At 11 years old, Cayla Thomas already had a business plan for a new nail polish line, called PYOUR, that wouldn’t trigger her asthma. Her pitch during an entrepreneurship camp hosted by the Michigan Science Center (MiSci) resulted in a $500 scholarship to launch her business.
MiSci hosted four camps this summer, including the entrepreneurship camp that Cayla attended, through the center’s STEMinista Project. The weeklong camp allowed young girls to create business pitches utilizing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) as the foundation. And by the end of the camp, Cayla not only had a business plan, but also a goal to become a chemical engineer.
“I really liked how the [instructors] were teaching us at our own pace, incorporating fun things into it,” Cayla says.
Cayla’s mom, Nakia Thomas, sat in the audience when her daughter was named the winner. Accompanied by other family members, Thomas remembers loudly cheering on her daughter and her passion for STEM.
“It’s not a man’s job. [Women] can go into STEM as well. It’s the idea of educating girls early on about what they can do,” Thomas says. “[Cayla] came up with an idea for a nail polish business. That right there is STEM.
“It was exciting to meet other women who are into all STEM, some of them who look just like her [Cayla]. Now she can say, ‘You know, they’re doing what I want to do, and I can do it too.’”
Girls face several barriers to pursuing STEM in school and beyond, which has led to underrepresentation in these fields. The challenges girls face include gender stereotypes and parental expectations that may cause them to lose interest in STEM, researchers say.
The job outlook for STEM occupations is bright in Michigan; according to Michigan STEM Partnership, STEM opportunities are expected to grow by 11.8% through next year, compared to 8.5% for all occupations. However, men continue to outnumber women in employment and training. In Michigan, for every woman working in STEM there are 3.4 men, according to a study of census data. In 2015, women accounted for 28% of workers in science and engineering occupations, despite constituting half of the college-educated workforce, the National Science Board says.
The lack of female role models in STEM occupations can also play a role in discouraging girls from STEM careers, and that’s where MiSci’s STEMinista Project comes in. The program brings girls and women in STEM together and nearly 10,000 girls have attended STEMinista Project events over the past few years.
Michigan Science Center Chief Learning Officer Cassie Byrd says The STEMinista Project relies on collaboration with local organizations and is designed to give girls a well-rounded experience with STEM. MiSci’s funding from the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation’s 2035 STEM initiative provides for these collaborative partnerships and allows for training and development between MiSci and its partners, Byrd says.
Partners, including Motor City S.T.E.A.M, appreciate The STEMinista Project as a platform for their organization, as a connection to other organizations and as a channel to empower elementary and middle school girls. Motor City S.T.E.A.M launched in 2015 with co-founders Deirdre Roberson, Alecia Gabriel, Ph.D. and Chinonye Akunne. The nonprofit organization caters to underserved minorities in Detroit and other urban communities to increase the number of minority students obtaining a STEM degree.
For the last two years, Motor City S.T.E.A.M has hosted summer programs and workshops through The STEMinista Project. Roberson also works as The STEMinista Project program manager, engaging with girls and their families. A Detroit native and graduate of Cass Technical High School, Roberson says the girls remind her of herself as a youth.
“The more options they are aware of and the more experiences they can have in STEM fields, this allows them to make better decisions about what route they want to follow,” Roberson says. “We need more STEM professionals, especially black and brown professionals, to address the issues we have in our community.”
When it comes to mathematics, STEMinista Project partner Brittany Rhodes says inspiration for Black Girl MATHgic came from the film, “Hidden Figures.” Officially launched in June, Black Girl MATHgic sends themed box featuring a woman mathematician to its 100-plus subscribers in 19 states, including Michigan, on a monthly basis. One of the most recent boxes included a book copy of “Hidden Figures,” and featured a Detroit native who now lives in San Francisco and works for Netflix. Rhodes says she plans to create boxes for young boys, as well.
She conducted her first workshop through The STEMinista Project this summer. Participants worked with a school-themed box that contained booklets, playing cards and dice to practice multiplication and featured a female math teacher in Nashville. A Spelman College graduate from Detroit with a degree in math, Rhodes says math is the foundation of science, technology and engineering.
“You can’t do anything STEM-related without math … so if our girls are not comfortable with numbers, they are going to be much less likely to engage in STEM,” she says. “We really wanted to offer something parents found valuable, that girls found cool and that fills a true need in the marketplace.”
“I don’t tell the girls to solve a problem in a certain way. It’s their opportunity to practice in a rule-free, pressure-free environment and to see how fun math can be,” Rhodes adds.
For STEMinista Project partner Audra Carson, the environment is sometimes not associated with science and technology. But for her organization, Izzie LLC — which was developed two years ago and named in honor of her late mother — community beautification and litter removal involve science. Carson recently conducted a workshop about neighborhood cleanup for The STEMinista Project. In the future, she hopes to create hands-on workshops focused on botany, indigenous plants and urban gardens in neighborhoods.
“The STEMinista Project at the Michigan Science Center works with leaders to design solutions for their communities. These solutions could actually come from our young people here in Metro Detroit,” Carson says. “It’s exciting.”
Learn more about The STEMinista Project, or to sign up as participant, role model, or donor here.
This article is part of a series on the state of STEM education and workforce development in Detroit. It is underwritten by the Michigan Science Center. Read more articles in the series here.