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Germany looks to remote learning to promote STEM in Africa

By Andrew Green // 14 June 2023

BMZ's new pilot initiative aims to encourage more girls in Africa to take up STEM studies. Photo by: Iwaria Inc. / UnsplashWhen it comes to educating girls in subjects such as math and computer science, the German development ministry is preparing to try something a little bit different. Partnering with the private sector, the ministry, known as BMZ, is developing a pilot project that will connect primarily girls and young women in classrooms in Africa to technology such as 3D printers, laser cutters, and electronic prototyping equipment in Germany. The new part is that the students will learn how to operate those devices by controlling them remotely.

The ultimate goal of the public-private project is to provide the girls an experience that “enhances their prospects in the job market and facilitates the establishment of their own businesses, thereby strengthening small- and medium-sized enterprises in the African partner countries,” a BMZ spokesperson wrote in an email. To outsiders, like Benta Abuya, an education specialist at the African Population and Health Research Centre, the pilot is smartly taking advantage of one of the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic: “We do not need to do everything within the four walls of a classroom,” she told Devex. And for education systems that have been falling behind in encouraging girls to pursue the subjects of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, she hopes that transporting them virtually to laboratories in Germany might be one more tool “to getting girls to change their perception and take up the STEM core sets.” The pilot is a hybrid, drawing in technology commissioned by BMZ, but also leveraging the expertise of Mittelstand Bildungsallianz, which is an alliance of education and business associations and initiatives. BMZ is utilizing its digital learning platform, atingi, which already offers courses to partner countries in subjects ranging from entrepreneurship to governance. The young women will specifically focus on learning programming and gaining experience remotely controlling computerized machines in Germany, leading up to workshops where they will actually be able to put their skills to use. Mittelstand Bildungsallianz will help develop the vocational training packages and to identify businesses that might want to be part of the initiative. BMZ said they expect to partner with up to three companies from the automotive and mechatronics industries during the pilot. It is the first time BMZ has worked with Mittelstand Bildungsallianz on a project, though the ministry has a history of integrating the private sector into its initiatives. Abuya welcomed the emphasis on developing employable skills but cautioned that they needed to be adapted to the specific context where the students would ultimately be looking for jobs or building businesses, urging BMZ to teach them technology that will actually be available to them after they graduate. She also warned that the ministry needed to take precautions to make sure the students were not exploited during the training. “The German government should work with businesses to create almost a pathway to ensuring what these young people are learning has some sort of traction within the industry,” she said. BMZ has not yet settled on which country will host the pilot but the BMZ spokesperson said it will work closely with education officials in Africa to “cater to the distinct needs of partner schools and the specific requirements within this country.”

BMZ is hoping the project might also encourage more girls to take up STEM studies, helping to make up for persistent gaps in women pursuing careers in those fields in sub-Saharan Africa. Fewer than a third of science researchers in the region are women, according to UNESCO research. But Abuya said it will take more than this pilot to correct the imbalance that has emerged. “STEM is important, but don’t forget the other side of the whole person,” she said. “How do we support these young people to have life stills to circumvent some of the challenges they face,” including basic access to education. Sub-Saharan Africa is the region with the highest rate of children who should be attending primary or secondary school but are not, according to UNESCO, and at every educational level, the percentage of girls who are out of school is higher than their male counterparts.

The project, which does not yet have an official launch date, would begin in up to three schools that are already involved in BMZ-sponsored vocational training initiatives before being evaluated to determine if it should expand. Read more: Is global education too focused on foundational learning? Can virtual volunteering fill education gaps in Uganda? Opinion: E-learning can prevent another lost generation in Afghanistan

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