Girls Gather S.T.E.A.M.

Lucy Gellman PhotoTatyana Ramirez was struggling with the “tower of power” two-minute challenge — how to build the highest, most stable structure in the room with only candied fruit and toothpicks — when she had an algebraic revelation: Use a triangular base.

Ramirez spread the message to her team, and they methodically stacked candied chunks of orange and the thin wooden toothpicks they’d been given. At two minutes exactly, they lifted their hands off the project. Even before the room’s towers had been measured, it was clear they had won.

An eighth grader at Ross Woodward School, Ramirez is one of 35 seventh and eighth-grade girls who have been selected for a six-month “S.T.E.A.M.”— science, technology, engineering, arts, and math — intensive-learning program hosted by the new local chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women (NCBW) and Ross Woodward School.

Tuesday evening the girls and their families gathered for an orientation in Ross Woodward’s cozy music room, where they heard from NCBW members and guests a little about the next few months.

From now through June of this year, the group will convene once a month at Greater New Haven universities, libraries and research hubs for lessons on why the S.T.E.A.M. subjects are so important for young women to pursue. Activities will include a visit to the Milford laboratories of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, hour of code challenge, lecture from a mathematics professor, and screening of the new film Hidden Figures.

The series is part of a greater initiative, driven at the national level by both universities and President Barack Obama, to bring more women — and particularly women of color — into fields traditionally dominated by men.

“You ladies are going to be the future of our cities ... Think about where technology is going to take us in your lifetime,” said Mayor Toni Harp (pictured), noting how small and accessible computers have become since she had been in college. “Will you be ready to live in that world? Will you be ready to work in that world? Well, you will be if you think about the importance of S.T.E.A.M.”

“Even when the world is against you and limits your progress, if you have strong skills, whatever those skills are, you can overcome,” she said, referencing N.A.S.A.‘s team of black female engineers featured in Hidden Figures. “If you work hard and you know more than everybody [on that subject], it doesn’t matter what your background is, it doesn’t matter whether or not you’re a woman or a man, people will use what you bring to the table. But you’ve got towork hard.” 

“You’ll go places with these skills,” added Patrice Antoine, a NWCB-NHV member.

That message stuck with several of the 35 young women who have come out for the event. Sitting with her mom and older sister at the end of one long table, seventh-grader Elizabeth Xicohtencatl clapped enthusiastically. An aspiring artist, detective and forensic scientist, she believes that the S.T.E.A.M. program will give her more confidence in her biology class, where tackling cellular development has thrown her for a loop.

“I’ll be learning things that I don’t learn in school,” she said. “That I want to get better at.”

That was also the case for India Osbia, who wants to become a dance choreographer but also wants a grounding in those core S.T.E.A.M. subjects to help her focus in school.

“It’s just not true that girls aren’t as good at some subjects,” she said. “And I think they really can run the world some day.”

Meanwhile, eighth-grader Dayanara Chacon said she’d been thrilled to be selected because all of the S.T.E.A.M. subjects — particularly math— will help her work toward her goal: becoming a civil rights lawyer in New Haven, where she can stand up for people “if I see their rights are being violated.”

“I just don’t think it’s right when people say girls aren’t as good at math and science,” she said. “Because we are! It’s wrong. I’m not saying guys are useless, but girls can do anything guys can.”

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