Changing perceptions so that women go into STEM

Ayu is the sole Malaysian selected to be part of the Hidden No More: Empowering Leaders in STEM programme. — KAMARUL ARIFFIN/THE STAR

KUALA LUMPUR: When engineer Ayu Abdullah (pic) did her degree in 2000, participation in her classes was predominantly male. Almost 20 years later, nothing much has changed.

“There were 50 students in my class – fewer than 10 were female and only three of us were Asians,” said Ayu. “I don’t see much change in that now, almost 20 years later,” she said.

Society, she said, needed to change its perceptions if it was to get more women into the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

“It begins with how we raise our kids – acknowledging physical differences but not limiting them by gender,” said the South-East Asia regional director at Energy Action Partners (Enact).

Ayu is the only Malaysian chosen for the United States State Depart­ment’s pioneer “Hidden No More: Empowering Leaders in STEM under the International Visitor Lea­dership Programme” (IVLP) professional exchange umbrella. She was nominated by the US Embassy based on her work.

Some 5,000 participants take part in IVLP programmes every year.

Hidden No More was inspired by the 2016 movie Hidden Figures, the true story of the African-American women at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) in the 1960s, who helped get the first American astronaut into space. Its 50 female participants will be from around the globe, all leaders in STEM-related fields.                      

Aimed at inspiring exchange among global women leaders in STEM fields, the programme will span three weeks beginning in Washington DC on Oct 7.

Participants will visit, among others, Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Centre and Jet Propulsion Labo­ratory, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Geographic Society and Fox Studios.

An aerospace engineer by training, Ayu now specialises in sustainable and renewable energy.

After a stint in the oil and gas industry, she became a teacher at the Abaarso School of Science and Technology in Somaliland, Africa, where she helped to build that country’s first wind turbine.

Having run Enact programmes in Sabah, Indonesia and India to empower rural communities in planning their own energy systems, Ayu also teaches Physics at the non-profit Fugee School here, where she is a member of the steering committee.

“I think teachers have a huge role to play. Girls often think they’re not good at Maths or Physics because they’re just not wired that way – but a good teacher can change that.

“Programmes like Hidden No More spark ideas and collaborations, allow engagement with different cultural viewpoints and inspire change in our work,” she said.

With her background in aerospace engineering, Ayu found particular resonance in Hidden Figures.

“I took my Fugee School students to see it, and the girls especially loved it.

“The movie meant a lot to me too. I love what I’m doing now but there will always be a part of me ... still that little girl excited about space.”


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