A Creative Solution to Getting More Girls into STEM

By Kelly Amis

We were so happy to help STEM from Dance's founder Yamilée Toussaint produce a video for her website (above). STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) represents one of the most visible and important areas in which women are still not equally represented.

We have entered and are gaining equality in many fields that were male-dominated just a few decades ago—medicine, law, business and economics to name a few—and we are now earning more college degrees than men, but we remain behind in attaining careers in some of the fastest-growing and highest-paying jobs in America.

Girls may bring natural ability and curiosity to math and science, but somewhere between Kindergarten and high school they lose their enthusiasm and leave the more advanced classes to the boys. Research suggests that even teachers may unconsciously discourage them.  

Does Barbie still have a say in 2015?

Yamilée Toussaint would say no or, at least, not for much longer. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineering graduate, Toussaint is working to inspire more girls—specifically girls of color—to defy stereotypes and jump into the burgeoning world of STEM. Her magic ingredient: Dance.

Why not? Symmetry, problem solving and memorization of intricate sequences are inherent to choreography. Toussaint, a dancer herself, believes the combination of STEM and dance are mutually reinforcing, although she also recognizes that the dance aspect of the program is currently the key to getting girls to sign up.

“Dance and music are deeply woven into the culture of our target population,” Toussaint explains, “and when I meet with principals they say that the thing (students) request the most, especially the girls, is dance.”

But once they start STEM from Dance, Toussaint says, the girls become equally hooked on what they learn in the STEM side of the program. “What’s so neat to me is seeing that moment when that shift happens, when it’s like ‘Hey, this robot or this coding is pretty cool’,” says Toussaint.

Toussaint points out that, according to a study at her alma mater, the root causes of young people avoiding STEM are 1) lack of awareness, 2) being unprepared and 3) confidence. “I’ve seen that this is true from my own experience,” she says. Lacking role models in the field exacerbates the problem.

She believes we need to expose more girls of color to STEM, prepare them academically for STEM-focused studies and help shift their mindsets to see themselves as future engineers, computer programmers, scientists or anything else if they want to be. In other words, change the played-out narrative that girls don’t belong in certain fields; believe in them and they will believe in themselves.

Needless to say, Toussaint—a combination of smarts, grace and confidence—is a great role model. Maybe it’s time to say buh-bye to Barbie? (I've been ready to for a long time, personally).