26th Anniversary Edition-Celebrating Women

Breaking the glass ceiling

  • Two engineers paving the way for women in STEM
- Timothy Aryal, Kathmandu

Feb 18, 2019-

On the fourth floor of a five-storey building in Kalopul, two engineering graduates in their mid-20s, are hard at work, their heads bowed over their computers.

Pratiksha Pandey and Binita Shrestha are preparing for the fifth edition of Hour of Code, a workshop-cum-training course that they have designed to give an introduction to computer science, demystify code and to show “that anybody can learn the basics in an hour.”

While both Pandey and Shrestha also have jobs like regular engineering graduates, their organisation Women in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics, Nepal (WiSTEM, Nepal) has kick-started something unconventional, and something bold in what is usually a highly men-dominated field.

Programming is a daunting subject even among computer science graduates. The theoretical knowledge that most private engineering colleges across the country impart do not quite prepare the students to compete in the market; most of them have to enroll in other short-term courses to ready themselves for the practical world of problem-solving. If nothing more, the Hour of Code programme helps students ease into learning the subject and also provides the basics of programming to enthusiasts, who might not necessarily be computer science students.

At the heart of this social enterprise is the reaffirming fact about how girls with the ambition to pursue engineering as a subject and later, a career choice, are discouraged. With WiSTEM Nepal, the efforts to break the mould continues—the upcoming edition of Hour of Code features 20 programming enthusiasts. All women.

Shrestha has always been a diligent student and, as a high-schooler, she had a knack for designing and engineering, she says. In her high school, she chose to enroll for ‘Physics’ at the Science faculty, ultimately wanting to pursue an engineering degree for graduation. As things turned out, she happened to be the only female student in her class. “It was a very discomforting experience,” Shrestha says. “I was really dispirited for a month but I was not going to give up.” Of the 40 something students in her batch later, only seven were female. “This fact upset me and that was when I decided to start this organisation with an aim to break the stereotype,” Shrestha says.

Pandey, too, had a hard time enrolling for an engineering class. “Even though I have a few engineers in my family, they are all men. And to some extent, even my family wanted me to choose medicine over engineering but I pushed through and chose engineering anyway,” Pandey says.

Both Shrestha and Pandey, coincidentally, were at the same engineering college, albeit in different faculties. While Shrestha pursued IT Engineering, Pandey was enrolled in the Electronics and Communications department. And like Shrestha, Pandey was one of the seven female students out of the total 40.

The duo came together in late 2015, during their final year, and discussed upon the idea to start a workshop-cum-training facility which they would later name ‘Hour of Code’. The idea was to offer freshers a basic course on coding and help them get through the daunting subject that programming is thought to be. “The college management and the lecturers seconded our idea since the workshop was being organised to help the students, all of them, get some additional knowledge beyond academics,” says Pandey.

But they were in for a surprise once they announced their workshop and posted forms online. Out of some 30 forms they received, almost all of them were female students. None of them showed up at the opening programme.

“We had to visit each class and convince girls to participate in the workshop,” says Shrestha. “Hardly anyone was willing to come alone. They had to form small groups to come to our classes.” The rescheduled programme saw seven female students but by the end of it, only three were present.

“Our society seems to be telling women at an early age that engineering is not their cup of tea. Even among the scarce few that enroll, most drop out,” the duo said.

But the number of women have grown since the first edition of Hour of Code. By far WiSTEM Nepal has conducted Hour of Code workshops in over 10 colleges and has also branched out to high schools in the Valley, offering children an opportunity to learn the basics of computer science, engineering, designing and robotics as part of the ‘STEM for Kids’ programme.

“We need to create role models for girls to look up to so that they can aspire to follow in their footsteps,” says Shrestha.

Through the ‘STEM for Kids’ programme, the kids are led through the basics of coding, electronics, and design thinking. The idea is to put the theoretical knowledge the kids gain into practical use, they said.

“Because girls are always advised to choose nursing, humanities and social sciences over science and engineering, we feel it is imperative that children, not only girls but also boys, should be given a foreshadowing of a fascinating subject that engineering is,” said the duo. “We find ourselves the happiest amid children and what joy it is to interact with them and know that they actually enjoyed the workshops. Because children are the proverbial raw muds, we need to start right from the grassroots.”

Published: 19-02-2019 06:00

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