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How Parents Are Leading The Revolution For Girls In Tech


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice. This March for Women's History Month, we've been talking with women innovators, entrepreneurs and educators in the STEM fields. Once again, that's science, technology, engineering and math.

It's for our Women in Tech series. And feel free to dip in to that anytime you like at #NPRWIT. Now we've been asking people why women continue to be underrepresented in these fields and what can be done with it. Now, of course, people disagree about whether it's self-selection that takes girls and women out of STEM or whether they are pushed out. But one thing just about everybody seems to agree on is to get more women and girls involved, you have to start early. But how do you do that?

We wanted to talk about this so we've called Rachel Levy. She is an associate professor of mathematics at Harvey Mudd College in California. She founded the blog "Grandma Got STEM." And she's a mom of two. One of those two is her 17-year-old daughter Mimi Kome, who is also with us. Mimi is a senior at Claremont High School who plans to study engineering. And Iman Saint Jean is an educational technologist and founder of the Help Circle app. She's a mom of two daughters as well. Welcome to you all. Thank you all so much for joining us.

RACHEL LEVY: Thanks for having us.

MIMI KOME: It's great to be here.

IMAN SAINT JEAN: Yes. Thank you so much.

MARTIN: So, Professor Levy, let me start because we often tell guests to explain complicated stories in a way, say, your grandma can understand. And hearing that from other people actually inspired the title of your blog "Grandma Got STEM." And briefly tell us a little bit about it and why.

LEVY: Sure. It's a blog where each post features a woman who's made a contribution in science, technology, engineering or mathematics. Sometimes it's the woman telling her own story, and sometimes it's a family member or a former person she has mentored or someone who's worked with her who tells her story for her. Each post has a picture and then a story.

And even though it started to respond to people who might have said grandmothers don't know very much or explain things so your grandmother might understand it, it's come to play different role. People are really learning about their own families, learning the people they work with. And I'm hoping to have a new group of junior reporters, some girls who will interview women in their communities in STEM and send posts to the blog for us to feature.

MARTIN: Well, why do you think that that's important to do? I mean, is it - I know that - think it was Tony Morrison who said you can't beat what you can't see or maybe it was Maya Angelou...

LEVY: I think that's exactly...

MARTIN: ...But is that it? It's just you've got to put these role models out there where people can see them.

LEVY: I think that's exactly right. And I think if these girls are getting out there and interviewing these women and talking to them about their jobs, they'll have more of a sense of what it takes to enter one of these roles and how much fun it can be and how challenging it can be.

MARTIN: Mimi, your mom's a math professor - lucky. So you are surrounded by this going up. But you were telling us that it's also your dad who's a librarian that helped foster your interest in engineering. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

KOME: Yeah. He is really passionate about biking, and he's worked in bike shops and built bikes. And so he's got sort of strand of tinkerer in him. And he had the tools around in the shed or the know-how to sort of let me explore the world of building things and making things and creating my own solutions. So that was a big part of why I'm going into engineering I think.

MARTIN: Can you give us - I know you're kind of in the middle of it, but can you identify maybe a story or a moment when you realized hey, this is pretty good? I mean, did he drag you into the shed with him or did he just invite you to be there with him or is there something in particular that you can point to that helped encourage you?

KOME: I don't think there was any dragging happening.

MARTIN: I know that sounded awful now that I think about it. I'm sorry. That was an image I really didn't want to...


MARTIN: But I meant, you know, some - it's like, there's the clean your room invitation or then there's the hey, let's clean our room, you know. There's that. That's what I meant.

KOME: Yeah. I think he encouraged me to take would shop in middle school. He encouraged me to help when he was building things. So when he was working in the shed, he would always encourage me to come help or if he was working on the barn or doing work around the house, it was always you want to come help me with this? And I think I learned a lot of practical skills, but I also sort of caught his enthusiasm for that sort of thing.

MARTIN: Iman, what about you? Your daughters are 8 and 12. What do you think makes a difference in encouraging girls to take an interest in these things?

SAINT JEAN: Well, I agree. I believe that early exposure and as much exposure as possible is really important in getting them interested and getting them hooked. Also, making it relevant and making it fun. A lot of times, we forget that this should be fun. And we understand, as adults, the real-world implications of knowing these skills and knowing these opportunities, but at a young age, like 8 for my daughter, I have to make it fun. I have to make it relevant. And those are some of the things that I do.

