Empowering girls in Rajasthan: Local teens develop solar inverter, win nomination for prestigious award
Photo Courtesy: UNICEF

Empowering girls in Rajasthan: Local teens develop solar inverter, win nomination for prestigious award

A group of passionate expats introduce STEM learning in girls’ schools across Rajasthan, bust gender constraints and ready them for modern jobs

On a cool February morning last year, 17-year-olds Veena and Varsha presented their end-of-year STEM (Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics)project to their teachers and classmates. They listened spellbound to the teenagers authoritatively talking about utilising solar energy to power customised inverters to suit rural and tribal conditions. With power cuts being the norm in tribal areas, the special inverters will ensure continuous electricity. The girls proved their point by lighting a standalone bulb using the energy of the sun. Their audience broke into cheers. It was not just they who applauded; the team won the nomination for Rajasthan’s Best Solar Engineer Application Award.

The two girls were participating in a unique grant project of an organisation named EMpower working in Rajasthan. It plans to get more adolescent girls to participate in STEM learning. EMpower funds Makers Labs set up by a local organisation named Vidhyalay Udhyam. Local teachers with a background in STEM are appointed to teach the programme in government schools. Audio-visual methodologies and practical learning is part of the programme to inculcate such specialised skills in the girls.

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics which are bound by their emphasis on innovation, problem-solving, and critical thinking. “This is a perfect example of an invention whose brilliance lies in its technical intricacy and potential for transformation. By taking electricity to remote areas, this mini solar inverter has the power to bridge the gap between necessity and innovation,” explains Nisha Dhawan, vice-president, impact and influence, EMpower Foundation. The credit for the creative intelligence and research-based engineering skills behind this project goes to Veena and Varsha

EMpower’s foray into the field began at the turn of the millennium, when a group of Indian finance professionals from the US decided to give back to the emerging market countries where they do business. Over the years, their strategic focus was sharpened to help marginalised youth, especially girls, to realise their true potential. Rajasthan’s tragedy is its skewed sex ratio. According to National Family Health Survey data in 2015-16, 16.2 per cent of girls there were married before the age of 18.

Vidhyalay Udhyam students with their projects
Vidhyalay Udhyam students with their projects

Further information published in Ballard Brief’s research library showed that the average literacy rate for women is only 52.6 per cent. With STEM labs, EMpower’s founders hope to change that metric. Its mission is to recalibrate education; one that gives girl students a powerful incentive to learn, have careers and become financially independent. STEM learning equips them with knowledge and skills suitable for modern-day jobs. So far, Makers Labs’ victories include automatic irrigation systems, fertiliser spray machines, corn separators, solar umbrellas, automatic dustbins, solar carts for vendors, solar lamps and solar powered farms—all invented by enterprising girls in the state.

“EMpower gives financial grants and other value-added support to candidates,” says Dhawan. The funding is for three sectors which are key to youth development: the interconnected trifecta of inclusive learning, economic wellbeing and safe, healthy lives. Dhawan has the lofty ambition to be the catalyst of change and empower young talented people. “We are committed to expanding the knowledge, resources and championship to steer the ecosystem further towards youth leadership,” says Dhawan.

The youngsters have invaded the kitchen with different tools; recently 12-year-olds Aarti Kumari Meena and Neelam invented an automatic roti maker meant to reduce the excessive amount of time spent by women for making rotis from scratch. Their solution was to make a simple electricity-run machine which rotates at a pre-set speed, flattening the dough ball as it moves. In a matter of seconds, out pops a perfectly rounded roti ready for the griddle.

Explaining the appeal of STEM learning, Dhawan says, “It’s a practical approach to learning rather than just memorising theoretical information. STEM learning encourages the girls to leverage their inherent creativity. Often, they’re more excited than us to make useful and market-worthy products. They are focused on innovation, teamwork and skill building. They have come up with many great ideas, many of which have translated into successful projects.”

In the beginning they faced the usual resistance to change: the rural mindset. Changing the girl’s mindset requires a shift at the individual, family, and community level. EMpower was aware that the most effective way for change to take place at the grassroots level was to support and work closely with local organisations. It produced an environment where girls feel comfortable and expressed themselves freely.

Having funded 11 Makers Labs for 1,600 girls, the Foundation is keen to expand its reach. In Dhawan’s words, “STEM learning has the potential to break long-standing barriers and stereotypes. As girls become changemakers, it will reduce generational poverty and contribute to a better and brighter future with the help of innovation and technology.” Stemming from such passion, EMpower could live up to its name across India.

The New Indian Express