to focus on the problems for which they have been trained.

As a result, besides training engineers, it is necessary to have the appropriate management to give correct directions and sufficient support to the engineers throughout their work.

Promoting STEM in the educational system is a big step towards creating job opportunities in the booming industry of medicine, computer, and IT. According to a study by the United Nations, STEM education could help remove poverty and reduce inequality in developing countries.