Role Models in STEM


Yours Humanly

January 12, 2020

Role Models in STEM

Posters of great mathematical and scientific minds hang like celebrity photos on the walls of school classrooms: Newton, Einstein, Darwin. These images are meant to inspire eager young students; if they study enough, then they too might discover the next groundbreaking theory worthy of a place beside the greats. These inspirational images are a wonderful reminder that education can open doors to great success. Unfortunately, many of the images young students see are only those of male scientists.

It is important — not only for female students, but for male students as well — to be able to see women excel in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields. If more images of non-stereotypical role models are shown, then they will begin to be normalized. To have these images and ideas normalized, students must be exposed to them early. According to an article published by Science, “6-year-old girls are less likely than boys to believe that members of their gender are “really, really smart.” The article goes on to explain that “also at age 6, girls begin to avoid activities said to be for children who are “really, really smart.” At an early age, girls are doubting their abilities.

The self-doubt facing our young female students is often carried with them throughout their educational careers. A Newsweek article written by Margaret A. Hamburg and Nicole Small explains that “interest in STEM drops from 15.7 percent among freshmen girls to 12.7 percent among seniors and only gets worse in college. More than 6.7 million men in the U.S. have a degree in STEM subjects compared with 2.5 million women.” Showing girls that they can succeed in STEM could play a role in shifting this statistic. In the same article, Hamburg and Small cite a 2018 Microsoft survey that found that “STEM role models increase girls’ interest in STEM careers from 32 percent to 52 percent.” If seeing someone similar succeed can potentially provide the confidence girls need to strive for their scholastic success, then we must provide them these role models.

One such role model is Julia Robinson. Julia Robinson was a “really, really smart” woman. Robinson is most notably recognized in the field of mathematics for her contribution to solving the mathematical challenge known as Hilbert’s Tenth Problem. Robinson was also a trailblazer for women in her field. According to the ScienceNews article written by Evelyn Lamb, “Robinson was the first woman to be elected to the mathematics section of the National Academy of Sciences, the first woman to serve as president of the American Mathematical Society and a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship.” Although she was the first female to achieve these recognitions, Robinson only wanted to be remembered for her work. Lamb’s piece includes an expert from Constance Ried’s, (Robinson’s sister) “The Autobiography of Julia Robinson.” In this autobiography, on behalf of Robinson, her sister writes: “what I really am is a mathematician…rather than being remembered as the first woman this or that, I would prefer to be remembered, as a mathematician should, simply for the theorems I have proved and the problems I have solved.” Ideally, as more women join STEM fields, they will not be seen as rarities; they will simply be equal contributors.

At Yours Humanly, we believe that every child — regardless of their gender, race, or social class — should be given a chance to achieve their dreams. Our programs, specifically our STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) Programs, are put in place to help inspire and empower all children to explore innovative and creative approaches to problem-solving. Children believe what they see. If we provide them with the tools they need to succeed and show them that people who were once just like them can have an impact on the world, then they will believe that they can create that same impact.

Julia Robinson is only one example of a positive role model for students — anyone in a student’s life can become that role model. We must always remind both girls and boys that they can achieve the unachievable, that passion and determination are unstoppable qualities, and that a curious mind is an unbeatable weapon. Every student has the potential to become the next Newton or Einstein, and it is our job to show them that it’s possible.

Klaudia Kondakciu

Klaudia is a marketing and research professional who believes that a solid foundation in education is crucial to the healthy development of a community. As a writing tutor and long-time volunteer, she has seen the difference that organizations like Yours Humanly can make in the lives of underprivileged children and hopes to use her skills to help these organizations reach their goals of empowering children through education.