I was at an event the other day that talked about the ‘need to get more women into technology.’ I was indifferent towards the the style and way they took on recruitment and as I left the event I couldn’t help but to think of better ways to engage girls in the Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM).
To better understand how to increase participation in STEM among minorities and women, I caught up with Scientist and Fellow Dr. Stephanie Rodriguez who spends most of her days researching the best ways to engage women and minorities in STEM today. ‘I want to know why there are so few minorities in STEM, how this happened and what we can do about it,’ she said. Stephanie is an American Association for the Advancement of Sciences Foundation (AAAS) fellow, a Stanford Graduate and has a Ph.D from Washington University St. Louis where she’s worked on taking a look at systems and how we help more people succeed in today’s world.
The AAAS Fellows Program is a program where scientists ‘can get their feet wet in policy,’ she said, essentially understanding why science is important in politics and how it is used in the government, within the social sectors and among public issues.
Growing up, Stephanie definitely didn’t see herself being a scientist, when Stephanie was younger she wanted to be a lawyer. She ended up going to a ‘college prep high school’ and it was here that she had some hands on research in biology and genetics and wanted more.
Stephanie also admits she chose the high school because it was a state championship school in volleyball. At the time she loved playing sports and recalls, ‘I really liked my genetics class and I got the opportunity to take a science class outside of school but it took place when I had volleyball. I had a moment where I really thought about my future and decided to leave the volleyball team and take the research class instead.’
There is not as much stigma to join STEM, you can create anything with science, you can build things, you can do anything you want, the perception of STEM is changing. ‘When I entered the sciences I didn’t see a lot of people who looked like me and sometimes when this happens we can feel discomfort and run,’ Stephanie pointed out. ‘For me, I was able to get past this barrier because I was used to having to interact with multiple races. I’m mixed so my whole life I grew up with people who didn’t necessarily look like me and I learned how be comfortable in these rooms, but if you aren’t, it’s important to start experiencing different learning environments early on so you can build the confidence and feel like, ‘hey I do belong, my voice is valuable and I am supposed to be in this space.’
Also, realize that STEM is so much large than what we may traditionally think. You can be a scientist that works at Disney, movies need scientists, for example, there are scientists who work on ensuring animations are accurate and believable, take the Incredibles movie, she said, there is someone who ensures the weights Mr. Incredible holds matches his facial expression and the ‘hair blowing’ of some characters are on point with the strength of the wind portrayed in the scenes. Even law offices, for example, need scientists. If there are cases with chemical hazards involved, they call scientists to examine the case.
There are so many possibilities within STEM so focus on what you enjoy, if you like it, explore it. A lot of Stephanie’s work requires exploration, research and sometimes ‘never having an answer, because it is a constant quest.’ ‘It can be frustrating at times,’ Stephanie admits. ‘Not knowing’ and ‘trying to constantly find the answers for something that doesn’t have a single answer or any answer is difficult but it’s rewarding when things start to add up.’ Her professor in high school, also a mentor to her, had a saying that she still uses to this day, ‘Focus on the research, not the results.’
Stephanie highlighted the importance of mentorship and how it comes in many forms. ‘Mentorship is key,’ she said, ‘but there are different types of mentors, you could have a mentor that acts more as a sponsor, someone who helps introduce you to someone, or an advocate, someone who raves about you and your talents, or mentors who guides you, maybe emotionally. Having multiple mentors and people to help you is okay, don’t be afraid to ask for help.’
If you are a teacher, don’t just put up flyers, actively encourage girls to get involved, if you see someone at your school or in your class who you don’t normally see in the room, reach out to them and ask them to come with you to meetings or practices; involving people and getting support from people around you is important. ‘Encouragement is huge,’ Stephanie said, ‘find positive places that urge you to continue to stay involved in STEM.’
In Stephanie’s last year of high school, she got paid to work in a lab, and it encouraged her to stay involved in the sciences. ‘Needing to have a job can be a barrier for many students, especially minorities, who may have to take on part time jobs or help at home in some way,’ Stephanie noted, so finding some sort of compensation while taking on STEM is a huge bonus. ‘I was one of those students,’ Stephanie said, ‘and being able to be paid to do work that was important really made everything add up for me and I knew this is where I wanted to be.’
Today Stephanie has stayed involved in youth groups and recently helped Black Girls Rock on a summer program alongside Google, here and for all youth she advises, ‘Get involved, google things, reach out, get over the idea that you don’t belong, and go for it.‘