MARTIN: Iman, can you help me, though, with - I'm thinking about a lot of women who had either limited exposure to these fields or areas because people didn't think it was important, you know, when they were going up to expose them or they even had horrible experiences in these fields because people told them oh, that's not for you or, you know, nice girls don't do that. You know, that kind of thing.

And I just wonder how - if you - given that you feel like it's really important for the parents to encourage, how do you encourage people of something that you may not know a lot about yourself? Can you help me with that?

SAINT JEAN: Right. Well, that's where the village - it takes a village to raise a child comes in because right now in Oakland, there's so many opportunities, so many events, hackathons, communities, people giving back that are really interested in raising awareness and getting people involved. And so it's not just me, but also a lot of others. It's a community effort that's going on right now.

And if anyone pays attention at all, you'll see that there's a trend towards technology, digital literacy, media literacy, coding, programming and, of course, all of the job opportunities that are present and will be even more in the future. So really all you have to do is just pay attention and become aware. You'll see numerable opportunities to get involved, to learn and to participate and even volunteer. If you can't - if you don't see yourself as a coder or a programmer or a web developer, Black Girls Code and other organizations are asking for volunteers to just come and help out, come and help other people learn. And that's another way, too.

MARTIN: I see what you're saying. Professor Levy, what about that? I mean, what about people who don't - aren't parents like you are tech savvy, who are comfortable, you know, in this realm, but still want to encourage and inspire their daughters? You have some thoughts about that?

LEVY: I think that if you are able to have dinner as a family or any meals or hanging out in the car going places, and you're just able to be curious about what's around you - something we're really lucky about is you don't have to go to the library and pull out the encyclopedias, right, because most people have some access to the Internet. And many, many questions can be answered. So I guess I think any parent and their kids can look at the world and wonder about it. I'm an applied mathematician so I think of the whole world as opportunities to create mathematical models about what's around us.

But in a more simple sense, I can just questions like, how did that work? Or why does that happen? Or can I understand this? And then just begin with the kid to explore those ideas. You don't have be - you don't have to have all the answers, but it helps if you seem curious about asking the questions along with your kids. And kids ask the best questions. So just encouraging that and saying wow, that's a great question. Let's try and figure that out. And then like Iman said, just go find somebody that can help you answer it or go to the computer.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're having our weekly parenting roundtable. We're talking about encouraging girls and young women in science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called STEM fields. Our guests are tech educator Iman Saint Jean, math professor Rachel Levy, that's who was speaking just now, and her 17-year-old daughter, an aspiring engineer Mimi Kome.

Mimi, I was hearing that, you know, mathematical engineering skills aren't limited to doing things on the computer. That you also apply them in real life, for example, crocheting. And I understand that - tell me that story that you needed a crochet hook, and then what happened?

KOME: Well, we didn't have one, and I don't drive so I went out to the garage and found some wood and made one, and brought it back in because I needed a certain size that we didn't have. And that's sort of every day for me. I don't consider that if I don't have something, I need to go to the store for it. And I think that's a great attitude for anyone at all, and especially people going into the STEM fields - is that I can make my own solution to this problem. I don't need to buy it. I don't need someone to hand it to me. I'm going to sort of rise to this challenge and solve this puzzle.

MARTIN: You're a tinkerer? Yeah.

KOME: Yes.

MARTIN: You're a tinkerer kind of like your dad. Have you - anything else that you've applied your tinkering mind to that you want to tell us about or anything you're working on now? That's not proprietary - that's not secret.

KOME: Lately, I've been doing a lot of sewing and I make my own patterns mostly for stuffed animals, occasionally for clothing or things I need like a school bag. But that sort of is more geometrical I think, but the patterns is really interesting to me because I get sort of 2-D idea, and I make into a 3-D idea.

MARTIN: Professor Levy, I'm kind of intrigued. The whole question of tinkering and allowing girls to tinker and get their hands on things, I'm wondering if that's part of the issue is that - and forgive me. I'm generalizing here. But is it part of the problem, perhaps, that, you know, girls - that boys are allowed to break things. If they want to understand how something works, they're allowed to break it? Whereas, take it apart...

LEVY: I think that's right.

MARTIN: Where as if a girl does that, it's like, oh, you know, you shouldn't - you should be neat. You shouldn't mess things up. I don't know. Can you - do you want to pick up on the thread there?

