Yamilée Toussaint thinks she might have answer to help young women push through the difficulties of thriving in the world of STEM: dance.
Toussaint is the founder of STEM from Dance, a New York City-based nonprofit that uses dance to support middle- and high-school girls in science, technology, engineering and math. Girls in the program work together to choreograph a dance and use computer coding to synchronize digital visuals. The process builds confidence, teaches STEM skills as well as problem solving and collaboration, and helps the girls support each other, Toussaint says.
Toussaint has danced all her life. She graduated from MIT in mechanical engineering and then taught in a city school for two years for Teach for America. In college, she felt like a rare bird – a young woman of color in a STEM world.
“In college I started to wonder why there were so few women and so few women of color going in this direction,” she says. “When I was teaching high school, I began to see the answer to some of those questions.”
She noticed trends born out by statistics: Even if girls are interested in STEM in middle school, they start to drift away by high school. Many of her students weren’t academically prepared to handle high school math, and even if they were, didn’t have the confidence or the encouragement to push themselves into AP classes. Her ah-ha moment was realizing that her own interests – STEM, dance, teaching – had more power if combined.
“It became clear that all those interests have a way of coming together to bring about good,” she says. “I thought, maybe they don’t conflict. That’s when I started to think more about the impact dance has on academics. Dance builds confidence and the girls need confidence.”
Now, STEM from Dance is in its third year and has programs in up to six schools at a time. Next year, Toussaint hopes to be in 20 schools. In July, there will be a two-week summer day program in Manhattan open to 20 young women. (Preregister by April 29 if interested.) There are no minimum requirements for dance or STEM abilities. Toussaint is hoping to attract young women of all backgrounds since, as she says, “when you have a diverse team, you have the best outcome.”
“I’m just looking for girls who are curious,” she says.