STEM must be all the way to the very top - Prof. Effah Kaufmann

BY: Rosalind Koramah Amoh
Prof. Elsie Effah-Kauffman (right), Associate Professor at the Department of Biomedical Engineering, University of Ghana (UG), explaining a point to Rosalind K. Amoh, Deputy News Editor, Daily Graphic, during the interview. Picture: Maxwell Ocloo
Prof. Elsie Effah-Kauffman (right), Associate Professor at the Department of Biomedical Engineering, University of Ghana (UG), explaining a point to Rosalind K. Amoh, Deputy News Editor, Daily Graphic, during the interview. Picture: Maxwell Ocloo

As part of efforts to get more females into science-related careers, there has been a deliberate plan to encourage more girls to sign up for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programmes in their educational path at both the senior high school (SHS) and tertiary levels.

While that has yielded results to some extent, there is no proper measuring or assessment of how impactful this has been in getting more females into STEM.

In an interview with the Daily Graphic’s Deputy News Editor, Rosalind Koramah Amoh, an educationist and engineer, Professor Elsie Effah Kaufmann, discusses, among others, the impact of STEM, sustaining the drive all the way to the very top.

Also famed as the Quiz Mistress of the National Science and Maths Quiz (NSMQ), Professor Effah Kaufmann also talks about the educational competition that has attracted international interest an

Rosalind Koramah Amoh (RKA): Dr Effah Kaufmann, thank you for the opportunity to have this conversation and congratulations on earning the Associate Professorial title. It seems that was done on the quiet.

Prof. Elsie Effah Kaufmann (EEK): It’s a pleasure to sit with you and thanks for the opportunity to also talk about issues that are dear to my heart. Interestingly, the professorial title was confirmed in 2020 but it took retrospective effect from February 1, 2018. Indeed, I have been using that title for a while, maybe many had not noticed that.

RKA: Prof., there has been a rather interesting debate about what you do for a career and it will be good for you to perhaps end that debate. What do you do for a living?

EEK: Interesting, I am an engineer, a biomedical engineer, who is also in academia. As you have confirmed, I am an Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Ghana and a Visiting Scholar at the Orthotics and Prosthetics Department of the University of Health and Allied Sciences (UHAS) in the Volta Region.

RKA: That sounds interesting, particularly, the role at UHAS, it seems it is what biomedical engineering is all about, isn’t it?

EEK: To a larger extent, yes. And I helped in setting up the department from scratch, just as I did for the Biomedical Engineering Department at the University of Ghana. Proudly, the first batch of the UHAS Orthotics and Prosthetics Department are in second year now and they are already coming up with some fascinating concepts and projects to help resolve practical needs.

RKA: Perhaps a good time to ask, What do Biomedical Engineers do?

EEK: Biomedical engineers focus on advances in technology and medicine to develop new devices and equipment to solve challenges in a bid to help improve human health. Once the problem is identified, we undertake projects to help resolve those problems.

RKA: That brings me to the raised interest in STEM, particularly for females. Do we have many of them now compared to say 20 years ago?

EEK: I will say that the focus and deliberate efforts to get more females in STEM is the right call. It is in order because if we don’t get many more people to be in that field, our ability to ride on the back of technology to have an accelerated development of our country could be hampered.

STEM is the world now. I don’t know any aspect of our basic everyday lives that are not affected by science, technology, engineering and mathematics, one way or the other.

RKA: While people are not against STEM, there is concern about the approach. Is there justification for this or there is no need to be worried?

EEK: I think in a way, those who express concern have a point. We should promote STEM with the end outcome in mind. I think maybe, those expressing concern are not seeing through the approach properly.

RKA: What do you mean, is the approach not the way to go?

EEK: If we are indeed putting emphasis on STEM, we should also have a plan to be able to assess its contribution and what it is able to help the country achieve. The impact of STEM should be measurable. At the moment, I don’t think we have that clear data.

RKA: Why don’t we have data? Isn’t the number of females enrolling in General Science in senior high school and also in the various STEM programmes in the tertiary institutions good statistics to help measure the impact?

EEK: In that simplistic manner, one could say there is improvement, because there are many more females taking up STEM programmes at the tertiary level, but the ratio or percentage is still very imbalanced.
For instance, in the biological sciences, the gap has been bridged considerably, but there is a huge underrepresentation of females in some of the other sciences such as in Physics, Engineering.

RKA: Does that mean the campaign is yet to make an impact if only one aspect of the STEM is benefitting?

EEK: I think until we have a near equal representation in all of the STEM, the campaign should be maintained. Remember some time back, the campaign was to get the girl child in school? Then it moved to getting them pursue education to as far as they could?
Given that STEM is the now and future of our world, it is important to let females pursue careers in that as well. In the past, STEM was a mystery but I think the excellent performance of the few females have demystified the programme.

