Leveling Up STEM (Preview)

Humanizing the Math Journey

Women solving math on a whiteboard

Photos by Hans Verdieu

By Jessica Sanon

Let’s face it. Part of the reason why we do not see more women of color in STEM fields is the embedded stereotypes and assumptions of what it means to be a STEM woman.

We have seen women such as Katherine Johnson shift the narrative and show why BIPOC women are an invaluable resource in the STEM community; yet, these same women often do not receive recognition in our society. Instead, when we highlight people who have made significant achievements in the STEM or entrepreneurial worlds, white male figures are the examples we show our students the most often, leaving no room or lasting impressions of what others have done and hampering young girls’ ability to imagine what is possible for them in the professional world of STEM.

Social constructs have gotten in the way of the encouragement process of getting girls to remain interested in the STEM fields. Despite educational progress over the past several years, high school minority students still lack access to the educational resources that will prepare them for college success. Only about 40% of public high schools serving predominantly Black students offer physics and about 33% offer calculus. Additional data gathered from the Department of Education shows that Black students are much less likely to have access to Advanced Placement courses in STEM fields. The correlation between students’ preparation for STEM-related jobs and the lack of access to foundational STEM skills puts Black students at a more significant disadvantage in preparing for advanced STEM courses in college and future careers in STEM. The lack of opportunity and access to a rigorous curriculum in many public school systems located in inner cities has also caused an imbalance in students’ cognitive growth. From negative stereotypes to lack of encouragement from their surroundings, women, especially BIPOC women, do not see themselves in STEM.

Women solving math on a whiteboard

Some reasons why there are not enough BIPOC women going into STEM include:

  •  Lack of mentorship or representation in the field
  • Negative stereotypes surrounding girls who pursue STEM
  • Lack of encouragement from educators, family, and peers
  • Self-discouragement in pursuing STEM

In creating sySTEMic flow, my mission is to bridge the gap between STEM education and math literacy for BIPOC girls and women interested in STEM through a holistic approach that ultimately combats this retention issue. My personal journey to finding the STEM field began in my early child-hood, when I found my passion for math. My personal experiences with grappling with my identity and finding the confidence to pursue my dreams led me to found sySTEMic flow, so that other young women could feel supported in their decisions to move against the status quo and embrace their passion and potential in STEM.


The Beginning: Finding the Flow
Ever since I was a young child, I always had a strong interest in all things math. I grew up in a Haitian household, and learning English was one of the biggest obstacles that I had to overcome as a young person. As a result, I was so shy, and I had a myriad of speech issues that I also grappled with, but unlike conversation, math felt incredibly natural to me. It was something that I invested my time in, that I was passionate about, and that gave me confidence throughout my childhood.

I wanted to prove my family wrong. I wanted to prove society wrong. If I didn’t have that kind of mindset, I don’t think I would be where I am today.

I decided to major in Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and my original goal was to be a math teacher. But as I progressed through college, I became exposed to so many other potential career pathways in science and mathematics. The fact that I did not have this realization until I arrived at a university made me realize that my lack of exposure to the various potential careers in STEM was a hindrance to my academic and ultimately professional aspirations. I also began to feel myself become intimidated by the rigor of collegiate STEM courses and lose my confidence in the very subjects that used to uplift me in my adolescence. It truly was my persistence and passion for pursuing a career in STEM and my determination to transcend the traditional role of women as caretakers that I had been brought up with that fueled my ability to succeed in college and beyond. I wanted to prove my family wrong. I wanted to prove society wrong. If I didn’t have that kind of mindset, I don’t think I would be where I am today.

Through my journey in my four years at UMass, I realized that a lack of academic preparation, not finding people in the math field who looked like me, and a dearth of read-ily accessible internship opportunities contributed to my initial difficulties in college. I determined that my calling was to do every-thing in my power to make sure that young BIPOC girls did not experience the same hindrances that I did, and in my personal statement when applying for The Heller School for Social Policy and Management’s Master of Business Administration program in Social Entrepreneurship and Impact Management at Brandeis University, I pitched the first iteration of the organization that would one day become sySTEMic flow.

While learning the fundamentals of starting a business at Brandeis, in 2017 I had the opportunity to pitch my idea for sySTEMic flow at a startup competition event, where it won second place. It was then that I realized that people actually see the value of sySTEMic flow, that there are actually women out there who ended up switching their major or not pursuing a career in STEM because of avoidable circumstances, and that we at sySTEMic flow could combat this apprehension of women of color toward pursuing a career in STEM and elevate these women to reach their fullest potential and achieve their biggest ambitions…


Cover of the Education Issue

From Design Museum Magazine Issue 019