Middle School Girl Takes STEM by Storm

Rachel Sacks is a former Teaching Fellow at Citizen Schools New York. 

Today, I would like to shine the spotlight on a bright, passionate student I met at the final showcase of the spring apprenticeship classes, the “WOW!” event at the Urban Assembly Unison School in Brooklyn last month.

In a room full of chattering 6th graders--mostly boys-- talking about their computer game programming projects with guests, Shamina sat in a corner by the blackboard, focused on her computer. With my passport--a pamphlet of all the questions to ask the students--in hand, I walked over to Shamina, and asked her about her game and her experience in the apprenticeship class.

IMG_20130523_173717_090 (1)Apprenticeships are the cornerstone of Citizen Schools, the “special sauce” of the expanded learning day program. Apprenticeships give students the chance to work with professionals from an array of organizations and draw from their expertise to develop interests and knowhow to succeed in middle school, high school, college, and beyond. Each semester, students are given the opportunity to explore and discover a spark that might change the course of their dreams and their life. For Shamina, it’s her second time in the "Program a Game" apprenticeship, which she took in the fall and chose to take again this spring.

Upon meeting Shamina, one of the first things she told me signaled her pride in her work. “I had the most programming out of everyone,” she says, “because we had a jump.” Not only was the programming more advanced because of the jump-- which the player must make over a monster in her path to move on in the game--but the game was more difficult too.

Like a true craftsperson, Shamina called out the technical challenges of the game. “It’s really hard to do the jump because we have to hit the spacebar and then the side arrow.” Watching her at her computer, (she was still refining the code as we talked,) I had to try her game. And wow, did I get sucked in for a bit. It was surprisingly tough to do the jump over that monster! Shamina said that’s why people in her class liked her game-- because it was a challenge.

That Shamina enjoys the challenge is part of what makes this conversation so exciting, and her experience so rewarding. Like a downward ladder, the numbers of women and minorities taking high level math and science courses and performing well drops at each stage of education, from elementary, to secondary education, to college. Though girls demonstrate higher enrollment numbers and grades in high school math and science classes, very few go on to study these subjects in college, graduate with these degrees or go into STEM fields. And despite constituting 47% of the US workforce, women have much lower representation in many science and engineering careers, and comprise only 11% of engineers.

IMG_20130523_174331_766 (1) (1)So what is the key factor behind this downward ladder? Confidence. The longer girls have been in school, the more they seem to question their ability in the traditionally male-dominated areas of math and science that lead to rewarding and vital STEM careers.

STEM-based apprenticeships give girls, as well as all youth of color, the chance to become more comfortable with math and science before they have the chance to become wary of the subject matter. Perhaps they’ll even have the chance to develop a love for it, as they have more opportunities to ask questions, and have fun with real-world STEM jobs.

After giving up on getting over that monster --I managed once or twice, but had to admit defeat-- I asked Shamina if she saw herself pursuing this as a career. She said she wasn’t sure if she wanted to do technology work because she loves to draw and wants to pursue that, but that she’s considering graphic design.

But watching her work with the code while we were talking? The girl’s a natural.

To inspire more students like Shamina at the pivotal age of middle school, share your expertise by teaching an apprenticeship this fall with Citizen Schools. By volunteering to teach an apprenticeship, you can share your spark.

For more information on girls and minorities in STEM fields: