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A mathematics teacher provides girls with education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics

Dr. Faguèye Ndiaye Sylla is a professor and researcher in mathematics at the Faculty of Science and Technology, Education and Training at the Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal. She recently participated as a trainer in a regional training course organized by UNESCO entitled "Cracking the code: A quality and gender-sensitive science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education".

You are a mathematics (math) teacher in Senegal. How did your interest/passion for math come about? Did you have a role model who inspired you as a child?

My interest in math began in elementary school. I was good at mental arithmetic and solved all the problems the teacher provided us. My interest in math grew stronger in junior and high school as I maintained a good academic performance and received encouragement from my father.

My father was a role model for me and encouraged me to continue along this path. As Director of the Senegalese Institute of Agricultural Research in Nioro, a locality in Senegal, my father met with agricultural engineers who were women at the service. I asked my father: "Who are these women?" He replied that they were engineers. I asked him: "What is an engineer? What studies have they done?"

I told him then that I wanted to become an agricultural engineer, just like them.

According to the UNESCO report, Cracking the code, girls and women are particularly under-represented in STEM fields. In your experience, to what extent is this true? What challenges have you faced as a woman in the field of math?

Girls and women are under-represented in STEM fields. There are barely one or two girls in 10 or 15 who attend science classes leading to STEM studies. In the faculty of sciences and technology of our universities, girls represent only a maximum of two or three in the second cycle, and very often there are no female teachers. In engineering, it is the same thing.

Girls have no role models in these areas. The active women girls meet are midwives, nurses, teachers, very rarely science or mathematics teachers. On the socio-cultural level, girls are taught that they should not study STEM subjects because not only are these studies very difficult and they will never succeed, but because the opportunities for these studies are mainly reserved for men.

Every day, as a math teacher, I work to increase the participation and performance of girls and women in mathematics and sciences. Whether through the initiation of mechanisms, the organization of career days or mentoring programmes, and by sensitizing parents of students to encourage and support their daughters to believe in themselves.

In November 2018, you participated as a trainer in the regional training course organized by UNESCO. What did you learn from the training?

This training came at a good time. Bringing together education stakeholders at all levels - from decision-makers to teachers - to raise awareness, inform and train them on STEM education has enabled us to reconsider practices and policies to improve girls' participation in STEM studies.

The learning environment remains a key element, with appropriate structures and resources. I am thinking of laboratories in which girls and boys can carry out their scientific experiments while sitting comfortably on test benches and suitable chairs. I am also thinking of clean, separate and accessible toilets for girls and boys so that girls do not feel the need to go home for their own hygiene.

How did this training help build the capacity of math teachers to become gender sensitive? What skills acquired during the training have you already applied in your classes or curriculum?

Through this training, I help mathematics teachers plan their lessons and choose resources, materials and activities that incorporate an inclusive, gender-sensitive perspective. I encourage them to put the student at the center, to motivate girls and boys to build their own knowledge, and to organize the classroom so that every girl and boy can participate in the teaching and learning process.

I have already implemented some of the skills acquired during the training in my classes and curricula, particularly the integration of the gender dimension in the organization of the classroom (for example, the creation of mixed groups and the accountability of girls), the content of activities and the use of information and communication technologies. I motivate girls and boys by valuing their correct answers and helping those in difficulty.

In your opinion, what could be done to inspire and engage more girls and women in STEM fields in your country, and in the world?

Science days should be organized during which girls can meet women and role models studying or working in STEM fields, and discovery days or vocational opportunities into STEM careers. Girls would then learn about school and university curriculum, career opportunities in STEM, the obstacles women have been facing and how they have succeeded in these fields. There could also be a mentoring programme to monitor, advise and guide girls toward STEM pathways.

International conferences led by women mathematicians, scientists and engineers could engage girls through hands-on demonstrations or presentations of their research and work. Girls and women in STEM should also be given priority through calls for applications for positions in decision-making.

What advice would you give to girls who are interested in pursuing STEM studies?

I will tell them to persevere, to hold on, to have confidence in themselves because they will succeed in STEM like their predecessors.

The fact that a woman studies or works in STEM is very beneficial to her family, her community, and more generally to society as a whole. So keep going!

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