Duke Senior Researches the Effects of STEM on Girls in Kenya

By Camille Jackson

Senior Jenna Peters was planning to fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor. She thought she’d join a neuroscience lab, but then a summer abroad in Kenya exposed a new interest.

“I did not know I loved teaching,” said Peters who developed her passion after traveling to Muhuru Bay, Kenya during summer 2015 to teach a class of 90 girls in an engineering club. “I was so nervous. I tried not to speak for more than 10 minutes at a time and to switch gears often to keep it interesting and stay ahead of the students.”

Peters worked  for WISER, or the Women’s Institute of Secondary Education and Research, a community development organization focused on empowering underprivileged girls in a rural area of Kenya. Founded by Sherryl Broverman, an associate professor of the practice in biology and global health at Duke, the WISER secondary school is in its 6th year.

This summer Peters has returned to Kenya after being awarded the Dean’s Summer Research Fellowship for her proposal, “Evaluating the Effects of STEM Education Intervention for Female Students in Rural Kenya.” The fellowship is part of Duke’s participation in the Collaborative to Advance Equity Through Research on Women and Girls of Color, an affiliation of U.S. institutions committed to improving research, housed under the Duke Council on Race and Ethnicity.

“Anecdotally we know they are applying their engineering skills outside of the classroom,” Peters said. “The goal is to see if they believe they can continue in STEM fields or succeed in math classes. We want to see if they pick more science-focused classes as related to their involvement in the club.”

WISER students come from a communities plagued by poverty and HIV, but most continue their education after attending the highly-ranked program.

“The girls are extraordinarily busy,” Peters said. “Before the WISER program was introduced very few girls from the community sought higher education. The program provides clothing, shoes, books — and more importantly, takes them away from everything so they can focus on their schooling.”

Peters, who already had an interest in global health, said WISER helped her understand the impact of education on improving health.

“I chose WISER because I am interested in working with girls. I am very practical and investing in girls is one of the best things you can do for a community,” Peters said. “It results in improved health outcomes and the girls are more likely to invest in their own families and children. It’s a good way to achieve global health goals.”

Last summer Peters helped design curricula as a Global Women’s Health Technology Fellow.

“I got them to apply science knowledge to real-world applications,” said Peters of helping the students in the engineering club build flashlights and evaluate whether flashlights could become the basis of a new business in the community.

“We explored the pros and cons with the girls and determined it would not be a viable business, but it was a great problem-solving exercise,” Peters said. “It was so wonderful to see these girls present their ideas. We want them to take their entrepreneurial mind-set back to their communities and to improve their problem-solving skills, ultimately giving them an opportunity to learn outside of rote memorization.”

The learning worked both ways. For example, Peters learned that innovation does not necessarily mean inventing new things. When the students were asked to innovate, they reimagined preexisting materials.

“A dishwasher detergent bottle became a toy, broken glass could serve as barbed wire on top of the WISER building, soap scraps could be melted down to make new soap,” Peters explained. The students were engaged in active learning.

One positive outcome of the engineering club that Peters noticed immediately is that girls in the club will fix their classmates’ broken calculators, determining whether there is a problem in the circuit or a dead battery.

“They don’t need to be saved,” said Peters of the common misconception applied to communities of color. “We just need to open the door and get out of the way.”