As digital skills become more essential for the workforce, many students are at risk of being left behind. But a new and innovative program, the STEM Maker’s Lab by Associação Feminina Estudos Sociais E Universitários Arios (AFESU), is on a mission to empower underprivileged women students in Brazil by equipping them with the tools needed to thrive.
The Caterpillar Foundation shares this mission and is committed to supporting workforce development and equipping students with the skills needed in an increasingly STEM-focused job market worldwide. One recent investment focused on technology – the “T” in STEM – is focused on providing the workforce of tomorrow with critical digital skills. In partnership with AFESU, the Foundation is supporting the STEM Maker’s Lab to promote professional learning of technology, the evolution of creativity and communication, cooperation and autonomy for young women.
According to the research study, The Network Skills in Latin America, commissioned by Cisco for the International Data Corporation (IDC), in 2019 there was a shortage of 449,000 IT professionals, meaning that there were not enough qualified individuals to fill these roles. The study also revealed that 15.3% of companies did not have any women in their network teams, and according to OECD only 5% of girls are looking for careers in the computer science and engineering fields.
This gender gap highlights a much deeper issue, stemming from an unequal education system.
In Brazil, public schools in poorer regions tend to be of worse quality, and school achievement is heavily tied to a family’s economic, social and cultural background. For this reason, the STEM Maker’s Lab operates in an area with one of the worst school performances in São Paulo with the average income of the region being 33% lower than the average across the country, and the academic performance of students from the 5th to 8th grades classified as the worst in the city.
The project offers girls and women a quality education that allows them equal opportunity and freedom of choice to enter the labor market as professionals who can successfully adapt to challenges. Through the program, girls build their skills in mechanical, electrical, and software engineering, as well as data science. In addition to learning hard skills, the STEM Maker’s Lab offers an area where students can also foster creativity, encourage entrepreneurship and learn new skills that will serve as tools to reach their professional career goals through the development of soft skills and critical thinking that promote resilience.
Additionally, the STEM Maker’s Lab provides access to a laboratory so students can learn advanced technologies through three distinct cycles. During the first cycle, students learn about entrepreneurship and are trained to use design thinking tools. The second cycle consists of learning through technical modules comprised of specific learnings. During the third cycle, students turn their new-found knowledge into practice. At the end of the program, each of the young women meets with companies that are looking to hire young professionals with digital skills.
The results are astounding. Since its launch, the program data shows that many AFESU’s former students have doubled their family income. On average, 4 people per family saw a 92% increase in average income after entering the labor market.
At the Caterpillar Foundation, we believe creating pathways to education and training for women will empower them to become productive agents of change. By investing in workforce development programs, we are building not only a stronger future but stronger and more resilient communities.