“Seeing yourself” in STEM Week 2019: Embracing diversity in STEM fields

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito spoke to high schoolers from the MetroWest area about the importance of STEM careers Oct. 23. (Nadira Wicaksana / THE GATEPOST)

By Leighah Beausoleil

Asst. News Editor

Over 100 events were held by the MetroWest STEM Education Network (MSEN) for the second annual Massachusetts STEM Week beginning Oct. 18.

MSEN is “one of nine Regional STEM Networks charged by the Massachusetts STEM Advisory Council to coordinate the implementation of Mass STEM Week 2019,” according to the MSEN website. 

In an interview, Irene Porro, director at McAuliffe Center for integrated science learning, said FSU is the hub of MSEN and serves as a host for several of the events that take place during STEM Week. 

“Because [MSEN] is based at FSU, without FSU, [MSEN] couldn’t do its work,” Porro said.

The events held during STEM Week focus on areas of celebration, awareness, exploration, and immersion. 

One of the events held during this year’s STEM Week was the McAuliffe Center’s open house at which the University showcased its 3D replica statue of Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 spacesuit, donated by the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

Other events held this year include shows at the McAuliffe Center’s planetarium, presentations at the Boston Museum of Science, and activities held at various elementary, middle, and high schools in the MetroWest area.

The theme for this year’s STEM Week was, “See Yourself in STEM,” according to the MSEN website.

“I was very pleased that this was the theme,” Porro said. “It is very important for two reasons.”

She said one reason is to encourage each person in STEM fields, regardless of “historical participation of both your cultural and racial group.

“Everyone belongs in STEM if they wish to be a part,” she said.

Porro said the second reason is the diversity of STEM disciplines themselves. 

She said, “We often talk about how you cannot be a scientist or engineer if you’re not creative.

“We forget to remind people that,” she added.

Porro explained, “There are a lot of different skills that are involved in what we call STEM disciplines or STEM professions.” 

People can embrace their creative sides within the STEM field through the diversity of jobs that require multiple skills sets, she said.

Events at FSU demonstrated the importance of this theme through the diversity of the students involved in their mentorship program, Porro said.

“We have about 60 high school students in the mentorship program from Marlborough, Framingham, and Milford, and the group was extremely diverse.”

Porro said the group represented both male and female students, students of color, as well as immigrants.

“I am an immigrant, and I was sitting at a table with two girls who were also immigrants. We were able to share not just our passion for STEM, but also the fact that we were able to translate things in multiple languages,” she said.

According to the MSEN website, the “See Yourself in STEM – High School-to-College-to-Career Mentorship program” is an initiative that “will provide interactive monthly mentoring experiences during the 2019-20 academic year with college students and industry STEM professionals. 

“The mentorship program is designed to highlight the STEM skills needed to think, communicate, and contribute value in any work environment,” the website explained.

Porro said the STEM professionals involved in the week’s events were not only diverse in gender and race, but “were proposing jobs that are not the ones kids usually think about when they think about STEM.

“For example, we had a person from the Department of Public Works here in Framingham,” Porro said. “She is an engineer, but is working on how you control storm waters so that you don’t have flooding, and of course, that’s a STEM job, but it is not the typical job that people talk about.”

Porro said the most important part of STEM Week is “both reminding ourselves that we are doing something important, but also that we can do more.”

Porro said she would like to think of STEM Week not only as a “current moment of celebration,” but also a “start to new initiatives.” 

She added she would like to see STEM Week as “a starting point of something that lasts in the future,” such as the mentorship program.

STEM Week is not only geared toward K-12, but University students as well, including those who are not STEM majors, Porro said. 

“That’s something we also need to work more on,” she added.

“I think STEM Week should also be a lot about making STEM accessible to all, so that all can be comfortable with [STEM],” she said. 

Porro said she would like to see more professors getting involved in STEM Week. 

“They could reach out to us at [MSEN] and we can tell them there are many schools that would be interested in having representatives from FSU, not just the faculty, but the students as well, to go into activities there,” she said.

“I think sometimes, it is difficult for faculty to get engaged in yet another initiative. You know there are so many things, but what the [MSEN] is really about is facilitating the coordination of these activities,” Porro said.

Porro also wants to encourage students to come to upcoming STEM events, including “Sustainable Space, Sustainable Earth: From Ideas to Action.” 

This event will be held Friday, Dec. 6, 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., in the McCarthy Center Forum. It will highlight the ways people can “maximize the effectiveness of using space for addressing global challenges.”

Porro explained the speakers present will be from multiple disciplines, including law, history, policy, and ethics.