What is STEM?

What is STEM?

STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. It includes different areas of science education such as natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology), applied science (engineering and technology) and mathematics. Over the years, these areas have come to be divided into niche specialisations, such as chemical-ecology, nanotechnology, robotics, artificial intelligence, etc, for better and deeper understanding of these particular domains. 

STEM education refers to the integrated teaching of these subjects through hands-on and relevant real-world learning experiences. STEM education is about solving problems, creativity, independent thinking, critical analysis and communication and pushing innovations. 

STEM education is increasingly viewed to be critical because the 21st century is driven by technological developments and innovation. Nearly all aspects of our daily lives, be it driving a car or listening to music, are underpinned by STEM fields. The technological revolution is poised to steer the global economy in the coming decades, and it’s time that we buckle up for the ride.

Status of Indian Women in STEM

Men have traditionally dominated the sciences worldwide, and this holds true for STEM fields even today. Less than 30% of scientific researchers worldwide are women, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS).  In India, only 14% of scientists, engineers and technologists are women. This is despite the fact that nearly 43% of all graduates in India are women and that 32% of students are STEM graduates (2018). 

There are many reasons that prevent Indian women from pursuing sciences and realising their potential. Among them are lack of early childhood exposure and opportunities. Our society conditions us to believe that boys will grow up to be engineers and women will grow up to be teachers. Girls rarely receive chess sets or magnets as birthday gifts just as boys are seldom given dolls and kitchen kits. Does this mean that men cannot grow up to be chefs and nurses and women cannot become math wizards or physicists? Much of this societal conditioning has its roots in a culture of patriarchy and preconceived notions of what women ought to do and ought not to do. Taking even a small step against such established conventions requires enormous conviction and courage on the part of an individual.   

When women do, in fact, swim against such tides, the rewards are often still at a distance, on the horizon. Nearly 47% women in science cited family care as a reason for refusing a challenging opportunity in their careers, according to a 2016-17 Niti Aayog report.

Biases about gender roles mean women in science battle a ‘double-burden syndrome’ wherein they take breaks when getting married, during pregnancy and childbirth, as well as other familial responsibilities such as looking after ageing and unwell parents. While this is a setback for career women, it is especially problematic for women in STEM where such gaps can be detrimental to making progress in their research and pursuit.   

The silver lining in this scenario is that attitudes and mindsets are constantly changing. This is gradually becoming true for women in sciences, and especially for women in STEM as organisations and government policies are beginning to shift in favour of women. 

Several government schemes such as the Vigyan Jyoti Scheme, Unnat Bharat Abhiyan programme, Indo-US fellowship for women in STEMM, women-centric programmes under the Knowledge Involvement in Research Advancement through Nurturing (KIRAN) and the Biotechnology Career Advancement and Reorientation (Bio-Care) scheme are initiatives to bridge the gender gap and boost opportunities for women. Many tech companies aim to have inclusive and gender-balanced workforces, and have policies to recruit women.

Even as these baby steps are being taken, it is pertinent that we do not lose sight of the goal: women in STEM does not mean simply boosting the numbers of women in the field of sciences, but also that we encourage women to have a holistic and balanced life while choosing their pursuits in the realm of sciences. The idea is not to alienate men, but to be more sensitive and nurturing of the women who choose science.


Fellowships that can help you pursue research in STEM

To encourage more women to be part of STEM and bridge the gender gap in these domains, many organisations, institutes and universities offer scholarships and fellowships to women interested in pursuing education in STEM. This is a list of a few such opportunities: 

