Female STEM internship: Maidens learning from masters

The Rural Electrification Agency’s first female Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) workshop held in Lagos last week provided an opportunity for female undergraduates from nine tertiary institutions across the country to learn from professionals and masters in the energy sector. SULAIMON OLANREWAJU reports.

According to a UNESCO report, Cracking the code: Girls’ and women education in STEM, a mere 35 per cent of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) students in higher education globally are women. The report also shows that not only is female participation in STEM education and employment low, the attrition rate is particularly high because women leave STEM disciplines in high number during their studies, during transition to the world of work and even during their career cycle. However, the statistics for Nigeria is even worse because less than 25 per cent of girls and women who seek tertiary education show interest in STEM principally because of biases, discrimination and social norms.

But as observed by Irina Bokova, former Director-General of UNESCO, who wrote the foreword to the report, “Girls and women are key players in crafting solutions to improve lives and generate inclusive green growth that benefits all. They are the greatest untapped population to become the next generations of STEM professionals – we must invest in their talent.”

Bokova also noted that changing the narrative would not come automatically but has to be championed by concerns persons and organizations.

It is probably in response to the Bokova’s challenge of narrowing the gap between male and female participation in STEM and stimulating females’ interest in science-related courses that the Damilola Ogunbiyi-led administration at Rural Electrification Agency (REA) instituted the female STEM internship under the Energizing Education Programme (EEP).

The internship was designed not just to improve the academic performance of the interns but to expose them to the importance and influence of the power sector in order for them to develop interest in it, see a role for themselves in the sector and participate in deploying their knowledge to improve life and living in the country.

Since the commencement of the programme a couple of months back, REA has trained about 180 female students from nine universities. The interns have been exposed to on-site training in designing and constructing power systems by world-class contractors.

While speaking at the opening ceremony of the two-day training workshop in Lagos, the Minister of State for Power, Mr. Goddy Jedy-Agba, said, “I feel honored to be at the transformative milestone event that celebrates and motivates our young women.

“The Energizing Education Programme (EEP), which was approved by President Muhammadu Buhari in 2016, has so far produced a total of 9.9MW of electricity through independent captive power plants across three university project sites (Alex Ekwueme Federal University, Ndufu-Alike Ikwo, Ebonyi and Bayero University,Kano respectively).

“The achievements of this programme, thus far are possible thanks to the development and execution of strategic policies initiated by the Ministry of Power in coordination with REA. These policies have supported and enabled federal universities to host off-grid power plants.  A core part of the Energizing Education Programme is the practical and technical training of 20 female STEM students at each beneficiary university. This is where policy meets gender mainstreaming in the power sector and specifically on electrification projects.

“To the young women who have participated in the STEM Internship Programme, I want you to know that gender and social exclusion will soon be a thing of the past. As a government, we are working to ensure that we mitigate the plight of women and promote equality and inclusiveness across all sectors. We cannot hope to reform the power sector without the skills, innovation and expertise of our women. That is why the importance of events like the one we are having today cannot be overemphasized. I therefore urge you to take charge of your future and make good use of the platform that has been established for you.”

The minister also commended the Managing Director/CEO of the Rural Electrification Agency, Damilola Ogunbiyi and her team for their determination which had resulted in the effective execution of the EEP. He also acknowledged their enthusiasm in empowering Nigerian youths specifically, the talented young women.

In her remarks, the REA boss, Mrs Ogunbiyi, expressed her delight at the first edition of the Energizing Education Programme STEM Workshop.

Delving into the raison d’être of the workshop, she said, “This workshop was designed to facilitate the increase in leadership and development of professional women. It is also a platform for the 180 female students and professionals present to network, share their knowledge, discuss achievements and encourage the advancement of women across the energy sector.”

She added, “As you all know, the Female STEM Students Internship Programme is very dear to my heart. What seemed like a dream is being actualized today – young women receiving the necessary skills needed to transform the Nigerian power sector. I hope this will be a catalyst for many more gender-based events in the Nigerian energy sector.

“There is no gainsaying that gender inclusiveness forms the core of what we do at the Rural Electrification Agency (REA). This is evident in the increased number of women in senior management roles under my leadership, from just one to six. Currently, there is a total of 25 female Project Managers working across different REA initiatives. In addition, tendering companies under the REA Nigeria Electrification Project are expected to have at least 30 per cent female employment rate to qualify as eligible.

“As part of the drive to foster female participation in the power sector, REA flagged off a gender-focused workshop in collaboration with the USAID Nigeria Power Sector Programme, aimed at bringing together women in the power sector to drive the conversation and initiatives on gender inclusiveness.

“To further push REA’s gender agenda, the Energizing Education Female STEM Internship Programme was initiated, as part of the Energizing Education Programme (EEP), an initiative of the Federal Government of Nigeria aimed at providing clean, safe and reliable electricity to 37 federal universities and affiliated university teaching hospitals. The focus of the internship programme is to provide hands-on training to 20 female students offering STEM-related courses in each of the EEP universities, beginning with 180 female students across nine universities under Phase 1 of the programme.”

Ogunbiyi thanked the Federal Government of Nigeria, under the leadership of President Muhammadu Buhari, for providing an environment that empowers the Nigerian woman with all that she needs to become a world changer.  She also thanked the federal ministries, especially the Ministry of Power, for their efforts in integrating gender into their policy formation and governance of the sector.

Mrs Ogunbiyi called on the STEM female participants to make the best use of the opportunity the workshop offered as they embrace their careers.

The two day Lagos gathering was the first STEM workshop that brought professionals under the same roof. The workshop was organized by REA in partnership with leading private sector organisations and was attended by power sector stakeholders and business professionals with the aim of bringing together young women in the same room with top power sector and business professionals to share knowledge and discuss the opportunities for women in the industry.

Enumerating the benefits in the energy sector, the organisers of the workshop stressed that the development of the renewable energy sector, advocating for energy efficiency and  productivity would lead to numerous job and business opportunities throughout Nigeria. Women, who are often underrepresented within the sector, would have large roles to play in the development of sustainable projects that add to the socio-economic development of the nation.

While opening the eyes of the women to their innate abilities, they noted that the workshop became imperative so as to show the young women the realities ahead of them whilst also creating a platform to facilitate the increase in leadership and development of young women involved in the Nigerian energy sector and beyond.

The well attended workshop featured panel discussions and keynote speeches from respected professionals connected to the energy sector. It also provided a platform for students and professionals to network, share knowledge, discuss achievements and encourage the advancement of women across all facets of the industry.

The two-day workshop helped STEM students to understand the African energy sector and the career potentials for women, created an awareness of senior roles in the marketplace acquired by women, brought a new approach to assimilating a new generation of female leaders into energy and related companies, to understand the major challenges women face in business and politics and network for potential mentoring and job opportunities.

The final activity of the workshop was the Project Shark Tank competition among the participating universities in which students of Bayero University, Kano emerged the winners and went away with a prize of N1,000,000.