Melvina N’yillah Conton is a 20-year-old Sierra Leonean Mechanical Engineering major at Ashesi University, Ghana. She is a 2019 Kectil Colleague and is also the founder of GEMS (Girls in Engineering, Mathematics and Science) Club, an all-girls STEM club which aims to promote interactive learning in STEM amongst young girls. She enjoys reading novels, singing and playing the baritone.
Why did you get into STEM?
In primary school, 95% of my teachers were women. When I got to senior secondary school, I joined the science class because I had good grades in my national Math and Science exams. However, I soon noticed that all the science teachers were men. This was in an all-girls school that had a few female teachers teaching home management and “cookery subjects” as we called them. Despite making up almost half of the workforce, women hold less than 35% of STEM jobs in sub-Saharan Africa.There are many factors which contribute to the discrepancy of women and men in STEM jobs including a lack of female role models and gender stereotyping in educational institutions. The STEM workforce is crucial to the world’s innovative capacity. Because of this, there is a need to educate and support w omen in STEM. I’m going to become an engineer and run a program to engage young girls to engage in STEM in a fun and interactive way.
What do you consider your greatest achievements?
My greatest achievement has been founding the GEMS (Girls in Engineering, Mathematics and Science) club which is an all-girls science club in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The club aims to provide an opportunity for young girls to engage in STEM in a fun, easy to understand and supportive environment. It also improves their cognitive and social skills with hands-on activities that will stimulate their minds; and promotes scientific analysis, evaluation, innovation and critical thinking which is paramount to bringing about the change we’re looking for in Africa. The club is sponsored by Reading Spots, an award-winning UK-based charity run entirely by volunteers in the UK and Ghana. At the moment there are plans to form another branch of GEMS Club in the Berekuso community in Ghana.
What challenges have you faced as a woman in STEM and how did you overcome them?
Experiential learning is a key component of STEM. Our educational system values rote learning and regurgitating information. Students are supposed to be passive absorbers of information and authority, and not active participants. As a result, I found it hard to grasp certain concepts in high school which required hands-on activities. This changed when I went to the African Science Academy (ASA), which is an all-girls STEM pre-university in Ghana. ASA provided me with a better opportunity to learn through interactive, discussion-based, and thought-provoking classes. Staff-student interaction along with class projects provided an outlet for creativity and leadership thereby providing an enriched learning experience. Another challenge has been having to deal with some male counterparts who think girls are fragile and can’t handle the tools in the workshop. The bias and discrimination are sometimes unconscious, but they are present. I’ve had to let them know politely, but very firmly that everyone has to participate equally, regardless of speed and expertise.
What is your advice to budding women in STEM?
As difficult as it may be, leave the confines of your comfort zone and think outside the box. Don’t be afraid to question biases and assumptions (including yours). Questioning is the key to coming up with solutions to problems you might be facing. Networking is also very important. Talk to people who seem “different”. You might be surprised to find that you share interests and values. And if you don’t, that’s ok. Be a part of a small community of girls/women who can support you throughout your journey. It makes it easier to have a circle of friends you can count on. And lastly, help others in their journey just as you were helped. Be a mentor.