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#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.

Photo credit: Kavita Sanghvi