Climate Change and Gender: Part 2 – What do women in STEM have to do with climate change?

One of the pertinent topics around equality, at least in the Australian and U.S contexts recently has been around encouraging girls into STEM subjects (Science Technology Engineering and Math), and eventually careers. This becomes a matter of some urgency when coupled with the vital solutions required to combat the progression and impacts of climate change, both ecological and social, because, as we know from studies of diversity in groups, the best thinking is done by groups of minds that think differently.

One woman who’s been making strides in both STEM and the global south (where climate change impacts will be felt earliest and worst – (see part 1 on Climate Change and Gender), is Amy B. Smith. A mechanical engineer, Smith is a leading figure in appropriate technologies – the movement started by Dr Ernst Schumacher which promotes the application of environmentally sustainable, labor rather than industrially dependent technological solutions appropriate to the people for which they are developed, and are able to be produced, fixed and run on a local scale. Smith’s inventions include electricity free phase change incubator to test for bacteria and allow diagnosis of sexually transmitted disease, and a Cornsheller – the plans for which are available under a creative commons license. She’s also worked on a project with her students to create fuel from sugar cane waste to be used for cooking in Haiti, where deforestation for charcoal production has been considered an intractable problem.

However, it’s arguable that Smith’s biggest impact has been on encouraging creative thought around design and technology for the developing world. She is a senior lecturer at MIT in the Department of Mechanical Engineering where she has founded the D-Lab program, and is also a key organiser of the annual International Development Design Summit.

D-Lab is an MIT program with a focus on finding appropriate and sustainable solutions to problems experienced in developing countries. From this program have emerged a number of high impact technologies including watertesting and treatment systems that can be run and maintained by communities, agricultural processors powered by human labor, medical devices and waste-based fuels.

Reflecting the importance of harnessing diversity in different fields, Smith remarked in a Smithsonian Magazine interview that her humanitarian engineering –focussed class at MIT rarely held more men than women, “There have been times where there have been ten women and one man. This isn’t surprising, given that women often want to see an application to what they’re learning that they feel is worthwhile”, says Smith” ( smith-inventor).

The International Development Design Summit (IDDS) brings together even more diversity to produce viable prototypes. Successful projects have included everything from off-grid evaporative cooling refrigeration, a method to extract avocado oil from excess produce, to a grain silo resistant to spoilage and pests.

Participants come from twenty countries, and in addition to students, professors, STEM professionals, tradespeople and medical professionals, they include and teach the design cycle to the community members who will actually be using the resulting inventions. One of the goals is to leave the participants from the communities the summits are held in with new skills and an image of themselves as innovators. For all participants, but particularly women, the IDDS experience may provide an entirely new self-conception, combatting the deception taught to so many women that many doors are not open to them.

The next IDD summit will be held at Lake Atitlan in Guatemala on Sustainable Housing from June 4 to June 20 2017, IDDS on Climate Change Adaptation will be held in Bogota Colombia June 19-July 17 2017, and IDDS on migration, the rural-urban farming divide, and decentralized innovation economies will be held in Sisaket Thailand from July –August 9. international-development- design-summits

Personally, I can’t wait to see what results of these wonderful examples of inclusive co-design and collaboration. Why combat climate change with only the fraction of the world’s population who have a wealth of resources, when you can utilise the entire diversity of our world’s minds?


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