The Educational Innovation Abie Award in Honor of A. Richard Newton recognizes educators for developing innovative teaching practices and approaches that attract female students to computing, engineering, and math in K-12 or undergraduate education. This year’s winner is Yamilée Toussaint Beach, Founder and CEO of STEM From Dance (SFD).
Yamilée harnesses the power of dance to inspire and support young women of color from low-income backgrounds to develop the confidence, skills, and awareness necessary to obtain STEM degrees. She launched the organization in 2012, using seed funding won from Teach For America’s Social Innovation Award. Since then, SFD has partnered with over 25 schools and community centers, serving over 400 girls.
We spoke with Yamilée about the inspiration behind SFD and why she believes “all STEM professionals should dance.”
What first sparked your interest in technology?
My involvement with technology started when I was a young girl. Both of my parents have STEM-related jobs. I remember going to work with my father, a mechanical engineer, who works at a company that designs and manufactures light fixtures. He had these CAD drawings all over his desk. On a computer screen, he showed me how you could model what a part would look like. I think that’s one of my earliest memories with technology: not just using it, but seeing how it’s made.
What was your STEM experience like in college?
Studying mechanical engineering at MIT was one of the most rigorous experiences that I have had in life. It gave me an opportunity to have high expectations of what I can do and see myself rise and meet them. I was not loving every day of classes, homework, tests, and late nights. But, in hindsight, I’m grateful for what the experience did for how I work, think, see, and solve problems. It was a life changing.
As a woman of color, what challenges did you face when entering the tech field? How did you find support?
When I graduated, I was one of two black women in the mechanical engineering department. I would have moments when I would look around the classroom and see that I was one of the few. I think it wore on me a bit and introduced some doubt. I’d wonder, “Do I have what it takes to persist and to make it to the end?”
I was in a dance group where I spent a lot of time. I could go at the end of the day to a dance practice and connect with people as fellow humans, not people trying to pass classes, but just as people trying to live.
I think that was a big part of being able to find joy in the mist of all that was happening academically. It was having that support and camaraderie with people who love to dance, and who were also women of color. I know that was a big part of what got me through.
What inspired you to found STEM From Dance (SFD)?
When I was at MIT, the percentage of people, especially women of color, made me really curious. What was it about my own life experience and circumstances that allowed me to make it to that point and others didn’t? That curiosity led me to become an algebra high school teacher in New York City, to find out what’s happening at that point of the pipeline.
I saw that mindset is such a huge determiner of success. If we think that we can do well in math, we’re more likely to do well in math. Some of my students didn’t think that they could do well, largely because they didn’t begin with a great math education. As a teacher, I asked myself, “How can I get them to try?” That’s what got me thinking about dance and the role that dance could play.
A lot of young girls like to dance, so we’re using something that they are familiar with to introduce them to this world that may be intimidating or unfamiliar. There is something that dance sort of naturally does, where it creates an atmosphere that’s warm, that’s fun, that’s freeing. Those are the things that we need in our STEM classrooms. We need students to lower their fears and their concerns and get past their previous experiences.
What does SFD offer students?
We serve girls of color in New York City who are in middle and high school, students least likely to take on a STEM career. When they join STEM From Dance, they get the opportunity to work with our team over the course of the school year or in our summer program. Through the process of creating a dance performance, which requires a sense of authority and ownership for coming up with an idea and executing it, students become empowered through leadership.
They also learn how to incorporate technology in some way. That can include lights on their costumes or a projection on the stage that moves when they move. They learn the code behind their project and make choreography that compliments what they’re coding, so that it’s not just two things laid on top of each other. It connects these two worlds that mutually benefit each other.
We use dance to teach STEM concepts, especially those that are more challenging to understand. For example, in programming, we teach our students about loops. The syntax can be kind of confusing, so we created a dance activity where they get to embody what a loop is doing. That way when they’re sitting down at their computers, they have a conceptual understanding of what they’re programming.
What sort of an impact has SFD made so far?
We work with schools and nonprofit organizations in New York City. Over the summer, we have a program called Girls Rise Up. We have brought our workshops to Australia and to Canada, and we’re looking to bring our programming to other parts of the country. We’re working on a partnership with Columbia, so the possibilities are endless.
During our in-school residencies, students don’t pay a penny to participate. We provide that through funding. Over the summer, we have a registration fee, but that’s waived for about 90% of the students who join us.
Beyond that, we want our students to have more experiences in STEM, like go to a hackathon or take an AP science course. We can help them and connect them to different opportunities so that they can go on to great heights.
Why do you think women continue to remain underrepresented in tech?
I think the source of the disparity of women in STEM is due to some of the messages that we give and share with women, especially girls. I also think that technology and STEM fields have a reputation of being kind of boring, nerdy, and stuffy and students don’t know how it applies to the real world.
Through dance, we get to shake up the expectation of who a programmer is. We also bring women from STEM fields to meet our girls so they can hear about the work that they do. I think that’s so impactful, because these women that we bring in represent many different areas in STEM. We’re giving our students these examples of amazing women who demonstrate day by day that you can use tech for good.
What advice do you have for women in tech or those interested in entering the STEM fields?
I think all STEM professionals should dance. There’s just so much that you can take away from dance very directly. I think the way that you think as a dancer and as a choreographer is similar to how you think as an engineer and scientist, and so on. I think the way that you create, build, envision, and collaborate is all very transferable.
Meet Yamilée at GHC 19 during our Speaker’s Corner session, Thursday, October 3, 1—1:45 p.m., AnitaB.org booth.
See Yamilée’s session “Making STEM Education Accessible Through the Immersion of Dance” on Thursday, October 3, 9:45—10:45 a.m., OCCC W300.