Opinion The Youth Issue

Why we need to unpack STEM

"It’s about time for our region to change the way it views STEM fields."

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By Huda Ahli

“Oh it must be hard, you must be smart”. These words are the first thing that almost every STEM student hears when asked about their major. While it may be flattering, this is simply a myth. After all, no college ever asks about your IQ to admit you into any STEM programme.

Having this misconception linked very strongly to STEM majors automatically draws many potential STEM students away from them. You say that you are a neurosurgeon, an astronaut, or an engineer and you can immediately see people drifting away from asking you any questions because they assume your answers would be too complicated and technical.

What may seem like an innocent misjudgement has now become a significant issue in the Gulf region. When talking to my nieces and nephews (all Gen Zers), even the ones that enjoy coding and robotics believe that pursuing a career in these fields means that they are in for a complex, tedious and overwhelming ride.

If we were to pinpoint the problem, it would be that when we say science, technology, engineering and  math, what people often see are long streams of intimidating numbers and complex equations. Therefore, what should have been in most cases general knowledge has, unfortunately, become something that people run away from. So, it’s about time for our region to change the way it views STEM fields.

In reality, every major, STEM or not, has its own difficulties and challenges. And the truth is, you become “smart” when you are passionate about something. This isn’t a call for people to follow a career in STEM. But if you are passionate about one of the STEM fields, don’t let this irrational fear of it being challenging or demanding stop you from doing what you love, or from doing something that might interest you in the first place.

Just like politics and the economy, STEM influences our everyday life, and everyone should know enough about it to at least have an opinion about many issues related to STEM in the region.  How many times have you had a discussion in one of your family gatherings about the revolutions of our mobile phones? Or heard your uncle complaining about how his favourite sports team is not doing so well this season? Or heard your family’s opinion about the new water heater that they are thinking of buying that runs on solar cells? All these conversations have STEM topics embedded in them. We are now living in a world where some segments of science must become a general knowledge rather than a subject that our “super smart” cousin or friend studies.

I truly believe that STEM students and professionals must communicate STEM to everyone; truly  unpack it for them and show them its beauty. From that belief, my colleagues and I (STEM PhD students in the UK), have started an initiative called UAE STEM in the UK. It’s really simple, all we want to do is show the beauty of science through it, and to prove that once you understand something and simplify it, it becomes easy.  

We wanted this to be a mass science communication course from all UAE STEM students to the world. How it works is that we first we reach out to STEM entities in the UK, and work with them to find the best opportunities that UAE students can benefit from to promote STEM and raise awareness that these fields aren’t scarier than being a lawyer, an accountant or learning a new language. Then, we connect the students with these entities to run outreach programmes in universities, museums or even family festivals in the UK.

We currently have an ongoing collaboration with the Science Museum in London to participate in their outreach events and festivals too, showing through that that science is approachable and fun, and proving that Emirati students in the UK can compete with the best worldwide.

In the end, follow your passion and remember, if you ever thought a topic was very complicated, watch a documentary about it. You’ll be surprised at how simple it is. And to let you in on a secret, this is how I picked my major, sustainable energy engineering, even though I graduated from the arts section in high school. 

The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.

Huda Ahli is an Emirati PhD student studying plastic electronics at Imperial College London. A challenge always inspires her, and she loves solving puzzles.