What 4 Years in FIRST Taught Me About Confidence, Leadership, and Finding Passion
Part 2: Being a (Female) Leader in STEM
Teaching students to be leaders is the most significant thing that FIRST does. In learning to be a leader on my team, I realized the strength and capability of a well-led group with a goal. I learned the necessity of integrity and the essential selflessness that holds a team together. Together, my team brainstormed, set big goals, and carried those goals to a completion that often astounded us with its swiftness and depth.
In the summer of 2014, our team created a new department that we summed up with the ambiguous heading “international relations.” The main goal for the department (which quickly became my department when leadership roles were assigned) was to carry out a STEM mission-- aka, carry out significant STEM outreach in an underprivileged, under-reached part of the world. We wanted to travel internationally within the next five years.
Exactly one summer later, nine students from Walton Robotics boarded a plane to Sao Paulo, en route to an underserved community in Pindamonhangaba, Brazil. Just one year after setting our five-year goal, we delivered a 5-day free STEM camp for 37 under-privileged children in Brazil. We had nurtured our idea, designed a challenging but sustainable STEM curriculum for young students, tested the camp projects ourselves, and formed a powerful partnership with one of our sponsors, Novelis, to help us navigate Brazil and fund the trip.
- Young girls don’t know not to be excited about STEM. The girls I taught in Brazil were smart and capable, just like the boys-- they fearlessly built towers out of marshmallows, took the lead on group circuit construction, and built matchhead rockets that flew better than my own. One girl I met at an outreach event built a killer slingshot rocket and told me about her idea to design rocket paints that can withstand the heat of takeoff. I was speechless.
- Older girls (in high school) tend to be more likely to say “I could never do that” than the boys when they see the robot. This needs to change.
- The FIRST experience for females is definitely mixed-- many of the girls I met are fearless leaders (one girl told me straight-up that “girls on our team don’t take crap from the boys”), while others feels restrained by the culture of “boys in the shop, girls in the office.” Although my team leadership board was 80% female last year, I remember my teammate telling me he wasn’t used to hearing a girl’s voice in the programming room when I was discussing my subsystem towards the start of build season.
- As a young female in STEM, connecting with other women with STEM interests is one of the best things you can do. GirlsFIRST is an easy way to do so! If you have interests in computing, also consider applying for the NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing-- the winners have access to an unparalleled community of inspiring, techy young ladies and professional women. Of course, FIRST Ladies is also proof of the power that a community of STEM-minded young ladies can have!
- FIRST builds plenty of capable female STEM leaders, including a lot of members of the FIRST Ladies community. We’re capable of catalyzing change-- you have the power to inspire young girls, serve as a role model, and effect change for a discrepancy that has every reason to be fixed.
There’s a lot to be done when it comes to balancing the gender ratio in STEM. But FIRST is providing a way to build communities of people driven to change the culture for women in tech and inspiring young women to become leaders in what they love, whether it’s in STEM or not, and that’s pretty awesome.