Hailing from the northern part of Rwanda, 27-year-old Alice Mukashyaka, is no stranger to leading by example. In 2016, while studying electrical engineering at Sinhgad University in Kigali, Alice partnered with fellow classmate Ariane Umuringa to found Starlight, an initiative that aims to inspire young girls to pursue STEM careers. STEM is an acronym given to those academic topics typically grouped within science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Teaming up with local schools, the duo creates educational kits that help ignite an interest in STEM for a new generation of female learners. “We had these similar crazy dreams of creating something and impacting our communities and we were both passionate about STEM education and the way it should be taught in schools,” says Alice.
Ranked ninth globally for its progressive efforts to close the gender gap, Rwanda is ahead of the curve, yet there are still so many challenges that prevent young girls from entering predominantly male-dominated fields. Alice says, “There are so many external pressures around them—between their families, their communities, or the outdated beliefs of those who can’t really understand how a woman could become a mathematician.”
Working towards their common goals of reducing gender inequality and increasing accessible STEM education for all, Alice and her partner set out to inspire students and communities alike. “When we go to schools, we engage the students with small hands-on based STEM projects,” says Alice. “We show them a connection between life skills like teamwork, having friends, and overcoming obstacles and pair it together with the technicality of STEM.”
Alice was always a curious child interested in learning about how things worked. It’s this natural curiosity that led her down the path to STEM education. During her studies, she couldn’t help but notice that there was a significant lack of female representation within her classes. The topics were fascinating, yet most of her female counterparts were so much more partial to studying humanities and languages.
Through speaking with others and taking notes, she discovered that not only were there some seriously outdated cultural views that were still being upheld, but that there was also a huge lack of funding, awareness, and engaging opportunities for females who were interested in learning about STEM.
“We believe that if half of the population isn’t able to get engaged meaningfully, then we’re not doing anything at all,” Alice shared. “If women could really engage in STEM, it would result in so many creative innovations.”
Starlight encourages local women from the communities they serve to get involved in the kit making process. “At Starlight we believe in collaboration. You can’t make an impact if you’re not involving everyone, especially when it comes to empowering women,” Alice said.
Determined to ensure their STEM kits weren’t just engaging, but also practical, the team at Starlight spent nearly a year conducting thorough market research. “We didn’t want to just create toys,” she emphasized, “we wanted to create something meaningful that would stand out in the community.” For their first project, they settled on a solar lantern. Teaming up with a UK-based incubator, they collaborated on everything from concept to design. “Establishing the supply chain and designs was hard, but now that we know who those people are and have the experience, expertise, and support behind us we are really grateful for them.”
For their next kits, Alice plans on continuing the mission of creating something useful. “We’ll consider feedback from the communities and from the students we work with,” she says. “We’ll do surveys and will ask them what they want to do next, and we’ll measure those answers and see if we’re able to do it.” While the first kits took nearly a year to plan, now that they’re familiar with the process Alice is confident producing the next set will be quicker. “The main idea,” she says, “is to get the kids to think for themselves about what else they can do.”
With such a strong emphasis on youth empowerment, gender equality, and community development, it’s no wonder that Alice is setting the stage for massive local, as well as global, STEM-based change. “There’s a beauty in the female perspective,” she shares. “There’s something beautiful when women innovate with instinct.”
When asked what trail-blazing advice she has for others looking to get involved in their own communities, Alice says, “One thing I would tell them is to be fearless. Be fearless and try it. We’re all here to welcome new and great ideas and new people challenge us to think more and to look at things from a different perspective. So, I would tell them to step up, rise up; we need them.”