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  • 28.07.2022

#TeachersTransform learning: Focus on experiential learning transforms girls’ interest in STEM subjects

How do you encourage more learners to choose STEM subjects at school? You develop project-based teaching and experiential learning, and you turn learning into an experience that delivers life skills instead of exam results.

This is the vision of Kavita Sanghvi, the principal of Chatrabhuj Narsee Memorial School in Mumbai, India. Throughout her 21-year teaching journey, Kavita has always loved the challenge of ‘discovery’, and now she’s passing this skill on to her learners through an innovative new experiential approach to teaching.

As an educator, one of Kavita’s main goals is to encourage more girls to take on STEM subjects and pursue careers in this field.

She identifies with some of the barriers that girls face when pursuing STEM subjects. “My parents were always very supportive. But traditionally, science subjects are only seen as useful if you’re going to be a doctor or an engineer. And there’s still a societal expectation that women will marry and raise a family, so spending money on further studies is seen as a ‘waste’.”

This is echoed in UNESCO’s Cracking the code: Girls’ and women’s education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics report released in 2017.

According to the report, factors that influence girls’ participation in STEM subjects include social, cultural and gender norms. “Girls are often brought up to believe that STEM are ‘masculine’ topics and that female ability in this field is innately inferior to that of males. This can undermine girls’ confidence, interest and willingness to engage in STEM subjects.”

And yet, Kavita pursued her passion for science and obtained her master’s degree in nuclear physics as well as a master’s degree in education. She is proof that STEM is not only for boys, and she's encouraging more girls to follow her lead.

Pioneering a new way of teaching to encourage girls to pursue STEM subjects

When Kavita became the principal of Chatrabhuj Narsee Memorial, one of the first things she noticed was that many learners, especially girls, were dropping STEM subjects. She also found that some of the top graduates from the school were struggling to cope at university.

“I realised that instead of exam results, the skills of collaboration, critical thinking, networking, and creativity were given more prominence in higher education. The trend is the same in business and industry. But these weren’t being taught through the traditional national curriculum.

“I knew we needed to transform the way we were doing things. And I proposed to the team that we rework and redesign the way we were teaching in grades 1-8.”

Turning STEM learning into an experience

Together with her team, Kavita transformed the way classes are taught in their school, calling it a “Global Outlook” approach. The focus is on experiential learning, and links every topic to one of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

“The transformative approach incorporates real-life scenarios like laundry day, washing dishes, and making soap. It’s all about experiential learning while instilling STEM skills,” says Kavita.

Experiential learning is a new model of education that is making its way into classrooms around the world. Studies show that it helps learners connect the material that they are studying to practical applications in the world around them.

And just four years down the line, the results are starting to show.

“Our students are entering interschools events and they’re winning prizes,” says Kavita proudly. “And we have made it onto the top 10 shortlist for World's Best School Prize for Innovation.”

Creating awareness of career opportunities

Kavita is passionate about promoting STEM subjects in her school, and encouraging girls to pursue careers in this field. “Every year, we invite universities to participate in our career fair. And we host an event called Hi-STEAM which combines history and STEM subjects into one.”

“Last year, the theme was Space and Beyond, and we hosted some female astronauts from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO),” says Kavita who uses the events as an opportunity to break down stereotypes. “This year, the theme is Gamification in STEM.” 

Kavita has found that her girl learners are motivated to take up STEM subjects thanks to the female role models who are invited to attend school career days and science fairs.

This is in line with UNESCO’s Cracking the code report, which found that mentors and role models can help encourage girls to pursue STEM subjects. According to the report, “The presence of female role models in STEM subjects can mitigate negative stereotypes about sex-based ability and offer girls an authentic understanding of STEM careers. Role models can also enhance girls’ and women’s self-perceptions and attitudes toward STEM, as well as their motivation to pursue STEM careers.”

The future of learning

Kavita believes that the experiential approach to teaching could be implemented in the classrooms of the future, as a way to transform education and help encourage more girls to take up STEM subjects.

“We’re moving away from a teacher-centred classroom to one where the learners are far more involved. As teachers, we need to empower them with resources and give them agency to express themselves.”

Kavita’s own vision of a classroom of the future incorporates spatial computing. “I see a curator leading the learners on a tour of the pyramids of Egypt, and we’re joined by another school from Europe. I see a space where we’re all connected, and collaborating virtually, with no boundaries. I believe that this is the future of STEM learning - that no matter where I am, I’m connected to everywhere around the world. This is true experiential learning.” 

