STEM: Students tackle empowering minorities

This is an illustration of a green beaker.

Imagine walking into a class that you’re already worried about because of its rigor and realizing that none of your classmates look like you. You have a different gender, skin color or identity from everyone else. You might feel alone, alienated and ultimately disadvantaged. 

For many minority students striving to excel in higher-level STEM classes, this is the unfortunate reality. Gender inequality in education is an age-old dilemma, especially in the STEM field. 

Hema Roychowdhury, a VHHS AP Physics teacher, described what generally goes through a student’s head when they realize they are in the minority.                                                                           

“You walk into a space where you are not represented enough, and the first question that comes to you is whether you belong there because if others like you are not there, then maybe you’re not supposed to be there. And a lot of times, that adds an extra layer of stress,” said Roychowdhury.

Dasha Lukinova (12) is a student at VHHS who can attest to this stress, as she was the only girl in her AP Physics C class of 17 people this year.

“[Being the minority] was kind of stressful. I feel like there weren’t many people to turn to for help, it was just a secluded type of environment,” Dasha said.

Shannon Garcia, one of VHHS’s counselors who analyzes enrollment data, observed a similar experience in an AP Computer Science A class she observed, in which there were only two girls.

According to Garcia, AP Physics C and AP Computer Science A are typically the two STEM classes that have lower female enrollment each year. Other math and science classes were generally more equal in gender. 

She noted one girl who commented that it was difficult for her to participate in the class because it was male-dominated.

“It was not for lack of the teacher being fair or equitable, but it was really more like she didn’t feel as though she could speak up and use her voice the same way that her male counterparts did,” Garcia said.

Classes that inhibit a sense of belonging can often cause a troubling pressure to succeed and poor performance in students, according to Roychowdhury. It’s difficult to be successful in a class where the anxiety of confirming a negative stereotype hinders your ability to perform. 

This “stereotype threat” amplifies the small mistakes because there aren’t people who look like you in the same environment making those same mistakes.

“I have definitely had multiple conversations with students who are one of two girls in a class that’s primarily male, and they will want to drop the class because they are afraid to open up their mouth because if they say something wrong, they feel like it’s it reflects on the entire female community,” Garcia said.

Normal procedures in other classes become stressful ones in the STEM classroom because of a lack of diversity, according to Lukinova.

“[Group activities] mostly ended up with me pursuing individual work or just kind of being forcibly paired up with someone by the teacher,” said Lukinova about her experience in physics.

Roychowdhury noticed concerns over gender inequity have been increasingly relevant in the classroom, which inspired her to be proactive about her own responsibilities. She gave her insight on how she supports students struggling with gender isolation.

“I am extra mindful of having those conversations [about belonging] with students at the very beginning of the year, and I’m extra mindful about spotting if they’re struggling and providing help,” she said. 

Adam Lueken, a Computer Science teacher and the VHHS adviser of Girls Who Code, said there needs to be actionable programs to influence diversity in STEM. He encourages female students to seek out STEM opportunities in order to normalize a balance of gender.

According to Garcia, many competitive clubs struggle with gender equity likewise to STEM classes. She seconds the idea of encouraging affinity programs like Girls Who Code to normalize diversity in club participation.

“It’s a cool way to get more students involved who may otherwise not go because then they’ve got more peer connections and they feel more heard. And if we start doing that more intentionally, I can see [club participation] becoming more reflective of what our courses are like,” Garcia said.

Lueken said the hurtful gender stereotype that girls have to be perfect contributes to the lack of STEM participation. 

The pressure of expectations makes it difficult for girls to picture success in the STEM field. He also said that he notices an institutionalized confidence in male students in his classes that females lack because of the unjustified imperative of perfection. 

“A lot of girls say ‘I’m horrible at [coding],’ but they’re actually phenomenal,” he said. “They might make one small mistake and get a 98 on the test, even though this other guy got a 72. And a lot of the 72 kids go on to become software engineers. There’s a lot of females who could’ve easily continued in technology. But a lot of them don’t because they think they’re not good at it.”

Lueken counters the stereotype by endorsing the idea of being “brave, not perfect,” quoting the founder of Girls Who Code, Reshma Saujani. With this idea in mind, girls struggling with gender isolation can explore STEM for the sake of their own goals rather than for others expectations. Lueken said the nature of STEM classes like computer science coincides with this motto and can guide students to success. 

“That’s the thing about technology, it’s much more focused on experimenting, especially coding. Computer science has a million different ways to solve a problem, and whatever works, works. If it doesn’t work, don’t be afraid of it not working, just learn from it and build on it,” he said. 

Roychowdhury stated that the struggle of gender inequity for females is a universal expereince that can be applied to others dealing with similar forms of discrimination.

“It’s not just girls. Certain professions currently have a propensity of more females or more males, and you could be that male in a predominantly female class,” said Roychowdhury. “You could be a person of color in a class with primarily white students, you could be the only Asian in a sport that is predominantly white.”

Speaking from experience, Roychowdhury emphasized that being the only one who looks like you in a class is in no way an accurate depiction of your capability or intelligence. She shared how important it is for minorities to remember that isolation is not something to be crushed by, but rather an experience to learn from and build success off of.

“I think it’s important that we talk about what the stereotype threat does and what the research says behind it, so that you have a framework to understand the isolation that you might feel at times,” she said. 

Lukinova also encourages fellow students to stay vigilant and determined under bleak circumstances.

“Don’t step down and don’t let your worth or what you think you know be determined by others. Just have confidence in yourself because that’s the best thing to do for you,” she said. 

This year, there are six female students taking Woodworking, a class that, at times, has had zero females. Mr. Lueken also noted that there has been a decent increase in female students taking computer science classes over the years. 

“When you find yourself in a space of isolation, seek help, but also realize that your being there as the only person of your representative group does not guarantee your failure. Success can still be found in those spaces,” said Dr. Roychowdhury.


Dr Roychowdhury’s Story

“I started at a very prestigious Ph. D. program in India, and I quit the program, even though I was one of 12 people out of 6,000 applicants who were admitted to it, because I was the only girl in that cohort of 12 students. And that failure has kind of stayed with me. But now I have a framework to think about that failure. I was the only girl, I did not have any female professors, I had nobody to talk to about it. When I felt isolated, I did not know why I felt isolated, so I attributed it to being not smart enough. And now I know that that is not true. But it took me a very long time to understand why I felt this way when I had crossed so many hurdles and hours of testing to be chosen for that program.”