Creating a pathway to STEM for girls – from Queens to Quito
KEISHA HUDSON, INTERIM EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE ZAHN INNOVATION CENTER AT THE CITY COLLEGE OF NEW YORK
When she graduates from high school, Daniela wants to become a general surgeon. She is fascinated by science and space and is particularly inspired by the work of Stephen Hawking. She dreams of one day being able to use advances in robotics and technology to help people and maybe even travel to Mars.
Daniela is part of a community of like-minded girls who share a love for STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Some dream of becoming engineers, and others want to become biologists or work in cyber security. All of them are being encouraged and supported in their journey towards further education in STEM by taking part in workshops and near-peer mentoring initiatives run by a New York-based social enterprise called STEM Hive.
The only difference is that while most of the girls undertaking the workshops are in Woodside and Jackson Heights, Daniela lives more than 2880 miles away in Cotopaxi Province, Ecuador.
The origins of STEM Hive began at a hackathon in late 2018. Then, Carolina Perez and Karla Jacome, lab-partners at The City College of New York (CCNY), met with Daniel Gaston and realized that besides a passion for science, they also shared the same Latin-American backgrounds. Soon after, they decided to turn their passions into purpose. They started STEM Hive – an organization that is dedicated to offering STEM subjects to students with under-represented backgrounds. With that mission in mind, the three later entered the CCNY’s Zahn Innovation Center (Zahn Center) Standard Chartered Women In Tech Incubator Competition, where they won the top prize.
The three of them later invited their school mate Veronica Juca, who shares the same passion for STEM and is well aware of the challenges that students who come from similar backgrounds to theirs are facing. Often underestimated, their schools are underfunded and deprived of the resources found in schools located in more affluent districts. Additionally, the lack of culturally diverse role models in STEM careers indicates that excelling in these sectors is beyond their grasp.
Instead of dwelling on these inequalities, the students were encouraged to funnel their ambition and frustration into constructive outcomes that present a practical solution to the problem at hand. In this case, STEM Hive’s considered and empathetic approach addresses the challenges being faced by young people who may be interested in STEM subjects but need a helping hand to overcome the barriers they currently face.
When starting a business, being able to seek advice and guidance proactively is crucial. It can help entrepreneurs grow more effectively. STEM Hive was eager to acquire knowledge and any helpful resources that were available to them. In May 2019, STEM Hive won the Standard Chartered Women In Tech Grand Prize as part of the Zahn Center’s Startup Competition. With a cash injection of USD 25,000, STEM Hive quickly scaled up their project, identifying the issue that many schools in low-income communities lack access to hands-on STEM activities which ultimately leads to many otherwise engaged students losing interest. They began to run workshops and launched a course exploring three branches of STEM: ecology, engineering, and a skills partnership with Girls Who Code.
By the start of 2020, STEM Hive had a full program of workshops planned. But then the pandemic hit, and they knew their courses had to adapt to meet the unique challenges of school closures and stay-at-home orders. The program transitioned to virtual, but, mindful of the increased learning being done on computers, an inexpensive STEM Tool Kit, which contains program-related materials, was also sent to participants to allow them to undertake practical learning and reduce screen-based fatigue.
The subjects that the program focused on were adapted as well. Sessions on mental health and nutrition were added, along with a course on how to be safe online – a response to how the pandemic transposed so many day-to-day activities to the virtual world, leading to increased exposure on the Internet. The team’s ambitions to demonstrate that STEM careers are accessible irrespective of background was further delivered via a successful virtual Career Discovery Day this spring, where participants were able to quiz a wide variety of STEM professionals, including a pediatrician, an endocrinologist, a cloud architect, a software developer, and a data scientist. When meeting with the bright young people undertaking the STEM Hive program, it was clear that they were determined and keen to work hard, but needed reassurance that they could succeed in competitive and demanding STEM fields. Challenging outdated ideas about the accessibility of prestigious careers is an integral part of STEM Hive’s mission.
Looking to the future, STEM Hive has a clear understanding of the direction of the business and the role it can play. The team intends to actively do outreach into public schools in low-income areas, where they can make a tangible difference. They plan to help fill gaps where the existing system is overstretched or under-resourced, such as cyber education, an area currently missing from the public-school curriculum. STEM Hive is also aware that expensive extracurricular activities are simply out of reach for many lower-income families. By designing workshops and activities that fill this gap, working diligently to educate parents about scholarships, grants, and funding opportunities, and helping students network with professionals in their chosen fields, they hope to demonstrate to young people that STEM subjects and careers are indeed open to them. This kind of focused, problem-solving approach is a great way to effect genuine change.
In their Future of work after COVID-19 report (February 2021), McKinsey forecasts that demand for healthcare and STEM industries workers is likely to rise due to the aging population and the growing need for people who can create and work with new technologies. For girls like Daniela, or her counterparts in New York, there is an opportunity to pursue subjects they are interested in and to actively future-proof their career prospects by positioning themselves for sectors where demand is expected to increase.
After two and a half years, STEM Hive now becomes, in a way, self-sustaining. Girls who benefit from the program will return as volunteers, mentors, and role models in the future. But for any business to last, it needs to be financially viable. Thanks to the initial funding from their Standard Chartered Women In Tech win, STEM Hive has been able to provide all of its activities so far at low or no cost. Still, the team is realistic that more fundraising and partnerships will be required to keep the program sustainable in the longer term. These sorts of challenges present a real-time learning opportunity for the STEM Hive team as they respond to the changing needs of the program.
STEM Hive has achieved a considerable amount in a short space of time. An achievement made even more impressive considering the widespread disruption caused by the pandemic over the last year. To date, STEM Hive has run more than 30 workshops in New York and Ecuador, reaching more than 650 students, and they have no intention of stopping any time soon. Perhaps most remarkable of all is the fact that this lean team has effectively managed STEM Hive in their spare time as they juggle exams, college coursework, and internships. The critical thinking and analytical skills that they have learned from their own STEM studies have surely been an asset throughout this process.
The STEM Hive journey demonstrates the enormous potential of small gestures – what started as a simple idea during a college hackathon became a prize-winning social enterprise that has achieved real momentum and social good.