Program encourages inclusive learning experiences for women of color in STEM

A program that provides women of color in STEM with a space to discuss common issues about race and gender recently marked another successful semester at Indiana University Bloomington.

The I Can Persist STEM initiative advances persistence among girls and women of color in the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics through a multigenerational network of peers and professionals, as well as activities focused on career preparedness.

A doctoral candidate helps a high school student with a math weaving activity. View print quality image
Naomi Thompson, left, a doctoral candidate in learning sciences in the IU School of Education, demonstrates techniques for a math weaving workshop for Grace Atilola, a junior at Ben Davis High School. Photo by Eric Rudd, Indiana University

"After interviewing more than 100 graduate women of color in STEM nationwide, I heard a shared theme among the participants: the need for a space that mitigated the feelings of isolation and de-legitimization they experienced in their labs, classrooms and departments," said Kerrie Wilkins-Yel, an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Education Psychology at the IU School of Education and founding director of the initiative.

Most recently, in April, the program hosted a STEM Day for high school girls of color, who participated in STEM activities led by IU graduate and undergraduate women of color. Fourteen high school students from Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis and 25 students from IU participated in the event at the School of Education in Bloomington.

Established in 2017, I Can Persist is run by an interdisciplinary leadership team composed of Wilkins-Yel and several graduate students who are passionate about advancing women of color in STEM. The group designed the program to focus on four main components: academic success, career and professional development, social change and engagement in science, and technology communication.

"The initiative is a yearlong program that consists of weekly seminars for undergraduates and graduate students," Wilkins-Yel said. "In those classes, we focus on career and leadership development, science and tech communication, as well as strategies to navigate chilly STEM climates."

Along with these seminars, the program offers IU Bloomington students the opportunity to meet with STEM professionals during monthly Sunday dinners to discuss topics such as cultivating resilience, navigating micro-aggressions and rebounding from failures.

A high school sophomore works on a math weaving activityView print quality image
Sameeya Adams, a sophomore at Ben Davis High School, works on the math weaving activity. Photo courtesy of Eric Rudd, Indiana University

Undergraduate participants can also shadow professionals at Baxter Healthcare Pharmaceutical and Cook Medical in Bloomington to get hands-on experiences in the professional world.

"Getting to experience a day in the life of a STEM professional is an extremely helpful career exploratory activity," Wilkins-Yel said. "It helps in clarifying and even solidifying their decision that this is the right field for them."

In addition to introducing high school students to STEM and providing a professional network for graduate and undergraduate students, the program provides a community to members who are often the only women of color in their college classes.

"It is important to affirm students' belongingness to STEM and their capability for success," she added. "This foundation is what I want our ICP students to have."

The program also advances members' science and tech communication skills. Students learn to translate their classroom knowledge into experiential STEM activities, such as the activities with students from Ben Davis High School.

Wilkins-Yel said the program is also multigenerational. The high school students look up to the undergraduate students, the undergraduate students work with the graduate students, and both the graduate and undergraduate students learn from the professionals. The result is an all-around visible representation of successful women of color in STEM -- a representation that is often lacking in these spaces.

"For the future, we want to continue growing the program to meet the needs of women and girls of color in STEM," Wilkins-Yel said. "Overall, we want to broaden STEM participation by advancing STEM persistence among women and girls of color across high school, undergraduate, graduate and professional settings."