Program aims at bridging gaps of gender and racial underrepresentation in STEM

By McKenzi Thi Murphy and Kiara Thomas

A local girl scout troop from Suffolk County will attend a Girls in STEAM program by The Long Island Explorium in Port Jefferson on April 12 as part of a larger island-wide push towards encouraging a more diverse field.

The program is geared toward elementary-school aged girls while they are forming their own identities. Workshops and mentorships offered will give them experience in STEAM, referring to Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics.

“We’ve done this for many years and we have tons of girl scouts coming, “Angeline Judex, the Explorium executive director, said. “Research has shown that by grades three and four, young people already kind of know what they’re good at and what they’re not good at. They think they know. And at that point, that’s where we have to stop the gender gap.”

The cognitive development theory states that children at this age begin to use more logic and reasoning, and will start to come into their own autonomy about their thoughts and interests.

The Explorium offers upwards of 50 different workshop topics, the most popular of which involves roller coasters, Judex said. “Girls don’t seem to think they can be scientists. We always ask in the beginning, “who’s a scientist” and there’s some hesitation…but at the end, everybody thinks that they can be a scientist.”

STEM is a male-dominated field. Women make up less than 30 percent of the STEM workforce, according to the National Science Foundation.

“I never once had a female boss or mentor,” Megan Ellis, the design director at Spotify, said. “I can look back now and reflect that some of the behaviors, expectations and boundaries placed upon me early on were in fact due to being in such a male dominated space.”

People of color are even more underrepresented. Women of color hold less than one in 10 STEM jobs.

“I remember I used to go to [the center] all the time with my mom,” Amy Li Berninger, a local Chinese resident and now a marine biology student at Cornell, said. “She’s a microbiologist on Plum Island so she would always encourage me go to science places, but I would’ve loved a program like that when I was a kid.”

Aimed at local youths, through the funding from their campaigns, “Rising Girls” and “Equal Access,” another Long Island science-based center is able to offer community members this opportunity at next-to-no cost.

“On Saturdays we typically have different themed activities for our visitors,” Judith Isbitiren, the program manager, said.  “We wanted to highlight a few women scientists and have the kids do some sort of experiment or activity related to their field of expertise.”

Equal Access,” the Long Island Science Center’s campaign to empower young children of color like Berninger once was, aims to fix this racial representation gap. Many of them are at an economic disadvantage, but through donations can be given equal opportunities.

“My class was the beginning of the swing to more and more females into the field,” Toyin Swanstan, a pharmacist and St. John’s College of Pharmacy graduate of 1993, said.  “There were not many people of color as pharmacists. I think in my graduating class we had maybe 10 to 15 people of color, seven of us female.”

Not simply confined to extracurriculars, STEM programs for young girls are also offered within schools. Founded in 2015, Long Island Women in Technology mentors students from kindergarten to college as well as local Girl Scout troops and libraries in robotic and coding classes for free.

They have taught over 1000 students on Long Island, including Islip, Bayshore, and Brentwood, Muller said.  In one week, they mentored 500 elementary schoolers. The organization also provides local women in technology with a vast network of over 400 members.

“We don’t get things because someone advocates for us,” Stefana Muller, the founder and organizer, said. “Here we have to advocate for ourselves…”

The Explorium has focused on bridging underrepresentation gaps since its beginning in 2004, Judex said. The center plans to expand outwards with the help of technology to reach the nation and even other countries.

“The extent is really getting out there more and in the best way possible,” Judex said. “The four walls don’t define what we are so we’re looking at going outwards.”

About Kiara Thomas 6 Articles
Kiara Thomas is a sophomore at Stony brook University. The Queens native is a journalism major with a creative writing minor. In high school, she worked at the Queens Courier, where she wrote and edited articles for one of the biggest weekly newspapers in Queens. Thomas’ passion for writing and justice, led her to write stories about everyday people to reflect the larger issues at hand. She is the editor-in-chief at Black World, a publication on campus that provides a voice for the black and Hispanic communities.