BWW Interview: Yamilée Toussaint of STEM from Dance
STEM from Dance (SFD) is a dance program that is designed to expose young girls of color to careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mechanics (also known as STEM). Since 2011, this organization is uniquely tackling issues of diversity by introducing females, minorities, and those from underrepresented communities to STEM college and career opportunities.
SFD was founded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduate Yamilée Toussaint. I had the opportunity to speak with Ms. Toussaint about the wonderful programs offered in dance and STEM.
Q: Can you tell me about your background in both dance and technology?
A: I've been dancing since I was young. Growing up, I studied a lot of different dance styles- ballet, tap, jazz, modern, African. My father is a mechanical engineer and my brother later went on to also become a mechanical engineer. That inspired me to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering which led me to attend MIT for college. And while I was in school, I continued dancing and was part of a dance group on campus.
Q: What is STEM from Dance and what is the goal of the program?
A: Through our partnerships with New York City schools, the goal is to introduce young Black and Latino girls to careers in STEM. This field tends to be very male and very White. I want to change the face of the next generation of scientists, engineers, and techies. The lack of diversity is not because of their unwillingness, but due to the lack of awareness and preparation for STEM careers in these communities.
I believe dance is a culturally-relevant way to reach people where they are. Music and dance is deeply woven into the fabric of minority communities. STEM tends to have the reputation of being unrelatable. Using dance as an entry point makes STEM more approachable. It is a way to introduce young girls to areas such as coding and robotics- something they may not typically opt-in to. It is also a method to help boost their self-confidence. Lack of courage tends to be another barrier that keeps females of color out of the STEM field.
Q: How did you come up with this idea?
A: At MIT, I studied engineering and algebra. I really wanted to increase diversity in the field, but realized I needed to help others build their self-confidence. When I thought back on my own life and how I became confident, the first thing I thought of was dance. I then began to ask the question "Is there a way to translate my experience from dance to prepare young girls of color to be college and career ready in STEM?"
Q: What is the program GIRLS RISE UP?
A: This is our new signature summer program. For two weeks, 50 girls will be able to deepen their knowledge of both STEM and dance while discovering the many ways they work together. The girls will create their own dances and integrate technology into their choreography. We also have special guests from the Illuminate Dance Company who are known for blending the two and will be teaching how they incorporate technology into their dances.
I really want to stretch these girls to do things they never have, while empowering and getting them excited about a future in STEM. This program is made possible by the Simons Foundation through their Science Sandbox initiative. We were also able to offer 75% of the participants scholarships.
Q: What about SFD are you proud of?
A: I continue to be amazed by the girls who come to love dance and engage in technology. I like helping them lean in and learn. I also enjoy seeing that "ah-ha" moment when they see the connection between the two fields. It feels good to see them being proud of their work and realizing they are capable of doing this.
Q: What does the future have in store for SFD?
A: My plan is to continue using this methodology of connecting dance and STEM. I want to bring this to more students and offer in-school residencies. I want to position ourselves as experts to diversify the STEM field. And I want to conduct research for others to learn about and access our approach.
To learn more about STEM from Dance and support their programs, please visit their website at www.stemfromdance.org.
Photo Credit: Damon Plant