Representation matters: tackling STEM inequality

AI4ALL Team
Jan 19, 2018 · 6 min read

Guest post by Archika Dogra, Stanford AI4ALL ’17 (formerly SAILORS)

AI4ALL Editor’s note: Meet Archika Dogra, a 2017 Stanford AI4ALL (formerly SAILORS) alumna. Below, Archika shares a striking story about discovering first-hand how unconscious bias can impact the participation of underrepresented people in STEM.

If there’s one thing I remember last summer, it was a distinct moment sitting on the floor of my local elementary school’s library. Surrounding me was an eager group of elementary schoolers, squirming and fidgeting in anticipation for that day’s activity. It was the EduSTEM Summer Enrichment, my initiative’s first STEM summer camp for underrepresented minorities. On that day, I had decided to start off the activities with something different.

From the projector, I displayed an image of three men sitting around a computer. The kids focused their attention on the screen, trying to decipher the meaning behind the photo.

After giving them a few seconds to observe the image, I asked, “What do you think the men are doing in this picture?” It didn’t take them long to shoot their hands into the air.

“They’re designing a website!” “Making an app!” “Are they programming?”

After hearing a few responses, I pulled up a very similar picture. But this time, the men were replaced with women.

“How about these people? What are they doing?” I asked. Again, I was flooded with quick instinctual responses — many that surprised me.

“Online shopping?” “Searching for furniture?” “She’s on a dating website!”

While we did get a couple good laughs out of some of the more imaginative speculations, there was no subtlety within the nature of their overall responses. According to the elementary school students, the men were supposed to be the ones programming away, while the women were more likely to be browsing the online fashion catalogues.

STEM inequality isn’t just a numbers problem, but innocent, unconscious gender and racial biases can fuel unwelcoming environments that minorities often perceive when considering STEM. At an early age, just like these kids, I learned to determine what I was and wasn’t meant to do from the environment around me.

Walking into my first computer science camp, I was one of two females in a class of thirty and was completely new to programming — two things that proved to be a problematic combination. After spending two weeks programming a car racing game that I frankly had no interest in ever playing, my first taste of CS was rather discouraging. The only friend I made was the one other girl and on top of that, I had little to no personal investment in my work.

All of a sudden I didn’t see a place for myself in the field of STEM, which had initially seemed incredibly fascinating and applicable to me. I tried to get more involved in STEM in different ways, such as trying new camps, joining STEM clubs, and volunteering to teach STEM to kids, but I never could rekindle the same curiosity I had before. However, applying for Stanford AI4ALL (formerly SAILORS) in 2017 was a life-changing decision resulting in life-long memories, relationships, and lessons. I got to research a project that I actually cared about, spend two weeks with other supportive and inspiring females, and mold relationships with my mentors that I’ll remember for a lifetime.

Stanford AI4ALL didn’t just teach me that the power of AI was at my fingertips, but that the ability to make a bigger impact in my community was right in front of me.

During my time in the Bay Area, I learned of the numerous opportunities available for women and minorities in STEM, something that I saw lacking in my Seattle-area hometown. I felt that I had to bring these opportunities back to my community and resolved that I would try to help others find the same passion for STEM that I did.

Ever since I came back from Stanford AI4ALL, I’ve felt an emerging passion to reach out to underrepresented people and try to give them the same pivotal experience that Stanford AI4ALL gave to me. The EduSTEM Initiative, a community project I started with a few friends, turned into so much more. So far, we’ve partnered with a local community center to reach out to lower-income groups, who may not normally have the resources equivalent to their classmates, through camps and workshops. We are also excited to have held our first all-girls STEM day on January 15 through a Youth Service America & Disney grant we won in the fall of 2017. I’ve found so much joy in working with kids on STEM, I now spend my Monday afternoons giving back to my former elementary school by teaching the girls there computer science through Scratch, BitsBox, MadewithCode, and more.

Through my efforts and outreach, I really have one goal in mind. At the end of the day I want to ultimately to be able to put up the same picture — three women working on a computer — and receive a much different response.

About EduSTEM + how to get involved

The EduSTEM Initiative is a STEM outreach initiative founded in Bellevue, WA to reach out to young, underrepresented minorities in STEM including women, low-income groups, and racial minorities. EduSTEM has held over 20 workshops and summer camps at community outreach center Jubilee REACH on Wednesday mornings since their launch in the beginning of 2017. EduSTEM held their first free all-girls workshop on January 15th focusing on robotics, coding, and lab sciences. They are proud to provide these workshops and lessons as a 2017 Disney Be Inspired grant winner.

To get involved with EduSTEM, check out the website where you can donate to their GoFundMe campaign or apply to start an EduSTEM chapter in your own area. To learn more, get in touch on Facebook or by email at edusteminitiative@gmail.com.

About Archika Dogra

Archika is a sophomore at Interlake High School in Bellevue, Washington. She is the founder and president of Technology Student Association at her school, and is involved in various other STEM clubs. Along with AI, Archika is also interested in biological research and writing. Last summer, she presented her first prize scientific journalism project about antibiotic technologies during the Northwest Biomedical Association for Research 2017 Gala. In her free time, she loves playing with dogs, playing softball, and exploring the beautiful Pacific Northwest!

AI4ALL

AI4ALL is a nonprofit working to increase diversity and inclusion in artificial intelligence. Our vision is for AI to be developed by a broad group of thinkers and doers advancing AI for humanity's benefit.

AI4ALL Team

Written by

AI4ALL is a US nonprofit working to increase diversity and inclusion in artificial intelligence.

AI4ALL

AI4ALL

AI4ALL is a nonprofit working to increase diversity and inclusion in artificial intelligence. Our vision is for AI to be developed by a broad group of thinkers and doers advancing AI for humanity's benefit.

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