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  • Kathryn Schoenberger

STEM Education Empowers Girls

This story was first published in the Christian Science Monitor.

At first glance, Yasmine Yehia Moustafa may look like any recent high school graduate. She’s been enjoying summer vacation and preparing for her first year of college. During her free time, she loves belly dancing, playing basketball, and singing, even though she claims to have a “horrible voice.” Look a little closer and you’ll find she is anything but average. The 18-year-old science student from Egypt has already invented a system to produce clean water and biodiesel using rice straw, won the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), and, most recently, had asteroid 31910 Moustafa named in her honor by NASA.

When Yasmine received the news about the eponymous celestial object, she immediately called everyone she knew, some of whom thought she was playing a joke.

“My mom didn’t believe me,” Yasmine recalled with a giggle.

Yasmine developed the water filtration system as her capstone project at the Maadi STEM School for Girls, which is part of a network of new high schools in Egypt focused on preparing students to become leaders in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

The schools have been established as part of a collaborative effort to overhaul Egypt’s education system to give students the real-world skills they will need to help the country’s “grand challenges,” such as water pollution, desertification, and overpopulation. The program is managed by World Learning, and funded by USAID in partnership with the Egyptian Ministry of Education, The Franklin Institute, the 21st Century Partnership for STEM Education, and the Teaching Institute for Excellence in STEM.

The schools’ innovative, project-based curriculum is in direct contrast to Egypt’s government schools, which use rote learning to prepare students for exams, not the workplace.

“In Maadi, we depend on applying the information more than memorizing it,” Yasmine said, adding that this type of learning was critical to helping her produce the water purification system.

Growing up in Egypt’s Damietta governorate, Yasmine lived in a community that depended on the highly polluted Nile River for water. Although they used standard filtration systems, Yasmine said the water still wasn’t clean enough. This experience inspired her to focus on creating a more effective method of purifying water.

Although she began her research with the intention of only producing a better water filtration system, Yasmine soon discovered that her invention could do more: burning rice straw to distill and purify the water also produced biodiesel and hydrogen, which can be used as sustainable energy sources and help reduce air pollution.

In addition to gaining practical knowledge and skills, Yasmine credits her school for helping build her confidence and leadership skills. While she has always been a leader among friends, Yasmine said Maadi helped her realize that she has a bigger role to play.

“I can change the world,” she said.

She won’t be alone, as the STEM program has produced a network of talented young scientific leaders from across Egypt who will need to collaborate to tackle the country’s most pressing issues.

While hard sciences have traditionally been dominated by boys, the program requires that 50 percent of the students in these STEM schools are girls.

Yasmine was initially apprehensive about leaving home to attend Maadi, as all of the students board at the school, but she soon became fast friends with her fellow classmates. Their close bonds and mutual admiration are clear; Yasmine describes the other young women not only as her biggest fans, but also her inspiration.

It is easy to understand why. Her classmates’ projects include creating self-sustaining houses, robotic limbs, and alternative agriculture methods.

Her school “family” encouraged her to enter the ISEF competition, and when she won, they were there cheering her on.

“I was very happy when I saw my friends,” she recalled. “When they were shouting and they stood on the chairs, I just felt very happy.”

She hopes to eventually market the system so that communities across Egypt will have better access to clean water. But first, college. This fall, she will enter the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey, where she plans to study bioengineering, a subject that blends engineering and life sciences, and tackle Egypt’s public health problems.

“Bioengineering doesn’t exist in Egypt in a good way,” Yasmine said. “It’s not accepted. I hope to be the person to change this in Egypt.”

She knows she can’t do it alone and is hopeful that more girls interested in STEM will attend schools like Maadi, where they will learn how to “become a leader in the world.”

“There is no impossible,” she said. “They can do anything.”

Photo by USAID/Claudia Gutierrez available under CC BY-NC 2.0.

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