‘Govt Must Boost STEM in Schools to Produce More Female Engineers’

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Mrs. Felicia Agubata is the President, Association of Professional Women Engineers of Nigeria and Chief Engineer, Nigerian Airspace Management Agency. In this interview with Funmi Ogundare, she explained why the government should encourage Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics in schools across the country, as it would enable the girl-child to aspire to greater heights

What is the objective of your association and what has been your impact in the life of the girl-child?

APWEN is a non-profit organisation. We are actually at the vanguard of ensuring that more girls enrol in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) that will actually lead them to a career in engineering. The end point is to have more engineers in the country especially females because we are gender-based association. The association is 36 years old now. We embark on advocacy and career talk for the girl-child in primary and secondary schools, while in universities we do mentorship programmes to ensure that the girls do not drop out from the engineering courses to another. We encourage them and ensure that they graduate as engineers and practice the profession.

Your association embarked on and partnered the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) on ‘Invent it, Build it’ initiative, how would you describe your reach and acceptance in Nigeria in the last one year?

We started the initiative in 2018 after our visit to NNPC when we went for a courtesy visit and presented our proposal to them. The management gladly received us and accepted to partner with us on the programme. So far, it’s been successful and impactful for Nigerians at large not just to the girl-child as a result of the impact it has made in the community. We had 61 girls who have received scholarships from different states in the country till date and we are still counting from primary to university. The ‘Invent it, Build it’ programme is targeted at girls between the ages of eight and 10 in primary five to six in public schools in the six geo-political zones of Nigeria. The initiative is weaved around role models. For each of the state that we launch the programme, we usually have a role model that we have been using their success stories to inspire the girls only if they are diligent in their studies. When we use such role models, the girls can connect faster to them. The person will speak in the local language that they understand, it is easier than when you speak English to them.

We respect the culture of that community including how we are going to dress for the event. We did that in Kano and Bauchi, while Bornu and Akwa Ibom States are yet to benefit. For each of the state that we go to, we have a role model from that state who will take us there to tell their success stories that any girl can aspire to be what she wants. We launched the programme in April 21, 2018 in Sarki Ahmadu Primary School (formerly Central Primary School) Misau, Bauchi State and that was the primary school that the current DMD of NNPC, Maikanti Baru attended. It was a very beautiful outing for us. That is the only prominent personality in the field of engineering that we could use in that state. In that area, we gave 21 girls scholarships that performed experiments, though we couldn’t do more than three because of the crowd that we had. It was our first outing. They scaled the first test which was a practical experiment using everyday material used at home. The first to finish in terms or accuracy and work performed were adjudged winners and were given the scholarship. Our second outing was in Benin, south-south we had two role models there despite the fact that people think Edo State is all about prostitution. We needed to tell the story to the Nigerian populace. We had the first African female Vice-President of World Female Engineering Organisation (WFEO) with headquarters in Belgium. Mrs. Valerie Agberagba and Manager International Contract, Exxon Mobil, she was the first president in its network in the organisation and a past president of APWEN. She is from Benin. A total of 10 girls were given scholarship, one of them is an orphan. From there, we went to the south-west, Abeokuta. There, we met the current president of the Nigeria Society of Engineers (NSE), we also had the first female agricultural engineer in Nigeria as role model. However, they didn’t school in Abeokuta but in Ibadan. But since the period was close to the Alake’s birthday, they asked us to use Alake Primary School and that was how the choice of St. Peter Claver Nursery and Primary School, Oke-Itesi, Abeokuta as the venue for the programme came. Ten pupils were given scholarships. For each of the locations, we laid a foundation for the construction of a science and technology laboratory named after the role models. In Misau, the building is 80 per cent completed, which we are going to commission in the next two months. We are also going to construct a laboratory in honour of the 31st President of the NSE, Mr. Adekunle Mokuolu in Abeokuta. The engineering scholarship for girls was named after Dr. Idiat Aderemi Amusu. From there we went to the ancient city of Kano in honour of the first President of NSE from northern Nigeria, Ibraheem Inuwa, who recently turned 70 years. A science laboratory was commissioned in his honour at Kofa Kudu Primary School at the Emir’s Palace where his primary school is located. The scholarship was named after the first female engineer from the north, late Fatimatta Yelwa, who died three years ago. She is from Kebbi State. We have six states that have so far benefitted from the programme for the first phase.

