Role Models Matter -- and So Does Training

Co-authored by Roshni Kasad

It's 4 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon at Rocketship Si Se Puede Academy in San Jose, California, and a group of 5th grade girls is busy designing new homes, restaurants, office buildings and schools. Alice Brooks and Bettina Chen, cofounders of Roominate, are visiting and helping the girls find their inner structural engineer through playing with Roominate, a dollhouse-building kit designed to get more girls interested in engineering. The girls wire their structures with circuits and create lite-up prototypes. When they finish, the girls arrange their individual creations to engineer a whole new city. Alice and Bettina, engineers and toy makers themselves, bring the creative and innovative world of engineering to girls. They also share their stories of how they came to be engineers and what that path looks like.

Fewer than 60 percent of girls have met a woman in a science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) career. Maybe that is part of the reason why women represent only 14 percent of the engineering workforce.

If there were more role models, how many more girls might be inspired to pursue a passion in engineering or start up a tech company?

Techbridge is a nonprofit organization in Oakland, California, that encourages girls and underrepresented youth in STEM through hands-on learning and career exploration in after-school and summer programs like at Rocketship Academy. Ninety-three percent of our girls tell us that they are more interested in working in STEM because of getting to meet role models like Alice and Bettina.

Programs like Techbridge can't do it alone. We need partners who can serve as role models for our girls. The good news is that the movement for STEM role models is growing with initiatives like US2020 and Million Women Mentors. We soon will have many role models lined up, excited to inspire America's Next Top Engineer. They will visit classrooms and share their enthusiasm and passion for STEM with girls. They will host fieldtrips and show girls the possibilities for their future.

But showing up is not all that's required for a STEM role model. Our role models are used to leading meetings with a room of adults. They are accustomed to working on technology projects with their colleagues. But where have they acquired the skills on how to connect with girls?

What do you do to get the attention of a room full of girls? What information do girls want to hear from role models about what they can do right now to get started on their journey? How do you make STEM come to life by leading girls in a hands-on activity? These are some of the basics that role models need to know to make a positive impact on girls.

We spend millions of dollars and many years training our doctors, teachers, and engineers. What about training our role models so that they too can be effective and inspire girls in STEM to the best of their ability? With just a little help from training resources like Techbridge's new online Role Models Matter Toolkit, we can have a prepared, effective team of role models ready to do their part in changing the statistics about women in STEM.

Our toolkit highlights Techbridge role models like Lyn Gomes. Training helped Lyn during a recent visit with girls at Oakland Technical High School. Lyn reflected, "I told my story about how I gradually became an engineer, and it built this excitement in me. I remembered how much I loved being an engineer, and that enthusiasm built and it showed through." After many years of working with girls, Lyn knows that showing up is not enough when she says, "As a role model, probably one of the most important things you can do is to be prepared for your visit."

Our partners, including Chevron, Cisco, and the University of California at Berkeley, also recognize the importance of showing up prepared to do community outreach. They've hosted field trips and visited Techbridge after-school programs for years. Prior to meeting our girls, these partners participate in trainings led by Techbridge. Our partners see the difference in how they relate to and engage girls. Many role models have nieces or nephews or kids of their own but don't have the skills to lead a group of girls on a fieldtrip or in an after-school program. Training helps them be less tentative and more engaging in their interactions with girls.

At the end of the day, we want every girl to meet a woman in STEM who can inspire and guide. We want all girls to have experiences just like this girl at Rocketship Academy had when she met the Roominate cofounders: "I saw how Alice and Bettina made cool toys that everyone enjoyed. It made me think about how I could make things that people everywhere would enjoy."

If you are a STEM professional who is ready to step up your STEM outreach efforts, check out Techbridge's Role Models Matter Toolkit so that you too can go into a room full of girls feeling prepared. If you are planning to bring in STEM role models to work with your group, direct your volunteers to this toolkit so that they are prepared to inspire your girls.

Roshni Kasad, PhD, is a Program Manager at Techbridge. At Techbridge, Roshni manages projects that range from engaging more STEM professionals to serve as role models to training and coaching after-school and summer providers on how to lead hands-on STEM with youth.