Empowering Girls Through Technology: STEM Solutions for Hygiene and Sanitation

Rupa, Priyadarshini and Sreeja study in Andhra Pradesh Social Welfare Residential School, Veapada, Andhra Pradesh. Aspiring to become scientists, all three of them often discuss the need to devise solutions for global problems. 

During a casual conversation with her friends one day, Priyadarshini realized that many girls in the community were suffering from urinary tract infections. The doctor placed the blame on poor washroom hygiene. Furthermore, some girls avoided drinking water just so they didn’t have to use the toilet. Having studied about the importance of water in the body, Priyadarshini knew just how hazardous it could be for them to reduce water consumption. She discussed the issue with Rupa and Sreeja one day. “Let us talk to the cleaning staff and see if they can maintain better hygiene in the washrooms,” said Rupa with determination. 

When the three of them went to meet the workers, they were sorry to hear their plight. “So many girls and women use these toilets, maa. We have to clean the toilets three to four times a day. The rest of the hostel also needs to be swept, dusted and mopped. Yesamma has a severe backache from all this cleaning work. I, too, get so tired by the end of the day. What can we do, maa?”, said Lakshmi, the cleaning lady, helplessly. Rupa, Priyadarshini and Sreeja later found out that close to 600 people were using the hostel washrooms. They realized that the problem was deep-set, and much thought and serious action would be needed on their part. But what could they do? How could they improve the hygiene levels and, at the same time, support the hostel cleaning staff? Were the resources available to them enough to devise a viable solution? 

The answer to these questions came from the SheCodes Innovation Program run by Learning Links Foundation in partnership with NITI Aayog, Government of India and Dell Technologies. This program provides a platform for girls to solve pertinent problems through tinkering and innovation. It also gives them access to modern technology and equipment. 

Under the SheCodes program, the three girls applied the principles of design thinking and figured out that a humanoid robot would be an ideal way of achieving their goal. The system they envisioned would ensure more timely and efficient cleaning of toilets, with the sensor technology detecting foul smells, turning the robotic arms on, and flushing water till the odour reduces. They used tinkering software like Tinkercad and hardware like the Arduino board to build their prototype. Thereafter, they went on to collect consumer feedback on their prototype and used it to refine their design. The entire process was very challenging for these school girls but they proved themselves to be stronger. With the support system established under the program- consisting of mentors, teachers and their school principal- they were able to give a concrete shape to their vision. 

Today Rupa, Priyadarshini and Sreeja continue to work on their robot. Their ultimate aim is to provide safe and hygienic washrooms to all. On the occasion of National Girl Child Day 2020, Nehru Yuva Kendra Sangathan, under the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, Government of India, felicitated the team for their innovative work!

The SheCodes program has empowered many a girl to explore new ideas, come up with tech-driven innovations and make their mark in a male-dominated STEM world. 

An excited Rupa, visibly thrilled at the success the trio has seen, says, “It was to fulfil my dream of becoming a scientist that I started attending the tinkering sessions. Through the program, I have participated in the Tinker Marathon 2019. I never thought I would get selected for the nationals. When I got to know, it was the best moment of my life. My teachers supported me greatly in the tinkering lab as I learnt the hardware and software for designing.

I also got a chance in the SheCodes Top 30 program. The tablets provided by Dell Technologies and Learning Links Foundation were a great help during the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite the lockdown, we were able to work on our prototype using the tablets. The bootcamp also helped me learn about fascinating concepts like 3-D printing, artificial intelligence and genetic engineering. It helped me work on my English-speaking skills, too. I have been able to pass on my learning to others through the project orientation sessions that I conducted for students in my school, to get them to participate in STEM competitions.”

The girls in the SheCodes program are emerging as future STEM leaders, inspiring many others in their journey to becoming effective change leaders.   
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