Represent! Women in STEM: MAIA’s Formula for Success

I have another guest blog to share today! This post was written by Isabela Lyrio and was first published on the MAIA Impact School website. As we approach International Women’s Day on March 8, this is a timely reminder of how much progress women have made in terms of gender equality as well as how much room there is to still grow. Isabela’s piece focuses on STEM education for girls broadly, and specifically on how the MAIA Impact School incorporates STEM learning into the curriculum. The feature picture I chose of MAIA Girl Pioneers working in a lab is groundbreaking in its historic significance. This intentionality around vastly expanding education and opportunity in every dimension imaginable for this overlooked population is game changing. These young women are examples of hope in action, personified. And with that, take it away Isabela:

Why is it important for girls to learn and excel in STEM not only in the classroom, but in the workforce as well? STEM is science, technology, engineering, and math, careers considered to be the changing forces for the future. It is estimated that 65 to 85 percent of jobs today will no longer exist in the next 20 to 30 years, in large part due to automation and ever-changing local and global economies. Women in developing countries are most threatened by this change because they are overrepresented in occupations that are most likely to become automated. The STEM fields are some of the fastest growing sectors of the global job market; however, women only represent 35 percent of the student body pursuing university degrees in STEM fields.

MAIA believes in the importance of representation. When girls and women lead innovation, they make it more inclusive, impact a larger population, and act as role models for more girls to get involved in this field in the future.

In Guatemala, the opportunity for indigenous women in STEM is almost nonexistent. This marginalization is reflective of greater social context, the poor quality of public education, and gender and cultural norms. According to the Ministry of Education’s 2017 national assessment of high school graduates, only 9.6 percent are considered proficient in math, only .59 percent better than the 2016 results. Similarly, in literacy only 32 percent of high school graduates are considered proficient, a .01 percent improvement from the previous year. This problem is compounded when considering that only 10 percent of indigenous girls graduate from high school and 1 percent receive a university degree.

Scientists at Work
Girl Pioneers in Science Class; Photo by Anna Watts

The MAIA Impact School is working to transform these statistics and provide the tools Girl Pioneers need to have a choice-filled life and become leaders in the industry of their choice. MAIA offers a rigorous, culturally adapted curriculum that is delivered by educators who are pioneers in their own fields and come from the same rural towns as the Girl Pioneers. MAIA’s educators are powerful local role models for girls in Guatemala.

Marlen Cumes, MAIA’s natural science educator, is from a small town in the Guatemalan highlands. When she was deciding on her career path, Marlen wanted to study agroforestry in university but was met with resistance from her family—they believed this was not a woman’s career. Marlen fought for her beliefs and passions and pursued her career as an agronomist. It was challenging for Marlen to follow her dreams and overcome deeply embedded stereotypes of what a woman’s career should be in rural Guatemala. Her graduating class was equally balanced, 50 percent men and 50 percent women. However, only 11 percent of the women were indigenous. During her studies, Marlen became passionate about soil preservation and climate change but would hit brick walls when trying to engage with adults in her community on this topic. Many adults already had their minds made up and would not respect her expertise as a woman in a male-dominated field. That’s why Marlen sought opportunities as an educator, where she could teach passionate young students who have open minds and want to make a difference in the world. Once she was hired as MAIA’s natural science educator at the Impact School, she found that she was in the perfect place to teach the next generation of changemakers in an organization that is breaking paradigms just as she did.

Marlen Teaching
Marlen Cumes, MAIA’s Natural Science Educator; Photo by Livvy Runyon

MAIA is a bold organization that asserts the right of indigenous girls to pursue a high-quality education by emboldening them to use their voice in spaces where indigenous women’s representation has been limited, especially in STEM and technology. Divisions in access to technology reflect socioeconomic divisions and amplify the lack of access to opportunities marginalized groups face in developing countries. By investing in computers, a cutting-edge science lab, talented local educators, and intentional partnerships, MAIA is ensuring Girl Pioneers will have the skills and opportunities to become leaders in STEM fields.

Students and Garden
Girl Pioneers at the MAIA Impact School Zayed Garden; Photo by Layla Rojas

Indigenous culture is integrated with MAIA’s identity and academic instruction, this is important because it creates an environment that is familiar and fertile for learning. One example of the integration of indigenous identity and academics is MAIA’s Zayed Sustainability Garden. MAIA was awarded the 2019 Zayed Sustainability Prize as the most “innovative and inclusive school in the Americas” and received $100,000 to launch the Zayed Garden at the Impact School. The Zayed Garden combines STEM learning opportunities with traditional Mayan farming practices, organic gardening techniques, and nutrition. As part of the Zayed curriculum, Girl Pioneers learn about traditional medicinal plants as well as organic and permaculture gardening. By integrating medicinal plants as part of the natural science curriculum, Girl Pioneers learn to integrate the knowledge of their ancestors with STEM subjects, giving them unique insight and experience in this field.

Claudia Marisol, a 10th-grader, recently participated in Ella Impacta, a competition sponsored by Vital Voices in Guatemala City, and competed against students from elite schools from all over the country to receive seed funding for community-based projects. Claudia proposed a project of family gardens, where families grow organic vegetables in their homes, with the goal of increasing access to fresh vegetables but also to address the problem of malnutrition in her community. This project would increase access to nutritious organic vegetables and diminish the use of chemicals and pesticides in rural communities, thereby fortifying nutrients in the soil, protecting water sources, and sharing information and resources about the advantages of organic gardening with community members. Claudia Marisol won $1,000 in funding for her project, and is applying what she learned at the MAIA Impact School to become a changemaker in her community. She’ll use the intersection of traditional permaculture techniques and the natural science curriculum (with support from her educator, Marlen).

Ella Impacta Win
Girl Pioneers with their Ella Impacta seed funding and Xoco MAIA Supporters in Guatemala City

It is essential to establish a sense of belonging for female minorities in STEM fields. According to a study in the STEM Education Journal, the biggest reason minority groups drop out of STEM majors in university is that they feel they don’t belong in that space. This is attributed to  interpersonal relationships, perceived competence, personal interest, and science identity. At MAIA, we create a positive learning environment in STEM and other culturally relevant subject areas, so Girl Pioneers feel a sense of belonging rather than alienation in these fields. We ensure they know they have the ability and expertise for any field of their choice, and if they choose to pursue a career in STEM that they have the tools they need to become leaders.

Marlen is a trailblazer in her community, ensuring younger generations can learn from her and follow her example. We see Girl Pioneers like Claudia Marisol following this path and multiplying impact to benefit the community. At MAIA, we are guided by the question “how far can she go?” and we are just beginning to witness the infinite impact of Girl Pioneers and their passion for learning and social transformation.

The secret to change