While there are more girls getting education and careers than before, they continue to be significantly underrepresented in the professional field, especially when it comes to STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) subjects.
Zartaj Waseem is a speaker, innovator and pioneer of STEM Education in Karachi. A software engineer by profession, she cofounded Pakistan Space Science Education Centre (+PSSEC) - the first dedicated Space Science venture in the country in 2015. Moreover, she is the Advisor for universities and STEM education organisations. Zartaj had been the National Organizer and is the first Pakistani Judge for World Robot Olympiad (WRO) and was also the first Pakistani to be an International Award Judge and Global STEM Corps Advisor for FIRST Global (a yearly Olympics-style robotics competition organised by the International First Committee Association) in July 2017. She has also been a FIRST Lego League (FLL) Regional Planning Committee Head, FLL Judge Advisor and is a Robotics Teams Coach since 2013. She is a certified Design Thinking Trainer from Back2Back Australia and their official representative in Pakistan for conducting Design Thinking and Doing Program. In light of International Day of Women & Girls in Science, this week You! exclusively talks to Zartaj about her exhilarating journey and ventures...
You! How did you get started in the field?
Zartaj Waseem: By profession, I am a software engineer who had always worked in male-dominated milieus. In 2010, I began my journey in the education industry from Haque Academy as an ICT teacher, where I was challenged to provide an engaging educational experience. My first foray into the wondrous world of education was when I discovered how Lego can be used to teach children programming. At that time, I had a decision to make, and fast. It was either going along with the traditional methods to teach ICT to students or to take the plunge into something extraordinary. I was tasked with spending a set amount of money on buying Lego kits and put my career on the line or carry on with ICT classes as they were. I did take the plunge, which was a turning point in my STEM Education career. I started the first robotics club in a school in Karachi, followed by the first-ever school-based robotics championship. It was exhilarating. The ability to teach while using such versatile, engaging, hands-on tools opened up unexplored avenues. Now, I am the CEO and Co-Founder of Pakistan’s first Space Science-based STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Art Math) education initiative along with my partner, Nahyan Farooq.
You! Did you always want to be in this field?
ZW: What drives me is working on something that nobody else is doing. This trait of mine has given me the courage to pursue my ideas and bring them to reality that initially seemed impossible. And, STEAM Education was the field that I saw myself in.
You! Tell us about the MARS 2025 programme...
ZW: Our flagship programme is called Mission to Mars (MTM) 2025. Underneath the banner of MTM, we’ve launched a variety of experiences that cater to students from 2nd grade up to university level.
These experiences are all hands-on, Space Science-based STEM activities which includes learning how to assemble and operate a rover, carrying out experiments and simulations.
You! Why do you think space exploration needs to be talked about in Pakistan?
ZW: Space exploration is a very inclusive affair. It requires people from all walks of life and professions to support it and help it grow. Space exploration is one of the yardsticks by which a country’s scientific journey and progress are measured. Pakistan, unfortunately, is very low on that scale. There is little to no awareness for space exploration, space sciences and other associated fields. By bringing about awareness to these topics we’re navigating our younger generation to embrace the mysticism of space and answer some of its toughest questions.
You! Where does Pakistan stand in terms of Robotics on a global scale?
ZW: I’ve been taking robotics teams to international competitions all around the world since 2014. Our students are truly very gifted. However, when we go to these competitions, we lose sight of the spirit of competition and we’re only hung up on winning. With such mindsets, we go to extremes to make sure our teams and students win, even if it is not their hard work. This mindset needs to be quashed. Our students need to participate, excel and win on their own merit. This issue is a multi-faceted problem and hence the efforts need to be made in two to three dimensions. Starting from grassroots, we need to impart robotics education as part of the curriculum. Currently, very few schools participate in some international robotics programmes launched in Pakistan recently but haven’t been able to grow because of the upfront costs, costs of participation, etc. Research being conducted at universities is limited to publishing papers only and not followed through. There is a need for the application of this research and for creating opportunities in the field of robotics for people to work.
You! What is the market like for tech entrepreneurship in Pakistan and is there a niche for women?
ZW: Pakistan has one of the youngest populations in the world. This population adapts to technology very quickly and makes it a part and parcel of their daily lives. With this progress in Pakistan, the market is ripe for tech entrepreneurship ventures. Moreover, there are invigorating ventures in Pakistan that are solely aimed at bringing women entrepreneurs to the forefront such as SheLovesTech by Circle, WomenInTech by Pakistan Innovation Foundation & Standard Chartered, etc. In Pakistan, tech entrepreneurship ecosystem for women remains challenging because women are considered not to have the requisite skill set as compared to their male counterparts.
You! There is a concept that there aren’t many women coming in the STEM field. What are your thoughts?
ZW: That is true in a country like Pakistan; there are very few women in the STEM field. However, in more developed countries the ratio of men and women in STEM workplaces is less biased.
You! They say that Science and Maths are subjects that one is naturally good at. Do you think that’s the case?
ZW: Not entirely true. Some students might have the edge over other students however with practice everyone can hone their skills.
You! What do you think need to change in our education system?
ZW: In the long-term, our education system requires a complete overhaul. In the short term, however, we need to go back and revisit the national Mathematics and Science curricula in line with the 21st century requirements. It’s impossible to talk about the future of work without talking about the future of learning. Moreover, it’s important that in classrooms we teach topics that are more applicable to the students’ lives in the future such as taxes, tabulating daily expenses, etc. Also, young girls are side-lined from STEM field by ‘not having an interest in them’, which is not the case. Girls need to be encouraged, inspired and empowered in classrooms and beyond the classroom learning so that they may take up STEM fields in the future. We are leading by example as I am one of them. Furthermore, our educator team and our workshop participants comprise 40 per cent females as we ensure inclusion and diversity in all that we do.
You! How has your PSSEC journey been?
ZW: It has been simply out-of-this-world. I could have never dreamt that my partner and I would be able to accomplish so much in so little time. Just under the span of 2 years, we’ve been able to work with local and international organisations. We have built partnerships, collaborations and met with some truly extraordinary people throughout these 2 years. It has not always been smooth throughout, however, and we have poured in a lot of hard work to make this initiative work.
You! What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
ZW: Operating in a market with people not aware of what you’re trying to do. Doing something advanced is risky and difficult but exciting as well.
You! What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
ZW: To be able to shape such bright individuals into future role models of society.
You! What’s your biggest accomplishment to-date?
ZW: I would be doing injustice to everything else I have achieved in my life if I were to pick one thing out of the lot.
You! What are the challenges being faced by women today?
ZW: Unequal status in the workplace as men. Very accomplished women are plinths upon which companies and industries depend on. However, these women role models are very few in number.
You! What advice would you give to young girls struggling to follow their ambitions?
ZW: If you’re good at something, passionate about it and can look at fondly while doing it from 9-5 in the future, chase it. You don’t need to tick 5 out 5 boxes for an opportunity, apply for it even if you tick 1 of the 5 boxes.
You! Your philosophy of life:
ZW: Monotony is stagnation. Stagnation is decay. Decay is wasting one’s life.
You! How do you unwind?
ZW: By being out on the road.
You! What does a typical day look like for you?
ZW: I’m up at the crack of dawn and hop down to the school. I work with my team on how to reach out to more students. Leave school sometime around evening.
You! What’s next in your agenda?
ZW: It’s classified.