Who are the notable figures honoured by the association?

Before the expiration of my tenure in two years, the role models we are going to honour and the sponsors must be available and that is why most of the events are done on Saturdays. We also went to Anambra State, where I hail from. We had several role models who are females. We had the first female engineer in Nigeria, but she is married to someone from Enugu State, however, we had to take someone who is married to someone from Anambra state. The first female Head of Service in Nigeria is from Anambra, Ebele Okeke, the programme was done in her honour. We had two past presidents of APWEN from the state; Unachukwu Okoli, a retired staff of Exxon Mobil and Nwakego Ojukwu, who also retired from the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA). She was the one that took me to my first APWEN meeting several years ago. Three of them were honoured at the programme held in the primary school I attended. The laboratory was named Engineer Monica Nwakego Science and Technology Lab, while the scholarship was co-named Una Okoli/Nwakego Engineering Scholarship for Girls. Ten girls were awarded.

How would you describe the initiative recently held in Kogi State, where the President, Council of Registered Engineers in Nigeria (COREN), Mr. Kashim Ali was honoured as a role model?

The programme was held in LEA Primary School, Ankpa, his alma mater. We saw a role model in Kashim Ali. Scholarships were awarded to 10 students who are from the local government area after series of experiments. At the programme, we had friends of the president donating laptops to the beneficiaries. The acceptance of the initiative in Kogi was tremendous. They saw a role model in Ali and connected to him because of his achievements. We were able to encourage the girls and tell them that they can also be there only if they do well. The government representatives who were there were impressed that if an association could be doing a thing like this, Nigeria will be a better place. When Ali saw the students coming out in tattered uniforms, he promised to donate new ones to about 457 pupils of the three schools in the locality before resumption.

For each of the events, we are getting better and better, we also gave the girls branded school bags, books and mathematical sets. For the north, we give hijabs, stockings and water bottles.

There seems to be gender disparity in the area of STEM education, what is your view about this trend and what is your association doing to reverse it in the country?

Part of the problem is bravery deficit. The boys are actually brought up to be brave. That is why they take risks. If the boys meet 50 per cent of the criteria, they will get the job, but for girls if they don’t meet 100 per cent of the criteria, they will not get the job. The girls tend towards perfection. We need to teach the girls early in life that they should work towards what is achievable knowing that they can be whoever they want to be in life. The bravery deficit is the reason we are not fully represented in STEM in the boardroom and a lot of places. When it comes to women inclusion and gender disparity in that area, we should know that we are the same. If they are judging by competence and skills, we should try to be fair. We need to introduce girls to STEM early in life by trying to demystify mathematics and catch them young at the primary school level rather than wait until they get to secondary school. If they are able to imbibe STEM into them in primary school, by the time they get to secondary school, it will not be difficult. That is what we are doing with the initiative and it is yielding result.

What are the unique challenges for girls in the country when it comes to pursuing education in engineering/science?

For you to pursue education in science and engineering it starts from STEM and you must be in a science class in your secondary school. If you don’t have physics, mathematics and chemistry and further mathematics, you cannot do engineering. You must have the basics and have someone that will mentor you on how to go and ensure that you have the foundation. Building a science and technology laboratory means they must visually imagine things by themselves with a view to providing innovative ideas. These are science things we do as children. For instance, we made kites to fly as children; that was engineering, but we never knew. But when you tell a girl-child that this is science, then she can be encouraged moving towards being a scientist. This will help in boosting her morale to aspire to greater heights.

What is the way forward?
Government should encourage STEM education in our schools.