Learn more about the #TeachersTransform campaign as part of the Transforming Education Summit.

  • 18.08.2021

Voices from India and Kenya - Teachers fighting education disadvantage

Education disruptions due to the COVID-19 crisis have shone the light on existing disparities separating learners between and within countries. We spoke to two teachers who supported their students and helped their communities overcome immense hardship throughout the pandemic, despite lacking necessary resources. Their stories show how teachers are at the heart of combating disadvantage and ensuring learning continuity. They also highlight the dire need for more investment in teachers and schools.

Sarita Nair teaches at Chetan Dattaji Gaikwad English Medium School and Junior College in Pune, India. Prior to the pandemic, students and teachers at her school were completely reliant on the traditional teaching and learning methods. There was limited use of digital technology by teachers due to lack of resources and no access to advanced teaching tools. Very few parents participated in student's day to day learning and were completely dependent on the school's education system.

Florence Ooyo, who teaches at Brightburn School in Nairobi, Kenya explained that before the pandemic emerged, some students already could not afford adequate materials and resources for learning, or even their school fees, leading them to stay home and disrupting their education. Some students also dealt with family conflict issues, causing them socio-emotional distress and impacting their ability to focus in class. “It makes work difficult for the teacher to complete the syllabus since at times you find a quarter of the class away from school,” Florence told us.

Coronavirus created an array of new problems for teachers and students. Joblessness affected the parents of many students at Brightburn School, causing many of them to relocate to rural areas in order to sustain their family and absenteeism surged even higher. Many families were surviving with one or two meals per day, causing children to lack the necessary nutrition to thrive in school. Uncertainty led to anxiety and trauma “What about tomorrow?” Florence wondered, “What is going to take place in the coming days? Most of the families were really affected psychologically and emotionally by this uncertainty.”

“The teachers too were affected by this uncertainty,” Florence told us. Unsure if they would get their next paycheck, many took on second jobs and tried to find additional ways to make ends meet. As many teachers did in fact lose their pay as schools closed down, Florence worked with organizations in the area to distribute food to her students and fellow teachers. She also visited students at home and provided them with the necessary tools to continue learning.

Florence emphasized the need to build a relationship with each student to understand their particular needs, help them build their self-esteem and support them socio-emotionally.

Sarita shared stories of similar challenges at her school in India:

"Fear of the disease and uncertainty gripped everyone mentally and physically. The pandemic brought new challenges for the teachers; the transition from in-person classroom teaching to virtual and to online classes and adapting to Zoom class completely presented a unique challenge. The teachers and students were majorly hit financially. Many parents lost their daily wages due to the unforeseen turn of events due to the Covid -19.”

Sarita and her fellow teachers took part in a training program to adapt to online classes. They reached out to various external organizations to raise funds and resources to support the community with necessary devices for remote learning as well as nutritional support for families struggling to make ends meet.

She also noted that, “teachers invested time and energy in communicating frequently and building relationships with the parents and children even during school vacations. This was seen as important because the school felt they were an integral part of the community they were serving and wanted to ensure they supported them in every possible way.”

“Lack of personal contact with students by the teachers, emotional turmoil due to death of relatives, no school hours, adapting to no physical activity and no social interaction... This scenario caused behavioral changes amongst the students,” she told us. To deal with this they set up daily activities that involved students’ parents, including arts and crafts, gardening, science experiments, and storytelling sessions focused on mental wellbeing. The school also found ways to celebrate local festivals from home, touring students’ homes virtually to see the way they decorate their homes and participate in the festivals.

“The idea was to keep the community together, connected and provide a sense of belonging and comfort knowing everyone was dealing with this unique situation and that we are not alone in this war against Covid-19,” Sarita explained.

When lockdown restrictions eased, teachers visited students at home to get a sense of how they and their families were coping. In addition to mobile phones and tablets, they distributed food rations to families in need. Financially secure parents lent a hand to support students and donated books through the "Parents as Partners" initiative. "We ensured that all the students continued to get education irrespective of their ability to pay their school fee," Sarita concluded.

