Engineering a solution to move girls in Brazil towards STEM

 (Courtesy of McKinley Tretler / Malala Fund)

(Courtesy of McKinley Tretler / Malala Fund)

From LEGOS to robots, Lorenna is showing girls what is possible.

Always interested in finding solutions to everyday problems, 20-year-old Lorenna from Candeias, Bahia in Brazil went from building inventions with LEGO sets to working on robotics and inspiring more girls to do the same. “Tech interest came natural for me, but there are really not many girls [in STEM],” she says.

Ripe with precocity at 6 years old, Lorenna remembers trying to find a way to keep construction trucks, which were headed to a nearby oil refinery, out of her neighbourhood so she could run and ride her bike freely in the street. She took to her top tools, colourful LEGO bricks and imagination, to create a fix. She constructed a model bridge connecting her town to the refinery so trucks could drive over her street and allow children to play without worry.

Lorenna attended private schools throughout her education with help from local non-profits and scholarships. While in elementary school, Lorenna got her first taste of robotics. She fell in love with discovering how using technology could help her develop real solutions that would benefit her community.

Brazil offers public education to all children through secondary school, but the information taught there is often outdated and leaves students without the skills necessary to advance beyond the secondary level. Students need to pass a country-wide exam to attend university, but those who attend public school often don’t achieve high enough scores to qualify. This leaves access to higher education almost exclusively to students who could afford to attend private schooling.

[Girls] only see men building machines and think they cannot do the same and don’t have the confidence to deal with this career surrounded by male chauvinism.
— Lorenna

In 2012, Lorenna received a scholarship to a technical high school emphasizing STEM education at the Instituto Federal de Educação, Ciência e Tecnologia da Bahia (IFBA). She arrived on her first day of school expecting to be surrounded by shiny new technology and fully equipped laboratories, but found the facilities less than stellar. Worse, there was no robotics programme. She felt devastated, but refused to settle for what the school had to offer.

Lorenna approached Andrea, her first and only female technical professor, about creating an IFBA Robotics Team she hoped to call “Autobot”. Andrea liked the idea and acted as a supervisor to Lorenna’s club. Together they recruited a small group of students. Soon with no experience or robot, the team prematurely signed up for a robotics competition. Lorenna laughed about the learning experience and jokingly explained, “We made first place from the bottom.”

To build a real robot and be a competitive team, she knew the club needed to increase its membership for the administration to give them a decent budget. She and her teacher began hosting basic coding and robotics classes and creating local competitions at her school to introduce girls to new skills and spark interest in robotics. She said, “We did not ask for any background experience. We were interested in people who knew nothing. We give them the basic skills and they can explore further if they want.” Lorenna is no longer in high school, but the club continues to motivate girls (and boys) to get involved and is in its fifth year of operation.

Lorenna is now at the Federal Institute of Bahia pursuing a degree in electrical engineering. She’s thrilled about the programme, but out of the 50 students in her major, only seven are girls. “I needed to do something,” Lorenna says. “[Girls] only see men building machines and think they cannot do the same and don’t have the confidence to deal with this career surrounded by male chauvinism. I understand it is hard, but they don’t see that engineering is about learning how to solve these real life problems.”

She hopes to use her degree to find a way to make quality education more accessible to marginalised students in Brazil and prove to more girls that they can succeed in STEM fields. Building on the programme she created at her high school, she is planning to bring the training to schools across the country. She plans to add a component that helps girls understand and overcome the social, emotional barriers of working in a field that is dominated by men.

Lorenna knows women scientists are capable of creating significant technological advancements. She wants girls all around Brazil to know that too. “I think it’s great to put girls into this [STEM] environment from an early age. Girls get used to it and see what is possible.”


 
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

McKinley Tretler is communications manager at Malala Fund. She’s on the hunt for the perfect Oreo milkshake and to befriend Mindy Kaling.