A VISTA Perspective on the Power of Representation in STEM

By: Jessica Grant

VISTA Perspective
The unexpected chill of an early April morning greeted STEM Ambassadors Melanie and Ariel on their last day of presentations at Somerville High School. The early start time of 7:55 am translated into lethargic students slowly trickling into the fluorescently lit chemistry class. However, unlike previous classes this one was composed mainly of students in the Structured English Immersion (SEI) system. For many of the highly impressive students, English was their second, third (or even fourth) language; serving as a connection point for many of the 2016-17 STEM Ambassador cohort.

With a cohort comprising of 11 Ambassadors, all identify as first-generation college students with many being immigrants themselves or children of immigrants. Therefore, our classroom visits to Somerville - our community partner with the highest immigrant population - always elicited positive reactions from the high school students who were able to find close representation amongst the Ambassadors.

As the Ambassadors enthusiastically dove into their presentation "Surviving with Chemistry" - a talk that highlighted the importance for clean water globally and the need for developing water filtration systems - the surrounding atmosphere began to swell with energy. Although initially soliciting questions as a part of the presentation, the high school students quickly took interest and offered personal input. A few students relayed their experiences with water hygiene in their home countries, with many curious about the innovations being presented. At the culmination of the talk, students broke off into smaller groups and focused on creating their own water filtration contraptions using an assortment of sand, soil, iron filings, gravel and coffee strainers to purify the muddy water given to them. Despite the delayed start, the class immersed into the project and quickly began competing with one another to see which group would produce the clearest water.

As the Ambassadors circulated and offered suggestions for improving the filters, conversations ranged from the effectiveness of such filters to origin countries and the college process. While moving amongst the groups, I heard many of the same questions and comments that remained consistent throughout our semester-visits to all three of our partner schools:

  • "How did you get to go to a school like Tufts?"
  • "I've never seen someone who looks like me studying engineering."
  • "What country are you from?"

Such inquisition throughout the year provided the STEM Ambassadors windows of opportunity to share their personal journeys while highlighting the ever-present need for inclusive representation in the STEM fields.

As a MACC AmeriCorps VISTA serving at Tufts University in partnership with the Center for STEM Diversity and Tisch College of Civic Life, I have been afforded the opportunity to take on both an "inside" and "outside" perspective on the STEM Ambassador program. My year of involvement has given me a snapshot of the growth and impact of a program three years in the making while contributing to its overall mission and vision.

One of the greatest takeaways from my year of service was reaffirmed during that 7:55 am Chemistry class: Inclusive representation in STEM is powerful and immensely important. In an era of increased diversity efforts by institutions of higher education, centering students existing in the margins paves pathways for greater equity. Inclusive representation in the STEM fields allows for:

  1. Normalization: Representation in STEM expands the narrative to include groups and populations that have been systematically underrepresented and left out of the field.
  2. All-around Empowerment: Representation in STEM especially empowers students from marginalized backgrounds by uplifting their voices and stories.
  3. Connectivity: Representation in STEM increases personal connection to academic material and builds bridges amongst groups systemically left out.
  4. Inspiration: Representation in STEM should inspire us to seize and celebrate opportunities for increasing access and equity.

The STEM Ambassador program - although still developing - has provided a tangible example of the dual (personal and communal) effects that can result from deliberate inclusion and representation in the STEM fields./p>