Empowering girls in Southeast Asia through STEM

“STEM brings out a lot of career choices for women,” says Indonesian high school student Karin Agnesia Ignotius, a participant in Women in Science Camp (WiSci), a recent State Department program.

“The normalization of women working and participating in the STEM field will help society to understand that women can do things as good as men.”

Two girls working on science project with cups (American Corner Philippines/Maijoynes Sison)
Campers Cassandra A. Espabilla (left) and Vhea Jane R. Bigsot construct a scribble bot — a bot able to move on its own to create its own art — as part of their STEM activities during a camp session in Batac, Philippines. (American Corner Batac/Maijoynes Sison)

Three U.S. embassies coordinated on the WiSci Camp for female secondary-school students in Southeast Asia. Private grants made the program accessible to girls from Indigenous communities and lower-income households.

The U.S. State Department’s American Spaces hosted the girls so they could learn about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), while U.S. nonprofit Girl Up! and U.S. companies Intel and Caterpillar worked with WiSci’s team to provide funding, mentors and facilitators, curricula, and program materials for the students.

Girl wearing headphone working at computer (American Corner UNTAN/Lestario)
Camper Inaya Julianti works on a computer during the July WiSci Southeast Asia hybrid camp in Pontianak, Indonesia. (American Corner UNTAN/Lestario)

Seventy participants from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines met at seven American Spaces locations in July. Fourteen women counselors recently graduated from university paired off to lead groups of 10 girls.

Hands-on learning and STEM mentorship

Sukarti — an English instructor at Language Centre Tanjungpura University — was a camp counselor in Indonesia who led a group of 10 high school girls through the lesson plans, learning side by side how to tackle STEM projects such as circuit building.

“It was a great experience to empower the girls in the STEM field, to encourage the girls to support other women,” Sukarti said. Her favorite part was the opportunity to offer “a model on how girls can raise their voices as equal as their male counterparts.”

Girls holding bags posing for photo in front of American Corner mural (American Spaces Davao City)
Campers pose for a photo during their July Women in Science camp in Davao City, Philippines. (American Spaces Davao City)

The campers agreed. “I learned how surrounding myself with positive, supportive people and being in a space where I can express myself freely and thrive off of feeling seen and heard can do a great deal to increase my confidence and sense of security,” said Fatihmah Nurhumaida, an Indonesian high school student who participated in Surabaya.  

In addition to electrical-circuit problem solving, they learned the mathematical differences between probability and chance, and listened to lectures and training from female leaders in STEM positions.

Two women working on science project (American Corner Kedah/Che Saufie bin Ahmad)
A counselor helps a camper attach electrical components to a paper cup to create a scribble bot in Kedah, Malaysia, in July. (American Corner Kedah/Che Saufie bin Ahmad)

Both campers and counselors came away from the program inspired to pursue their dreams and stick together in STEM fields as they moved forward in their careers.

“By the end of the camp, I was more certain than ever that I’m going to pursue a career in the STEM field,” said Nurhumaida.

Sukarti agrees and says the long-term potential for women staying in STEM fields is huge.

“Boosting women’s STEM participation in Indonesia is very important because discrimination exists,” Sukarti said. “I believe we have great potential if we are empowered.”