RKA: Is there something that is missing in the females in STEM campaign?

EEF: I believe so. We have done well to encourage females to be in STEM, but we have not done much to maintain and retain them as they climb up the ladder of their careers.
There are not sufficient females up there to mentor young ones, particularly, in academia. They are encouraged to come on board and somehow along the line, they are abandoned, there is very little support system to keep the females in there. Only a few survive the journey in STEM.

RKA: Really? One would think that females who pursue STEM are given all the needed encouragement all the way up. Is that just a perception?

EEK: Well, you can say so. Having been in there, I can say that there are no deliberate interventions and programmes to support females who want to remain in there and climb all the way up. It is not easy to get a female professor in Engineering.
For instance, I tried to get some female professors to help in a research programme and I was able to find only three, and all of them were from UMAT. None of them from our celebrated Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST).
STEM has a leaky pipeline along the way and so by the time the ladies get in and try to make it up to the top, they fall off along the way.

RKA: How can this challenge be resolved and what are some of the conversations the few of you in that space are having?

EEK: It is important to look at the base and within the starting points, identify those who have the interest and potential, pick them up support and motivate them to stay the course.
If that is not done, we may not be able to reach that goal. I must emphasis though that the few in the space have done creditably.

RKA: Can we say that there is also the need to also break the bias as was the theme for this year’s commemoration of the International Women’s Day?

EEK: Certainly. It is important for the industry to acknowledge that biases exist. Unfortunately, there are some people who don’t believe there are biases, if there is an admission of that challenge, it will be difficult to help proffer an intervention.
Data shows clearly that there are gaps and we have be deliberate about addressing that.

RKA: Are there really people who do not believe that there are biases?

EEK: Yes, there are, but it is not intentional, but because of the way they have been socialised in their thinking or even cultural beliefs. That, however, can be changed through more sustained campaigns.
Don’t get it wrong. Males also face biases, as some are tagged for trying to venture into areas thought to be the predominant preserve of females.

The solution to this is undertaking an exercise to break all forms of biases, an exercise that will benefit both genders, because we will be intentional about finding solutions to breaking the biases and the world will help resolve the issues.

Prof Elsie Effah-Kauffman during one of the NMSQ competitions

RKA: Talking of biases, the National Science and Maths Quiz (NSMQ) cannot escape mention in our conversation, is it not biased?

EEK: Not at all. It gives equal representation to all schools and participants, it is just unfortunate that the boys schools have dominated, but I believe over time, we will have many more girls participating and doing better.

RKA: Obviously the interest and involvement of old students and other industry players have moved the NSMQ from a simple inter-schools competition to something much more bigger.

EEK: That is a good observation. The euphoria around the competition has changed. People are putting in much more efforts and preparing years ahead for it. Unfortunately, our female schools contesting seem not to have realised that. When they show up, from their performances, it is clear that the boys school put in a lot of preparations than the girls’ schools.

RKA: Is what is supposed to be fun not now putting the contestants under pressure? Are they not being subjected to a psychological stress?

EEK: Unfortunately, it is becoming stressful for some of the contestants. We have observed that and so it was recommended for the organisers, Prime Time, to get a team of psychologists to be part of the programme, to help the contestants and teams through the stress if need be.

RKA: How easy or difficult is it to be the Quiz Mistress of the NSMQ?

EEK: The technical team also has its fair share of the pressure and stress, it is not as easy as it looks when the competition is on television. It is a whole process.

RKA: What is the role of the Quiz Mistress in the entire technical process of the NSMQ?

EEK: My role as QM has changed significantly over the years. When I first started in 2005, I had a completely different role than I presently have. I had the pre-contest responsibility and during the contest itself.
At first, I was the advisor to the producers and that role included receiving the questions, going through them, organising them and ensuring that they were presented in a manner that would make sense.

Those days, we did not have many competitions as we have now. I think we have about 40 competitions in all and the format was also very different. My responsibility at that time was to coordinate, primarily meeting with the subject consultants and deciding on which questions we would go with.

The subject consultants set the questions and I was a general consultant. They would submit their questions, all handwritten, and we would go through to discuss and agree on which questions that were going to make it. 

RKA: Really, most people thought all that was done for you and your role was to show up and moderate the contest.

EEK: No. There was more to it than moderating. As I said, beyond moderating, my job was to make sure that the questions presented by the subject consultants made sense and that I would be able to deliver the questions and would be able to allocate marks for them.
Then, the consultants would just give me all the questions and I had the responsibility of sorting them into contests.
My primary role at the pre-contest preparation thus was to gather all the questions and sort them out and decide which ones would make it in which contest.

