Saturday, December 16, 2017

Reaching for the STARS

....Keeping her childhood dream alive


MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Camille Alleyne during an interview with the Sunday Express at insurance company Sagicor's Port of Spain office last Wednesday.

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Every little girl or boy looks up at the night sky and imagines the wonders of space.

Some may wish upon one of those distant stars in the hope that one day they might learn more about them.

But then as they grow up, they become more focused on the realities of earth and forget about that dream.

Camille Alleyne never forgot her dream.

Despite how incredible that idea seemed at the time, (she was a young girl trying to pursue the traditionally male-dominated fields of mathematics and science) Alleyne pursued her goal to reach for the stars and is today an aerospace engineer at the Houston, Texas-based Johnson Space Centre, part of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Alleyne now devotes much of her time to running a non-profit organisation called the Brightest Stars Foundation to promote a love of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) among girls and empowering them to further their studies and take up careers in these fields.

"We've heard over the past few years that the gap between girls and boys in maths and science proficiency has decreased and girls are doing just as well as boys, if not better. But they still don't think of these as career paths they should pursue because they don't see themselves reflected in these careers. The image they see of a scientist or engineer doesn't relate to them so they would prefer to go into something else like fashion or the arts and that's fine but if you have the ability why not go into maths and science. Having the role models and the mentorship to offer these girls is going to be the next challenge," she told the Sunday Express last week.

Alleyne was in Trinidad and Tobago to help regional insurance giant Sagicor launch a new high school initiative to encourage more young people to choose STEM subjects.

In an interview at Sagicor's Queen's Park West, Port of Spain, offices last Wednesday, Allyene noted it was not a lack of interest in STEM subjects that was the problem, but the way these subjects were being taught in schools.

"Kids tend to lose interest because these topics are taught in an abstract, theoretical way, away from the real's a global phenomenon where science is taught in a way where kids have to learn through memorisation abstract theories and concepts without a context for the bigger picture so they can't relate. If you just relate it to them, to their environment, then it becomes real," she said.

And, she admitted, she was speaking from experience.

"I remember getting bored in school...I overcame it through perseverance, hard work, dedication and tenacity. Also, because I came from a home environment where my mother encouraged my curiosity, my passion and my choice to study science," she said.

Being a girl who chose to study science might not seem so strange nowadays, but as Alleyne noted, when she wrote her O-Levels in 1983, a girl pursuing engineering was not even much of a concept- evidenced by only ten girls studying science in her year.

"In the field of engineering, it's still this way. In the US, nine per cent of all engineers and scientists are women and two per cent of that are women are colour. Girls are doing very well in math and sciences but they then to choose the biological sciences and many go on to do medicine. We don't have a shortage of girls in medicine but we have it in physics and chemistry. Those are the subjects that foster innovation and help improve the quality of human life. That's why it's important for students to go into it," she said.

But it's not just girls.

There's a decline in the number of boys pursuing STEM subjects as well, Alleyne noted.

In order for kids to understand science, they have to experience what it's like to be a scientist, she said.

The best way is to be in the lab and doing hands-on experimentation.

"You have to allow them to ask questions and think critically and ask questions," she said.

Ultimately this is the aim of Sagicor's STEM project.

"We want to nurture a global understanding, but it has to start in local areas. Kids from forms one to five will work in groups on projects addressing problems in their schools or communities they need to solve," she said.

In January next year, Sagicor, working together with the regional ministries of Education, the Caribbean Science Foundation and the Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) will launch the Sagicor Visionaries Challenge for high schools across the Caribbean. Participants will have to solve common challenges using STEM. The winning group will get to spend a week in the United States visiting various scientific organisations like NASA.

"Sagicor, in terms of giving back, has decided this is an area in great need. Encouraging STEM studies stimulate innovation and creativity, and this is important for the sustainability of tomorrow," group CEO Richard Kellman said.