Empowering young women in Ireland with 21st-century skills
School-aged girls in west Dublin may not have access to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. Maynooth University in Kildare offers a unique mentorship program to help young women develop their skills and career prospects in STEM fields.
School-aged girls, particularly those attending DEIS-designated schools, are not always exposed to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education or career paths. Maynooth University, located west of Dublin in Kildare, is now offering a unique mentorship program that will give young women the opportunity to develop their STEM skills and will provide a pathway to continuing education and careers.
Breaking down barriers to STEM education
Recognizing that there are significant disparities in opportunities based upon family circumstances, poverty levels, and geography, the Maynooth University Assisting Living and Learning Institute (ALL) and College Connect, Maynooth University developed a program to provide greater access to STEM education among typically underrepresented populations.
In 2020, Microsoft contributed funding to support the ALL AI Academy for Good program. Microsoft is also providing support through its DreamSpace team to challenge the 30 participants to develop an AI-centric project for good. Dr. Katriona O’Sullivan, Digital Skills Lecturer at Maynooth University, appreciates the support. “It’s been a really wonderful experience for me to actually see that there are people and companies that genuinely care about this community and are willing to invest. It might be money, but it’s also time.”
A core tenet of the program is to show students how STEM learning can develop into a future career. O’Sullivan says, “Programs like this give students a really hands-on understanding of STEM, but also provides students with a mentor from their community who’s progressed through university.” The idea of representation is key to the program. According to O’Sullivan, “You can give someone a computer and teach them how to use it. That’s great. But that’s no good if you don’t see anyone like you within the profession or if you don’t know anyone like you at the university.”
This is where the AI Academy’s mentorship comes in. The five mentors provide human and social capital that’s not always available. These mentors are pursuing science, social science, or teaching degrees and come from similar backgrounds to the program’s participants, allowing them to really connect and act as role models. The program will benefit the mentors as well; they’ve been recruited to internships in partnership with Microsoft. The mentors are leading their student groups in specially-designed Imagine Cup activities that challenge the girls to understand AI and develop an AI-based solution to solve a global problem. At the end of the challenge, in May 2021, students will receive a certificate that can be considered when they apply for higher education opportunities.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, maintaining connection has been more difficult, but students have access to a laptop lending library, ensuring access to hardware that allows work to continue virtually. Due to social isolation from the pandemic, these connections are now more important than ever.
Enabling students to develop skills and confidence
“These students are really talented and motivated, and have really innovative ideas, and because of their challenging backgrounds, they have this resilience that’s really important for STEM careers,” says O’Sullivan. “When chatting with their mentors, the students get to talk about their strengths and what they’re good at and further explore that.”
The women who act as mentors are able to build the students’ confidence by sharing their experiences. About one, O’Sullivan says, “She didn’t have paper residency, she went to school in a disadvantaged area, and her family hadn’t been educated. But she was a very motivated young woman who always wanted to be a teacher. She started with us and now she’s in the first year of her degree, and she’s now a mentor. She’s an excellent example of this type of work making a difference.”
“You can give someone a computer and teach them how to use it. That’s great. But that’s no good if you don’t see anyone like you within the profession or if you don’t know anyone like you at the university.”—Katriona O’Sullivan, Digital Skills Lecturer, Maynooth University