Despite the fact that women make up more than 40% of the workforce, they hold less than a quarter of the nearly 8.6 million Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) jobs in the United States. This statistic nagged at Erika Simon, Mireya Adan, Diana Lopez, and Abigail Sanchez, all recently graduated seniors at Ánimo Jackie Robinson Charter High School, so much so that they devoted their senior social action project to finding out more about the struggles women in STEM face. As a result, they became committed to empowering women to pursue STEM careers and even created a scholarship fund to that end!
Building a Culture of Activists
Each year, seniors at Ánimo Jackie Robinson undertake Social Action Projects, which are organized campaigns that target a specific issue of their choice that affect themselves, their families, communities, and/or the world. Since this particular group of seniors all hope to pursue careers in STEM, their selected issue was close to home. One of the problems the group found, is that women are less likely to enter STEM careers and more likely to leave them. In a study the Harvard Research report found that the top experiences that led to women leaving the STEM industry were isolation, marginalization in the workplace, ineffective executive feedback, and a lack of effective support. “Seeing the data made me feel like I wasn't capable of entering the STEM field. As we continued researching the data brought me down and I felt that maybe I wasn't good enough,” recalled Simon. She always loved math and quickly fell in love with science, so despite her initial reaction to the data she knew a career in marine biology was still her calling. “Though I first felt discouraged by the data, it soon inspired me and my group to want to work to change it, so other women wouldn't feel this way in the future.”
To ensure women on their campus felt supported in pursuing a STEM major in college, the group created a Women in STEM scholarship. They funded the scholarship by selling snacks at lunch and after school, and sponsored free dress days. “[In order to choose the winner,] we had applicants submit an essay about why they wanted to study STEM in college, and why it was important to them,” recalled Adan.
Together with their advisor Ben West, they read all of the submissions and deliberated on the best candidate. The $200 scholarship was awarded to recently graduated senior Marlene Flores who will be studying biomedical engineering at UC Davis in the fall.
In addition to funding and awarding a scholarship, the group wanted to ensure their project made a local impact, so they spoke to young girls at local elementary schools. “Some of the students already knew what STEM was, and it was surprising because at their age, I had no idea what STEM was, let alone all the types of jobs women could do,” said Sanchez.
Simon felt similarly: “It was important to encourage young girls, especially those who are interested in science and math at this age, to keep following their interests. We wanted to motivate them to continue pursuing that passion regardless of the obstacles they may face.”
Reflecting on the Issues
Towards the end of the school year, seniors presented their final projects to students, staff, families, and community partners, detailing the issue they’ve chosen and actions they’ve taken, and how they’ll continue to support this cause after high school. “Social Action Projects at AJR have students demonstrate their research and presentation skills, and get more involved in the real world before they graduate high school,” said Adan.
At Green Dot, students leave our schools with a mastery of the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college and beyond, as well as a sense of purpose. For Simon, she’ll carry what she learned through this project with her to Cal State Long Beach as she studies marine biology. She looks forward to a future where she can be a role model to young women an education in STEM, but for now she’s hoping to continue making a local impact.