Just a couple of weeks ago, I visited Ethiopia to attend the World Economic Forum’s Africa Summit – a choice which confused many of us, as, like many other African countries, doesn’t strike you as being a natural choice to host such an event, but when we scratched beneath the surface, what impressed was their total focus on applying science and engineering to boost their economic and agricultural productivity, which is obviously working as they’re now the world’s third fastest growing economy. Imagine that! I remember, as a young boy, cycling to my local record shop to buy the charity single that brought Ethiopia into focus, and where we all sang along to “do they know its Christmas time at all”.
And it’s not the only example of a country that we think of as ‘developing’ as being in a vastly different economic environment than we might think. While we all know of the rise of the BRIC economies, but did you know that a country like India produces more engineers & doctors than the whole of Europe put together?
Both examples show that investing in STEM education makes good economic sense. Education can be the driver for economic growth. But it’s not always universal and girls and women are often being left behind. There’s an obvious moral argument to this – how can it be right to leave behind so many people – but there’s also an economic argument. On what basis can we look at ourselves if we don’t do more to ensure that we create generations of female mathematicians, scientists, engineers, and technologists?
Did you know that since the inception of the Nobel Prize for Physics, only two women have won this prize? Only four have won the Chemistry prize. How can this be right? We can drill even further as the statistics for women “of colour” are even more alarming such as; only 2% of all women professors in the US are “of colour”.
How can this be right?
The work that the Varkey GEMS Foundation does with UNESCO concerns the recruitment of more women into the teaching profession, the skilling of these recruits to ensure girls advance in STEM subjects, and an ongoing commitment to their professional development as educators.
As a company, if there’s one thing that GEMS has learnt from educating children is that good teachers matter. Who stands at the front of a classroom often makes the essential difference to a child’s prospects of success.
As a charitable foundation we believe that the role & status of teachers has become so derided that we fail to appreciate their critical contribution to a country’s progress. We also fail to understand the way in which the teaching profession is changing, for example as technology allows for easier transfer of knowledge, the classroom teacher takes on an ever more critical role – that of a “mentor”. In this avatar, teachers can have an incredible influence on parents, students and the wider community, and can convince those who don’t believe that science pays, of the rewards advancement in STEM subjects can hold for families and communities – whether in cosmopolitan cities like London or Paris or in the most rural locations in Lesotho or Kenya, where our intervention is targeted.
No longer are STEM subjects taught in isolation, real world challenges demand an inclusive, combined approach. In this new way of learning, teachers become even more vital as they join the dots for students to make the subjects real and practical.
We need to be clear in our minds that a focus on STEM education can boost a country’s economic chances – which in these challenging and austere times is important to understand. But, clarity of thought is one thing, we ought to also bear in mind the moral argument in training girls and women, for they have been neglected for far too long by a male dominated political culture, which is hard to defend on any basis.
Teachers are the backbone of the education sector. By investing in them, we invest in ourselves.
As a father of two daughters, I wanted to convey my thanks to H. E. Ms. Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO for convening such an alliance to further the education of girls and women and look forward to reporting back the progress we’re making in Lesotho & Kenya over the next few years.
Chief Executive Officer
The Varkey GEMS Foundation