According to the Girl Scout Research Institute’s 2012 study on “What Girls Say About Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math” (STEM), young women who express interest in STEM activities want a career that helps people and makes a difference in the world. However, the research also shows that when choosing a career, these same girls do not go on to pursue a job in STEM. In fact, the study shows that girls start to lose interest in math and science during middle school.
After surveying 6,000 girls and young women, a similar 2019 study from Microsoft found that “31 percent of [middle school] girls believe that jobs requiring coding and programming are ‘not for them’.” For young women that have graduated high school and are in college on a path to their new career, that percentage climbs to 58 percent. The study also found that girls first struggle to see the creative and world-changing possibilities of a STEM career, but that with even small amounts of exposure to real-world STEM activities and role models, their attitudes towards STEM careers can positively change.
Furthermore, a September 2021 report from the National Science Board (NSB) examined the current state of STEM education in the United States and was able to make some interesting correlations. Julia Phillips, a physicist and materials science researcher who chairs the National Science Board Committee on National Science and Engineering Policy, shared, “I think it ought to be extremely disturbing to everyone in the U.S. that science and math performance is not equally distributed across the country. You see huge differences in performance based on race and ethnicity so that Asian and white students do much better on these standardized tests than students of color. And you also see that there is a huge difference based on the socio-economic background of students – students that are from higher socio-economic backgrounds do much better than students from low socio-economic backgrounds.” So what could be the cause of this? Phillips shared several trends the NSB is seeing:
- Students of lower socioeconomic status or from certain demographic groups are often in schools where teachers have less experience.
- Other research shows that teachers usually improve with time and more experience.
- Students from low socio-economic status and students of color typically have teachers who are not originally educated in the fields that they teach, especially in subjects of science
Engineer and Savannah-native Ambria Berksteiner is on a mission to change all of these statistics. She is the founder of Operation One STEM at a Time, a local 501(c)3 non-profit that works to educate, enlighten and empower young women of color to explore and pursue STEM careers.
Berksteiner launched the organization in 2016 while attending Spelman College where she majored in mathematics. She had the realization that talented African American girls interested in STEM needed more exposure, encouragement, and relatable role models from the industry and wanted to provide young women with the same opportunities that led her to pursue an engineering degree. “When you don’t see yourself reflected back in an industry, it can be discouraging. The only reason that there’s a gap is because we need more people reaching out to young women and giving back. That’s the whole purpose of Operation One STEM at a time,” Berksteiner explains.
Over the past six years, and while obtaining a bachelor’s of science in industrial and systems engineering from Auburn University, Ambria has continued to pursue this mission. She has partnered with local organizations, universities, churches, and STEM professionals from all over Savannah to offer STEM workshops and mentorship opportunities for children. She has worked with The ConneXion Church, Georgia Tech Savannah CEISMC, the Society of Women Engineers, and The Creative Coast to name a few. Her workshops provide hands-on, design-thinking, and problem-solving activities for youth to creatively learn about topics like circuitry, hydraulics, and more.
In June of this year, Berksteiner partnered with Girls Scouts of Historic Georgia to run their STEM programming through December of 2021. She organized a Women in STEM Exploration Panel which allowed young women to have conversations with professionals such as doctors, veterinarians, and aerospace engineers to learn about what they do in their respective fields. “They talked about their experiences such as how they got to this point in their careers, how they overcame obstacles, and what they do in their roles. Sometimes all a girl needs is that conversation,” Berksteiner says.
As if she didn’t have enough to do, Berksteiner started working on a broader initiative to reach impoverished youth throughout the Savannah Chatham County Metro area. The project is called #BluePRINTStoSTEM and the purpose is to provide children in low-income areas with accessible libraries filled with literacy about STEM disciplines. “Savannah has an overall poverty rate of 24%. For African Americans, that number is an overwhelming 32.6%. Four out of ten young people in Savannah are living in households with an income below the poverty threshold, and half of those children are living well below the poverty line,” Berksteiner explains. “From my personal experience, I never had anyone explain to me what engineering or STEM was until I was in high school and went through the Engineering Explorer Post program at Savannah Arts Academy. We always tell children, whether it’s on t.v. or in books, that they can be anything they want to be – a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer – and that’s great, but are we actually giving them the tools to pursue those careers? What does it mean to work in these careers? What does it take to get there?” As the name suggests, the goal of #BluePRINTStoSTEM is to provide a blueprint or a guide on pursuing STEM careers while increasing the literacy rates in these communities.
So far Berksteiner has successfully piloted #BluePRINTStoSTEM at The ConneXion Church on Skidaway Road in Savannah. She has scouted potential locations across the city and is raising funds for bookshelves, STEM learning materials, STEM literacy, and PPE during the pandemic. Her plan is to set up more STEM libraries in 2022.
As for what she wants the youth she works with to take away from Operation One STEM at a Time, “I always tell the children I work with that your life is like a blueprint. It’s ever-changing. It may not go how you want it to, but you can make it to this end-result, this picture you have developed for yourself, and you are still creating.” Wise words we should all heed.
If you would like to learn more about Operation One STEM at a Time and #BluePRINTStoSTEM, visit Ambria’s page here or reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can donate to Operation One STEM at a Time here.