They gave you the questions and everything else became the responsibility of the Quiz Mistress. I, therefore, had to read through them and make sure that everything was accurate, if there was a problem with a question; it was my responsibility to reset the question or get a replacement question.
For example, the true or false questions, I had to sort all of them and sometimes type them out in the order I wanted them to be presented.

When the decision was taken to change the format of the Quiz to make the contest more interesting, I remained the consultant, advising and making sure that the contest continued to be interesting and engaging.

RKA: You play a significant role than most of us would imagine.

EEK: Indeed, my role has been both involving and evolving. It began with me having to make suggestions about the proposed changes, try them out and make them interesting enough during the competition itself.
Some of the innovation was the introduction of the regional competitions, and then, I was also responsible for the pre-competition preparations too.

This time, the subject consultants had begun typing the questions, so going through the questions electronically, I would then make suggestions and make input to make the questions conform to the format and requirement.
I would do the moderation with the consultants same as before, do the quality check of the questions before handing them over to the producers who would then hand them over to the regional quiz mistress

RKA: Over the years, there have been some innovations in the format of the competition. Does that mean more responsibility for you, given what you have been doing all this while and the fact that the competition has more contests?

EEK: Comparatively, the roles have changed a bit. Presently, I'm mainly responsible for the quarter-final stages onwards. This has been for the past three years and yes, I am expected to still convene meetings of consultants for the purpose of moderating the questions.
While the technical role has reduced, there are still some other roles, which include going round for media engagements before and after the programme to whip up interest in the competition.

Also, on all times, I need to work to preserve the integrity and credibility of the competition by being fair and firm, applying the rules always.
Additionally, I have to make the contest engaging and make sure that everything goes on smoothly and the focus be on the contestants and the contest.
When it ends successfully, the Quiz Mistress is not remembered, but the school that excelled is.

RKA: There is also the belief that you give school areas of study to prepare for the contest, just like syllabi are given for candidates to prepare for examinations, is that the case?

EEK: Not entirely, though in the past, I used to work with the consultants to decide which concept we were going to promote for that season.
For instance, we would decide on the Mole theory or significant figures in Chemistry or a major topic in mathematics and while teachers were not always happy about that, they would nonetheless treat those topics and in the ensuing year, would present contestants who were well prepared and answer the questions.
So in a way, we also influenced how and what had to be taught in schools.

RKA: After being at the helm as Quiz Mistress for 12 years and counting, can you say that the objectives for setting up the NSMQ, which is in its 29th year, have been achieved?

EEK: In 1993, the then Managing Director of Primetime, Kwaku Mensa-Bonsu, and the late Professor Marian Ewura Ama Addy came up with the idea to produce a quiz programme aimed at encouraging the study of the sciences and mathematics to help solve the shortcomings of science in secondary schools. Given the huge interest and attention the programme has garnered, it can be said that it has to a large extent, achieved its aim.

RKA: Can the achievement be quantified?

EEK: At least, it can be said that science and maths have been demystified in the schools and the students are always looking forward to the competition. It must be emphasised though that it is a quiz, and not the entire solution to strongly promoting STEM.

RKA: Do we have data to back how successful the NSMQ has been? Are we able to track how far former contestants have pursued their careers in STEM or related fields?

EEK: I know mentorship programmes are held to bring on some of the former contestants to share their stories and encourage the contestants, especially from the quarter-final stages.
I agree that there is the need to track the impact. That should not be only the interest or responsibility of Primetime or the organisers. It has to be a holistic exercise by all stakeholders.

RKA: Beyond the mentorship programme, we have not undertaken any research to find out how our former contestants have fared after 29 years?

EEK: We know that outside Ghana, many of the former contestants are doing very well and making huge impact in their chosen fields, mostly all STEM-related. We know because they reach out and follow the competition and help in mentoring the young contestants.
However, the tracking should be done in a more systematic way as that will help direct the future of the competition and what it means in the agenda to promote STEM.
Definitely, the impact of the NSMQ needs to be quantified in a more scientific manner and systematic way.

RKA: We all agree that there has been considerable female interest in the NSMQ and STEM. From where you sit and being in there, is there a time that we will have a female school being crowned champions?

EEK: Yes, it will happen, but when, I cannot tell. There is the need to work on the confidence and psyche of the girls. Most of them show up for the competition and we realise that most of them have low confidence level.
The dynamics of the competition is changing and it behoves the schools who want to compete to put in more efforts to prepare the contestants for the task ahead.

RKA: Thank you very much for this insightful conversation. I believe we need to have more of such conversations and make it accessible so it will inspire and encourage the young girls who desire to be in STEM.

EEK: Thank you for the opportunity as well. I think technology makes it possible now and it is easier for the young girls to dream and become whatever they want particularly in STEM because they have access to information. We all have to make deliberate effort to encourage them, but that is also not to say that the other areas should be neglected.