Strengthening STEM in Sub-Saharan Africa: Ghanaian Student Engineers Participate in Unique Gender Equality Program

This International Women’s Day, Engineers Without Borders USA is celebrating a unique program designed to further gender equity in engineering. SEESA (Strengthening Engineering Ecosystems in Sub-Saharan Africa) is a partnership between EWB-USA, Safe Water Network (SWN), Feminist Data Research (FDR), Inc., Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), and AECOM. Providing student teams the opportunity to work with local industry professionals to develop and implement research and design projects, the project seeks to advance gender equity in STEM. The program is made possible through the generous support of Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC).     

SEESA is a three-year partnership dedicated to addressing equity gaps in STEM fields in sub-Saharan Africa. Through five student-developed pilot projects, the partnership trains 30-40 engineering students each year in engineering research and applied design, exploring how engineering research and education can be strengthened. As a SEESA partner, EWB-USA is supporting student and industry collaboration in pursuit of successful project outcomes which have a benefit to the community in the long term.

Women and STEM

Women are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics curriculum throughout Ghana and the world. KNUST is no different. IDRC studies show a disproportionately low number of women in these science and research areas.      

SEESA offers students in all engineering disciplines an opportunity to work with local businesses. Its five pilot projects were chosen in an open competition with an independent review panel. Students pitched projects demonstrating how STEM training and research can achieve social and economic impact. Successful projects promote equity both in their impact – how would the project affect women in communities – and their structure – promoting teams lead by or composed of women.  

In tandem with the project component, SEESA reviewed KNUST’s policies towards gender parity in its students and faculty. With only 14 percent of the 5,772 engineering students and 12 women on the engineering department’s faculty of 166, the partners recommended ways to implement policies designed to improve gender equality and increase the number of women students and faculty. 

Translating Policy Into Practice

Jascika Maclean, age 20, grew up in Accra, Ghana, a country of 19 million on the west coast of Africa. She recognized that pollution was destroying the fishing industry which sustains many local people. “I want to treat all waste so that environmental pollution can be reduced,” she said, “and create an avenue for employment.” To achieve this, she chose to attend KNUST and major in civil engineering with a wastewater concentration. 

In the spring of her junior year, three male engineering students invited Maclean to join their project team. Her team envisioned real-time monitoring of water contaminants using remote sensors. The group was selected as a finalist, assigned a faculty mentor, and awarded an IDRC research grant.  Other competitive projects included the development of a centralized bank of sanitation data, and a demand-side smart domestic electrical energy-management system.      

In September 2019, Edmund Doku, director of program management at AECOM, led a three-day workshop for the SEESA students addressing project management skills as well as safety, health, and environment issues, and provided assistance in preparing proposals and presentations.      

“It was wonderful to see the students working with industry partners to create solutions which not only benefit the partner but will make a real difference in the lives of communities,” said Cathy Leslie, EWB-USA’s chief executive officer. “ We were honored to be a part of this program and to support the students in becoming more skilled in their projects.”

Students were encouraged to look through a feminist lens at who would benefit from each project. For example, on projects that involved drinking water — who drew water from the community well? Women or men? Girls or boys? Students questioned if having taps in each household would enable women and girls to have more time for other activities, like jobs and school. Students were instructed to determine if and how their projects’ outcomes could influence real-world situations. 

In spring 2020, the student teams will present their project outcomes to a panel of experts at KNUST for evaluation and feedback.

Institutional Change, Equity and Success   

SEESA students are often in undergraduate engineering classes with a disproportionately small number of women, and it affects their experiences in different ways. Leticia Adu says she developed courage.

Edumaba “Gloria” Graham says she believes that the uneven ratio brings the women together and strengthens teams. “[Women] considered project criteria that men may have skipped over,” she said.

Daniella Afriyie Asare, president of the Biomedical Engineering Students’ Society of KNUST, was working on projects with other women before SEESA began. In one project, they developed Anquito, an eco-friendly mosquito repellent. It is now a business idea being tried at the business incubator of KNUST. The team recently added a male business associate.

Elvis Yeboah-Duako is part of a SEESA project in which the single woman of the group, Rosemond Ocansey, leads them. Her initial team members abandoned the project as they were unprepared. Passionately wanting to compete, she chose another student to assist her on the day of the defense. They made the cut — just the two of them. She later contacted Yeboah-Duako and others about joining her team, carefully balancing the technical knowledge of the group. He wondered how a woman would lead four strong-willed men and successfully coordinate their activities, “But she did so with much ease — more than I could ever imagine,” he says. 

The long-term objective is institutional change, with an equal number of women and men engaged in innovative applied learning. “Innovation and good community design requires the perspective of people of all kinds — gender, cultures, backgrounds,” says Leslie, “A successful project is one that can satisfy the needs of a diverse population.”

Maclean is completing her final year at KNUST. She spoke about her senior academic design assignment running concurrently to the SEESA effort. “The girls helped each other to finish their projects and even helped one another during the defense,” she says. 

“We killed it.”

About the Author
J.O. Haselhoef
J.O. Haselhoef traveled with EWB-USA to Ghana and contributed this piece.