LEVY: Yeah. I think you're really hitting on something incredibly important. Anyone in science, technology, engineering or math fails all the time. And we learn from our failures. Iteration, doing things over and over, trying to make them better is part of any creative process. And so when our kids make a mistake or break something or do something not quite right, there's a lot of different ways to react to that.

And I think if someone's going to be in one of these fields, they have to persevere through failure. And that's what we want to encourage in our kids. So I think it's both. Let's - OK, that was great. Can we make it better? That iteration approach. But I think, also, it's, oh that didn't go well. Well, all right. It didn't go well. Let's pick it up and try again. And I think discouragement - if you think about mathematics, there's so many people who say I can't do mathematics. I don't believe there's anyone who can't do mathematics. It just means they hit a wall at some point, and then felt like they couldn't try again. And then they gave up.

And our whole society said it's OK to give up. So if we're really going to raise kids in STEM, we have to help them understand that is just part of the process. If you're a mathematician, you're going to go to work you're going to fail most days. And, you know if you're an engineer, you're going to go to work and you're going to fail most days. And I think helping kids understand that, to embrace failure and to see that as part of the road to success can help them.

MARTIN: Iman Saint Jean, do you mind - do you have a story yourself about how you got interested in these fields yourself?

SAINT JEAN: Well, as an educator, I noticed that a lot of the educational tools and resources were going towards technologically-based platforms. And so if I wanted to keep my job and be a part of a forward-moving team, I needed to get more tech savvy. And so on the road to that, I got my daughters involved, I tapped other resources and family members who were already there. And I did everything that I could to learn and learn quickly.

And as Rachel mentioned, not be afraid of failure, not be afraid of rejection even. And even the hackathon that my daughter and I entered was totally new, and I noticed that a lot of others who were in tech had never even really attended a hackathon. And startup week in Oakland, Black Male Achievement hackathon coordinated by Kalimah Priforce and Ayori Selassie created an opportunity and an environment where people from all ages and all backgrounds could come and hack together on issues that were relevant and important to them.

And since then, my life has taken off in the tech field, and I have just been really, really supported and welcomed. And it's been amazing.

MARTIN: What's your best advice, Iman Saint Jean, for people who still feel intimidated? I mean, they might - they certainly want the best for their kids because, you know, who doesn't? But they still feel intimidated themselves. In fact, maybe their kids are more technologically savvy than they are, and they're not sure how to inspire and encourage them. Advice?

SAINT JEAN: Yes. I say shrug it off. And part of my - I'm working on my Master's in education at San Francisco State University. And I'm creating curriculum for my college professors who are heavily lecture-based, and they don't use LinkedIn or Twitter or other platforms that can help enhance learning. And so a lot of them tend to be very afraid of new technologies and different kinds of technologies.

And so I just, you know, ask them to just release that for a minute, and I also do this with my daughter in introducing her to new environments and new skills. You know, just relax, breathe, you know, some mindfulness, and prepare yourself to learn something new that is going to be fun and interesting and relevant. So when you - you hook people in by saying this is something you need. I learned of a hackathon called Digital Jam 3.0. It's a hackathon going on in Jamaica right now. And their quote is the future of work is digital. And I believe that. A lot more jobs will be digital. A lot more jobs will be tech heavy.

And so you have to be open to it and embrace it, and be critical as well. What you don't like, what you don't enjoy, you know, express that. But try to be open to learning new things, and just kind of shrug off the anxiety that comes with learning something new.

MARTIN: OK, Mimi, I'm going to ask you to have the final word here. No pressure at all, but do you have any advice for people who would like to encourage their girls like you to get more involved in tech?

KOME: I think the most important thing is to just provide the environment, so the time, the tools, the encouragement, the resources, whatever you can give them to really enable them to explore new things. And maybe STEM isn't their cup of tea, but at least they will have had those experiences. And finding them role models is really important as well.

MARTIN: Mimi Kome is a senior at Claremont High School. Rachel Levy is an associate professor of mathematics at Harvey Mudd College in California. She founded the blog "Grandma Got STEM," and she's a mom of two, including Mimi. Both are with us from member station KPCC in Pasadena, California. Iman Saint Jean is founder of the Help Circle app and a mom of two daughters. She was with us from San Francisco. Thank you all so much for joining us.

KOME: Thank you.

LEVY: Thank you.

SAINT JEAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.