STEMinista Project turns 4: How an initiative to empower young women in STEM reached 10,000 girls

The STEMinista Project started in 2016 with a simple goal: boost interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics among fourth through eighth grade girls. In the pilot program's first year, the initiative reached 1,000 girls. Since then, that number has grown to 10,000 young women in Southeast Michigan. 

Through regular activities like STEMinista Saturdays at the Michigan Science Center (MiSci), young girls go hands-on with real-world STEM applications like the science behind customizing lip gloss and nail polish. They also meet women who look like them with good-paying, future-proofed careers in male-dominated STEM fields. By having female environmental engineers from Ford and infectious disease physicians from WSU and other industry partners at the event, girls have tangible proof that hard work will pay off. 

According to a recent survey from the National Girls Collaborative project, under one-third of the science and engineering workforce is women. For computer and mathematical sciences, it drops to 25 percent. When you add in intersectionality — the theory that forms of oppression like gender bias and being from a low socioeconomic background stack up — the problem only gets worse. 

Sarah Bo, an industrial engineer at Ford
For MiSci chief learning officer Cassie Byrd, that's not acceptable. Over the past year, she's been studying data from the initiative, talking to community partners like Black Girls Code and Digerati Girls, and industry funders including Bosch, Google, and General Motors about the benefits the program provides. She's also been asking and telling partners what's needed to make the biggest collective impact. 

As a result, The STEMinista Project will change to reflect what's been learned. Now Byrd has a research-validated survey instrument for measuring impact, and is distributing it to her community partners, simultaneously establishing a framework of best practices along the way. 

The idea is to create a comprehensive dataset or cohort that will show what happens when girls in the region are exposed to STEM at an extremely critical time in their lives — fittingly, fourth through eighth grade. Typically, that's when girls start self-selecting out of science and related subjects.

Byrd would also love to see STEMinista Projects pop up around the country now that the evaluation and operations framework are in place, further feeding the dataset and unlocking new understanding. 

Perhaps the biggest difference moving forward, however, will be how the project utilizes representative role models — women in STEM careers — to broaden the its impact. Byrd wants to ensure that the role models she invites to the program reflect the students they're reaching.

"My hope is that thinking more deliberately about intersectionality frameworks helps us reach more girls," she said at a recent STEMinista Celebration, marking the beginning of the project's fourth year. At the event, in addition to a panel comprised of program alumni, there were networking activities with role models, time to explore the museum, and a giveaway that included a week at a STEMinista summer camp.

Studies have shown that if someone has a STEM role model, that is, someone who positively represents STEM in their lives, they're more likely to see themselves in a STEM career and persist at it when things get tough. 

That's extremely powerful for young girls, and Byrd is intentional about making sure everyone in the room is represented. "It's a 'if she can see it, she can be it' kind of idea."

Take Aditi and Anjali Sharma, co-founders of Lime Lab LLC, which offers free or low-cost technology training to girls and other disenfranchised groups. The sisters founded the company in 2014 after attending a talk at the University of Michigan about open-source, programmable Arduino boards hosted by an editor from Wired. 

The Sharma sisters
The pair have been involved with The STEMinista Project since its inception in 2016. Now a high school senior, Aditi and her elementary-aged sibling Anjali are role models and mentors themselves. It's this type of environment that Byrd hopes thrives as the STEMinista Project moves forward; the ecosystem is already starting to feed back into itself. 

Involving girls in STEM at a younger age is paramount to helping them succeed early on. High-school freshman Ghable Bell didn't want anything to do with STEM, but thanks to attending University Prep Science and Math Middle School next door to MiSci for sixth, seventh, and eighth grade, she found aspects of science that clicked for her. Now she's taking college credits while in high school because she already finished the junior-and-senior level science classes.

"Having that confidence and knowing I'm able to understand the concepts, execute these projects, makes a difference in how you perform everywhere else," she said during a panel at the STEMinista Celebration. 

Elena and Myra speak about why the STEMinista Project matters from Model D on Vimeo.

Her mom, Tanisha Bell, agreed. Bell has a 9-year-old daughter as well, and even though she was too young to formally enroll in The STEMinista Project with her sister, she participated simply by virtue of tagging along.

"My younger daughter thinks she's a scientist already," Bell said during the panel, an audience of moms and young girls laughed knowingly in response. 

Her youngest thinks she's an engineer too, building things and then blowing them up. "I let her be her, and let her explore herself so she learns there are no limitations," Bell said. The now 9-year-old is doing 12th-grade level science projects by herself and getting blue ribbons for them.

That type of reassurance is powerful — teaching girls confidence is as important as teaching them algebra. The elder Sharma sister said it's imperative to tell girls that they have the ability and encourage them when the outside world would rather do the opposite.

"STEM is the future, and we need to include girls in that future," Sharma said. "We need to have our perspective included in the creation of these products, not just the consumption."

The article is part of a series, supported by the Michigan Science Center, exploring key regional issues in science over the next five years. Read more articles from this series and others from our collaboration with the Michigan Science Center here.

Photos by Timothy J. Seppala. 
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