This Program Uses Dance To Get Girls Interested In STEM — And It’s Working

by JR Thorpe

STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) is, as we all know, extremely cool — but there's still a serious gender inequality problem in its ranks. Women earn only 35 percent of U.S. bachelor degrees in STEM fields, and only 1 in 7 women with a STEM degree actually works in that area. One MIT grad, Yamilée Toussaint, has set out to change that with an organization that gets girls into STEM through a surprising avenue: dance.

STEM From Dance, which was founded in 2011, fuses coding, electrical engineering, and dance in 10-12 week programs at schools and community centers around New York City. It was originally one small program, and has now expanded to multiple schools across NYC. Participants learn links between dance, movement, code and other STEM areas; their activities include creating flashing lights in their own dance clothing and coding moving backgrounds to synchronize with their Beyoncé choreography.

The inspiration for this program, Toussaint tells Bustle, "largely comes from my own experience. What's funny is that I spend a lot of my time explaining to others the merit behind combining dance and STEM, but for me, that was just what I did. I spent a lot of time dancing, and also was very into my academics and math. My father is an engineer, my mother has a STEM-oriented job, and the two were always part of my life." While others might find the melding of STEM and dance counterintuitive, Toussaint believes otherwise. "It's interesting to see how much that's the case for other people: how they have this artistic expression that they love to indulge in, and also love the tactile, the concreteness of math and science."

The process of starting STEM From Dance came from Toussaint's own life, both as an MIT graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering, she says, where she was often one of the very few women of color in a lecture room, and as a teacher in the Teach For America program. "I taught high school math for a few years," she tells Bustle, "and what caught my attention was how intimidating math can be, and also the fact that it's something you can learn. It's not something you're born understanding. I felt that was the most important task I had as a teacher: encouraging my students to believe that even though they may have struggled with math in the past, which was the case for a lot of my students, that it's still something that they could get and actually enjoy."

The key to getting more girls involved in STEM, she thinks, is confidence. "I left the classroom thinking about what was different for me, so that I thought "oh, I can do math! I can become an engineer at MIT!"" And while Toussaint notes that she and her students had different circumstances, dance proved to be part of the answer. Toussaint is a lifelong dancer, and cites it as a crucial element that helped her thrive at MIT. Dance, she says, "was a space where I could let loose, have fun and be challenged, and connect with other girls — and do something that's scary, which is performing in front of other people." And that practise, she reasoned, could make the difference for other girls.

The road from the first idea — the "aha moment", as Toussaint calls it — to the program itself wasn't exactly smooth. The idea first occurred to Toussaint in the winter of 2011. "I spent the year talking with other people about the idea and seeing whether it resonated," she says, but then she made what she now thinks was a mistake. "One of the first things I did was to apply for a grant for Teach For America alumni, which in hindsight was not the best use of my time," she says, noting her ideas weren't quite ready yet. She didn't get the funding, but it connected her with other entrepreneurs — "and it showed me the value of testing the idea with students," she says. She started working with the school at which she was teaching ("just me with a handful of students, very low-cost") to see what the program could be. "That was a great moment: to step out and try it. Once I did that, there was no turning back."

From there, the growth of Stem From Dance has been pretty remarkable. "We did a first full-year program at a community center, and it started to build very slowly from there. Each iteration of the program looked so different; now we've landed on the sweet spot between dance and STEM," says Toussaint. The next step? Expansion. "We're exploring ways to increase access to the program," she says. "One initiative we're starting over the summer of 2018 is to have a camp that any girl in our target demographic in New York City can attend." Currently, only girls in partner schools can participate in STEM From Dance. "We're excited to open the doors," she says.

Damon Plant

The big reward Toussaint gets from the process is the change she sees in her students. "One type of student," she says, "comes in very reluctant and hesitant, because they don't like to dance and their parent or teacher made them attend, but they're willing to try. Our program culminates in a performance and I love seeing those students end up, in a matter of a week, on a stage performing in front of a crowd. That warms my heart." Another type of student, she notes, is "super-cool and don't want to be associated with anything nerdy or corny start to engage with the technology aspect of the program." By the end of the program, she says, "they're proud of what they created, like "Yeah! I coded this, I sowed this circuit, it has electricity flowing through it" — using the lingo and really embracing what they've learned. That starts to become part of their identity: I am somebody who made this, I am somebody who can code."

And visibility and inspiration from mentors are a key part of the Stem From Dance project. Girls in the program aren't just told they can be in STEM; they're shown women who've done it. "In our summer programs last year," says Toussaint, "each day one of our staff or volunteers, who are all women with STEM and/or dance backgrounds, shared their stories through pictures and experiences. One of our volunteers did her thesis on neuroscience and dance in college! We've seen that really resonates with the students: to see the background, not just the presence, but to see the full experience."

It's not just about the shiny side of being a woman in STEM, either. "We try to highlight not just the triumphs but what was tough about being a woman, what was tough about being a person of color," says Toussaint. "For me, now that we're in more schools, I want our students to see our instructors as examples." And she wants to make it clear to the girls that there's not one way to succeed as a woman in STEM. "It's not just me that has the story about STEM and dance," she says. "My focus now is that the students don't just see me as the example or the golden child, but that there are many other people who have that story. Hopefully that increases their sense of possibility for themselves. They can be part of a group of many, should they go in that direction." As STEM From Dance expands, it's pretty clear the world stage hasn't seen the last of Toussaint.