  1. DST Women Scientist Fellowship
    India’s Department of Science & Technology offers the Women Scientist Fellowship to encourage women to continue their research career in science and technology after a break. The fellowship covers a monthly stipend of Rs55,000 and a project grant of about Rs30 lakh. The fellowship for those with a master’s degree covers a monthly income of Rs40,000 and a project grant of up to Rs25 lakh. 
  2. The Google Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship Program
    This scholarship is for female undergraduate and graduate students in the Asia-Pacific region. Students enrolled in universities for computer science, computer engineering and closely related fields are eligible to apply.
  3. The Graduate Women In Science (GWIS) National Fellowships Program
    GWIS provides funds to women scientists conducting research in the natural sciences in order to support women’s academic and scientific careers. The fellowship offers a maximum of $10,000 for upto 12 months.
  4. Women In Aviation International Scholarship
    Women in Aviation International (WAI) is a US-based non-profit that hopes to encourage the advancement of women in all aviation career fields. WAI awards scholarships to its members to advance their careers in aviation and aerospace. 
  5. Women Enhancing Technology (WeTech) Scholarship
    A partnership between Juniper Networks and the Women Enhancing Technology (WeTech) brought the scholarship and internship program for young women in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in the United States, Europe and India. Indian women studying at the Manipal Institute of Technology, BMS College of Engineering and PSG College of Technology are eligible to apply for the scholarship, which includes a six-month internship at the Juniper offices in India. The scholarship is for women pursuing an engineering or computer science degree. 
  6. The Science Ambassador Scholarship
    Any woman planning to attend, or attending, a college in the United States can apply for the Science Ambassador Scholarship for any STEM field. All you have to do to apply is submit a three-minute (or lesser duration) video about a STEM subject that fascinates you and you want to learn more about it. This is an excellent support for students wanting to do their research in US universities.
  7. Indo-US Fellowship for Women in STEMM (WISTEMM)
    India’s Department of Science and Technology (DST) and Indo-US Science & Technology Forum (IUSSTF) offer the Indo-US Fellowship for Women in STEMM (WISTEMM) to Indian women scientists, engineers and technologists for international collaborations with research in premier US institutes. This fellowship offers two modules: Women overseas student internship program and the Women overseas fellowship program.
  8. MPOWER Women in STEM Scholarship
    Female candidates studying in the United States or Canada for STEM degree programs from international/DACA background are eligible to apply for this scholarship, which offers a grant each of $3,000 and $1,000.

These are just a few of the scholarships/fellowships on offer for Indian women. There are many other such opportunities that you can explore for a career in STEM. 

STEM: Fascinating Fields and opportunities

In the coming decades, many of today’s routine jobs are expected to become automated thanks to the coming together of developments in fields such as information technology, robotics and artificial intelligence. The STEM fields therefore offer immense opportunities in terms of jobs in different industries, and this is expected to be the case in the coming decades.  Here’s a glimpse of some of the fields that are expected to see a boom:  

  1. Regenerative medicine: Regenerative medicine is all about developing processes and methods to replace, engineer, regrow, replace or regenerate human or animal cells to restore normal function. This is going to be the next alternate medicine industry. It offers enormous research and development opportunities.
  2. Animal behaviour: The way animals interact and communicate is a growing field of study to understand feeding, mating and survival behaviour. The world currently faces many environmental issues that are impacting the planet’s habitat  drastically. The field of animal behaviour offers several opportunities as an animal nutritionist, technician, physiotherapist, academic researcher, nature conservation officer, etc.  
  3. Environmental engineer: This branch of engineering focuses on protecting and conserving the environment. Given that the world faces the threat of climate change and regular extreme weather events, the field of environmental engineering will offer many opportunities.
  4. Sustainability and climate change research: The biggest crisis our planet faces today is that of climate change. We are on the edge and the only way to save the world from doom is to shift to a sustainable way of living. But what does it take to have sustainable habitats and lifestyles that don’t stress the planet’s resources? Sign up for this relevant field of study to find out.  
  1. Exploration geophysics: The Earth’s geology is mind-bogglingly diverse and fascinating. Underneath and upon the planet’s  surface are natural wonders such as minerals, gas, oil. If you like to scratch the surface, then geophysics is the field for you. 
  2. Digital forensics: Now that our lives are increasingly being lived in the digital realm, the world of digital identification, preservation, analysis, documentation, and presentation is finding a firm foothold. This up-and-coming field offers a broad range of career opportunities.

Robotics and nanosystems: The Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence are bringing automation and compact systems to every facet of our lives. Automated robots today find a range of applications including in factories, farm robots and even in housekeeping chores. These systems are expected to rein our lives in 2050, and so the time is ripe to opt for a research and development career in this field.