Sarita and Florence’s stories show how teachers are at the heart of learning continuity and highlight the dire need for more investment in teachers and schools. Education systems were already in need of investment prior to the pandemic, but the COVID-19 pandemic has made matters much worse, jeopardizing progress and widening already large disparities between high- and low-income countries. No teacher should have to worry about whether they will receive their next paycheck. No student should have to drop out because they cannot afford tuition fees or school materials.

In sub-Saharan Africa the pupil/trained teacher ratio is close to one trained teacher per 58 pupils at primary level and approximately 43 pupils per trained teacher at secondary. Furthermore, new projections show that by 2030, countries in the region will need to recruit 15 million teachers. Florence is hoping that moving forwards, policy-makers and education stakeholders wake up to these realities: “The government needs to support us and acknowledge the effort our community schools are making.”

The International Task Force on Teachers for Education 2030 is thus calling on national governments, the international community and education funders – both public and private – to invest in a human-centred approach to recovery by building resilient, teacher-supportive education systems that recognize the critical role teachers play in communities. This should include increasing domestic and international funding, developing holistic teacher policies that have been properly budgeted, strengthening teacher capacity and autonomy, and investing in data and information systems that improve effectiveness.

Thanks to Alokit, Dignitas and Global School Leaders for their support in contacting Sarita and Florence.

CaptionBeawar, Rajasthan, India, April 6, 2021: A teacher and students wearing protective face mask in a classroom at a school amid spike in coronavirus cases across the country. 
Photo credit: Saraswat

  • 20.05.2020

Teaching – the new blended way

As a head teacher, I have always felt that teaching means not only getting the curricular content right and imparting that knowledge. It also means encouraging children to think for themselves by making them mindful of their lives and giving them the skills they need to go about various things. I have always felt that the usual school processes should not be so rigid. Until children spend some extra time sitting idle, how will they realize the power of discipline and commitment?

The Covid-19 lockdown measures have really helped me find the answer to a question that has been nudging me for a long time: “Is it really necessary that learning and teaching should be confined to the four walls of the classroom? The new answer in this situation comes out to be “Absolutely not”. Technology has really made this big globe local to us. Physical presence hardly matters. What really matters is the right tools and the pertinent approach to use them.

 In 2008 I read that there is a lot of work going on to make things e-accessible and that the future will bring user-friendly and self-teaching devices. I didn’t realize this until this lockdown that that world has arrived. Within a few days I had learnt to use and operate Zoom, Jitsy, Microsoft Team, Google Hangouts and many other platforms. The e-world has become the new reality!

Within a week I was teaching my students through an app. I received formal training from agencies but I learned most things by testing and trying. At first it wasn’t an easy to survive on e-mode (electronic/virtual/online mode) but after a few days I could see that technology does work most of the time, despite occasional disturbances, virtual distractions and audio-video problems. Initially I thought teaching through this new delivery mode was one-way communication but soon I realized that the sessions can be made lively by adding polls, surveys and videos sandwiched in between the sessions. The technology stunned me because in rural schools we just cannot afford to build in so much variety.

In the first few days, it was more a kind of game and the attendance of the students was also high but soon I realized that attendance was dropping and the joy of a new game was over. The reasons could be many: maybe a network problem, maybe the voice wasn’t audible for the students, maybe they were so busy helping the fathers harvest and mothers to cook, maybe my screen wasn’t visible or – the worst one! –  perhaps my class wasn’t interesting. When I checked the chat box, however, suddenly the conversations became two-way – the children had been on mute. They started to share their problems in the chat box.

As for myself, I was feeling distracted due to various noises but soon I realized that I needed to stop multitasking and be mindful and convey the same to my students. I finally taught them a HOTS (high order thinking skill) of mindfulness.

Whenever you feel that response is weak and attendance is poor, students are just a phone call away. Good communication and effectively convincing students why they need to study comes handy. And my country, India, has a family-oriented culture so it is always easy to make calls to parents and get the folks back to classes.

However, bad networks, high charges for data and high costs for devices are a real challenge. These could be removed by providing a free, subsidized network. Village and city libraries could be converted into virtual rooms with laptops, tablets and internet connections. If learning is free, anybody has the power to become anything.

Dr Neeru Arora


This piece is part of the Teacher Task Force’s #TeachersVoices campaign, created to bring forward the experiences of teachers working every day to ensure their students continue to benefit from a quality education despite the COVID-19 pandemic. To participate, go to our dedicated webpage.