Underrepresentation in STEM Is an Economic Issue, Too

Young girl uses pipe cleaners in educational project.

A future STEM professional sharpens up her skills.

August 14, 2013

It is well known that women and girls are underrepresented in math and science fields, and there are some pretty spectacular initiatives out there for getting girls interested in STEM (Tech Trek, Battle of the Plans, and Goldie Blox, to name a few). In addition to gender imbalance, however, disparities in STEM involvement also exist across income levels.

Tara Chklovski is the co-founder of Iridescent, an initiative which received an AAUW Community Action Grant in 2008. Iridescent is a nonprofit organization aiming to expand access to the STEM fields  and give voice to children in low-income communities, with specific initiatives geared toward empowering girls.  I recently had the opportunity to talk to Chklovski about her work and the future of Iridescent.

Children work together on an engineering-based task.

Iridescent utilizes educational tasks that spark children’s early interest in science, engineering, and math.

The concept behind Iridescent is based on the understanding that STEM professionals, be they engineers, scientists, or mathematicians, have a very particular set of skills that are specific to their field. Currently, we don’t see these skills being pursued by enough people in low-income communities. This means that a vast number of potential creators, thinkers, and contributors are largely left out of the STEM conversation. Chklovski emphasizes that from both an economic view (of the productive value of maximizing diverse perspectives) and a social one (of providing equal opportunity to excel in STEM), “it makes sense to bring a lot of voices to the problem-solving table.” So Iridescent is doing something about it.

Iridescent’s model creates exciting, STEM-based curricula for boys and girls in underserved communities and builds infrastructure through high parental involvement and support. It comes down to helping children discover their science-based interests while developing strong support systems that encourage and facilitate success. It emphasizes teaching children that their potential to contribute to science is limitless and invaluable. “It’s about changing the way a community is thinking,” says Chklovksi. Already, Iridescent has reached over 80,000 children and engineers in over 20 countries, including many U.S. cities.

Children work with a teacher on an engineering-based task.

Collaborative engineering exercises are an exciting way to introduce children to STEM.

Of particular importance to Iridescent is a focus on girls and STEM. The organization’s initiative Technovation Challenge has been widely successful in introducing girls to engineering and entrepreneurship. Through the program, middle and high school girls identify a problem impacting their community. They use technology to create and design a plan to solve the problem, then pitch the plan to a panel. The winning project is actually funded and implemented in their community. “The change in these girls is incredible — girls who have no understanding of how to address an engineering problem, and over many semesters they blossom,” says Chklovski.

Reflecting on how far Iridescent has come since 2008, Chklovski remarks on the impact of the AAUW Community Action Grant. “It is always hard in the beginning when a program is getting off the ground; there is a need for visionary funders who feel the potential of a program and are willing to put funding behind it. AAUW helped us in the early years to take a next step. Without these early funders who believe in the vision, it is impossible.”

This post was written by AAUW Fellowships and Grants Intern Emily Carroll.

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