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U.S.-Egypt Partnership Fosters New Model for STEM Schools

Egyptian female STEM students work together on a project.
WorkwithUSAID.org highlights the STESSA project in Egypt. (Photo credit: USAID)
Mar 24, 2022

“Welcome to the dream,” says Dr. Reda Abouserie of the U.S. organization 21st Century Partnership for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education (21PSTEM), as he reflects on his decade-long vision to bring high-quality STEM education to Egypt.

As Chief of Party for USAID’s STEM Teacher Education and School Strengthening Activity (STESSA), Dr. Abouserie leads the implementation of this groundbreaking activity to expand Egypt’s STEM schools. These public high schools provide Egypt’s brightest students with a world-class education where they can apply their learning to create innovative capstone projects that address Egypt’s grand challenges, such as climate change.

Egyptian youth are not the only ones learning through STESSA. Throughout USAID’s 10-year investment in STEM education, 21PSTEM developed its own organizational knowledge and capacity, growing from being a subawardee of the first-generation activity to the second-generation’s prime implementing partner.

A New Vision for STEM Education

Egypt’s education system is massive, serving more than 23 million K-12 students in nearly 60,000 schools. Most schools use traditional models of education, focused on exams and memorization, rather than the applied skills that Egypt’s employers demand. Although Egypt has gender parity in access to education, stereotypes deter young women from studying STEM fields that are traditionally dominated by men.

As a former Ministry of Education official before joining 21PSTEM, Dr. Abouserie recognized that students needed critical thinking and STEM skills to meet the competitive demands of the workforce. A visit to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia, impressed him with its project-based STEM education. He took his observations back to Egypt and got to work. 

The timing could not have been better. USAID was launching its first-generation activity to bring STEM secondary education in Egypt. As a sub-partner on that activity, 21PSTEM supported the Ministry of Education to open its first five STEM schools, beginning in 2011.

Although parents initially were skeptical about the methods of the project-based STEM schools, the success of the activity and its students, including on an international stage, alleviated those fears.

“Students are now winning international math and science competitions,” reveled Dr. Abouserie. “Going from only a few hundred STEM school applicants to now 24,000 annually is a big indicator of success. Our graduates are attending top universities, with some even reaching PhD-level scholarships. This has never happened before in Egypt, and the success is due to this activity.”

Yasmine Yehia Moustafa, a graduate of Maadi Girls STEM school, made headlines for her first-prize project at the 2015 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. To tackle Egypt’s water pollution challenges, she developed an environmentally friendly water filtration system using rice straw. In appreciation for her research in earth and environmental science, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) even named an asteroid in her honor when she was just 17.

Moustafa’s example is an inspiration for all Egyptians—especially for Egyptian girls in science. 21PSTEM integrated gender considerations into programming to ensure equitable education for girls. As a result, the activity now ensures that an equal number of boys and girls are accepted in its STEM schools.

The high-quality, gender-equitable, English-language education at the STEM high schools was a success, with both male and female students winning coveted spots at Egyptian universities and even scholarships to study abroad. In fact, women now make up 48 percent of Egypt’s university STEM graduates. In a strong show of government ownership of this new model, the Ministry committed to establishing more STEM secondary schools.

From Subawardee to Prime Partner

When USAID announced its second-generation STEM education activity in 2018, 21PSTEM was ready with the expertise to apply as the prime partner. The goal of the second-generation activity was to establish undergraduate and graduate STEM teaching degree programs in five Egyptian public universities in order to create a future pipeline of STEM teachers with the skills to be effective principals and instructors in Egypt’s 19 STEM schools.

21PSTEM was selected as the prime implementing partner for this effort, but their path to becoming a USAID prime partner was not always easy.

Dr. Abouserie cites the experience he and his organization gained as a subawardee as critical to their success: “You need to spend some time learning first before you can be a prime for a USAID project.”

He also notes the importance of bringing the right staff into your organization: “You really need to work hard establishing your organization. It would be very helpful if you have people who have USAID experience. That would make it much easier and faster. Otherwise, if you're totally a novice to this area, you will need to study it a lot.”

For a multistakeholder partnership involving USAID and Egypt’s two ministries of education, his organization’s experience mattered even more. “You need to learn about the dynamics of all of the partners,” said Dr. Abouserie. “Each has its own complexity. The key is that all partners share the same goals and objectives and that they all believe in these goals.”

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