53 Creative New Yorkers: Teaching STEM Through Dance

Made with Paper by Joey Gao
Made with Paper by Joey Gao

Coming from a family of engineers, it was only natural for Yamilée Toussaint to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Upon graduating, however, she was struck by how few people like her, a woman of color, actually went on to pursue math and science-based careers. Wanting to discover the cause for this disparity, Yamilée joined Teach for America, leading her down a career path that diverged from most of her Ivy-educated peers: teaching high school algebra in an underserved community in East New York, Brooklyn.

Yamilée quickly realized that the biggest barrier for her students was a lack of confidence; they felt that they simply weren’t good at math. So, in exploring ways to shift this mindset, she turned to her lifelong passion–dance.

“Thinking without certainty is okay.”

In 2012, Yamilée launched the first iteration of STEM From Dance, a program designed to empower minority girls to pursue degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). By drawing parallels between dance choreography and the building blocks of computer code, complex science becomes demystified and tangible.

Girls work in teams to choreograph dances, which are set to digital backdrops that they program.The same testing methods and engineering design processes are applied to both the dance steps and codebases.

“Schools are often worksheet-driven, supplying guided questions that lead students to a general conclusion,” Yamilée says. “The students’ transition from ‘scaffolded thoughts’ to a blank canvas can be very challenging, but it’s amazing to see them grow into the idea that thinking without certainty is okay.”

Growing from an initial pilot program of eight students, STEM From Dance is planning to work with 150 girls across four high schools this fall, which means we’ll be seeing more graduating women engineers — with killer dance moves — in the near future.

Interviewed by Pavla Mikula