November 26, 2017

A Mother’s Journey: The tipping point

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Giselle Rivera-Flores / For Worcester Sun

Getting more young girls and students from different backgrounds into STEM and STEAM classes is essential.

Editor’s note: Since September 2015, Worcester Sun has chronicled the trials and triumphs of Sun contributor Giselle Rivera-Flores as she explores ways to help her daughter and other Worcester families find affordable educational support and assistance. We used to describe her as an aspiring business owner; now, she’s an inspiring one. During her journey to establish and grow her nonprofit tutoring collaborative she has, you could say, stepped beyond the walls of her dream.

Giselle Rivera-Flores

In his debut book “The Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell wrote: “In the late 1960s, a television producer named Joan Ganz Cooney set out to start an epidemic. Her target was three-, four-, and five-year-olds. Her agent of infection was television, and the ‘virus’ she wanted to spread was literacy. The show would last an hour and run five days a week, and the hope was that if that hour was contagious enough it could serve as an educational Tipping Point: giving children from disadvantaged homes a leg up once they began elementary school, spreading pro-learning values from watchers to non-watchers, infecting children and their parents, and lingering long enough to have an impact well after the children stopped watching the show. … She called her idea ‘Sesame Street.’ ”

Gladwell calls this the stickiness factor. In discovering that making “small but critical adjustments in how they presented ideas to preschoolers,” Malcolm wrote, “they could overcome television’s weakness as a teaching tool and make what they had to say memorable.”

In concept, I, too, look to produce such an epidemic of proportionate educational value that the children who attend The Learning Hub will generate a level of stickiness for us, so that we start to discuss more serious methods of how we teach our children in our public schools. We want them to have a leg up as they make their way through the winding paths of what is our current school system.

But as many parents like me believe, the current school system is not up to par, and with that void in the market, the Hub’s stickiness factor can be a bit more contagious.

Read Giselle’s previous chapter, The shape of the city, or scroll down to explore more of her story.

During the Massachusetts STEM Summit held at the DCU Center, our good friends from the Worcester Public Library shared with us some valuable insight from Yvonne Spicer, mayor-elect of Framingham, vice president of Advocacy & Educational Partnerships, and director of the National Center for Technological Literacy at the Museum of Science in Boston. (Spicer is also a longtime member of the governor’s Massachusetts STEM Advisory Council.)

They shared, “Dr. Spicer advocates for raising the bar in STEM education, particularly for girls and for people of color. If we embolden our youth to follow their curiosities; if we break the stereotype that STEM jobs are reserved for white men (or for the nerds!), we can build the pipeline for STEM careers.”

While the visual landscape of STEM positions offers an ugly view of an industry predominantly filled with white men, the actual statistics behind how young girls view their potential are truly frightening. Currently, 57 percent of girls aged 14-17 believe they’d have to work harder than men to be taken seriously in a STEM career. And they aren’t wrong.

According to the National Girls Collaborative Project, women make up half of the U.S. college-educated workforce, but only 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce. Furthermore, female scientists and engineers are concentrated in different occupations than are men, with relatively high shares of women in social sciences (62 percent) and biological, agricultural, and environmental life sciences (48 percent); and relatively low shares in engineering (15 percent) and computer and mathematical sciences (25 percent). Minority women comprised fewer than 1 in 10 employed scientists and engineers.

If the statistics weren’t frustrating enough, I spoke to a few of my students and what they had to say was right in line with the numbers.

I surveyed some of the young girls who attend our Learning Hub classes at local libraries, and while they are all engaged during class time, they felt that the overall option of attending a STEM/STEAM-oriented university and landing a position within the field was out of reach. (The “A” in STEAM adds arts to the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math.)

One 11-year-old said, “I love coming here because we learn things that I would never learn in school. I love all of the tech stuff you show us, and I like the art part of class, but I don’t think that I will become an engineer, scientist or artist.”

When I asked why, she said, “because it costs money to go to college.”

Furthering the conversation to understand what her life goals were – a question that can scare off anyone of any age – I learned that she was, in fact, interested in going into science, but she felt that was a job for a man and more specifically a white man.

In another conversation with another student, a 10-year-old, I learned she had not had the opportunity to really think about the future because she struggled in school with math. She was told that she would not do well in school and not be able to attend college because she was behind in math. She was told this by her schoolteacher a few years ago.

More recent entries from Giselle:

While we – I say “we” as in those who believe in STEM education for all – want to implement more STEM/STEAM learning throughout our schools and educational institutions, we must first look at the outside factors.

Yes, the public school system lacks ideal funding, staffing and, at times, creative ingenuity, but there are also various other factors that make it difficult to increase engagement from the minority and female population.

For us to obtain that stickiness factor that Gladwell writes about, we must first learn to educate our audience on why they need STEM/STEAM learning. We must break through the notion that STEM/STEAM learning is a luxury rather than a necessity, and we must be inclusive and offer our services throughout various outlets. Offering STEM classes in an affluent town, public school or community is an easy sell, but that just feeds more into the statistics of leaving out women and minorities.

The Learning Hub has faced many changes this year. We have increased our library affiliates, expanded our program to increase awareness of past and present STEM women and minority leaders, and have parted ways with affiliates who are not invested in STEM education.

This isn’t a fad. This is a life-changing opportunity.

But if we don’t make it accessible, then we are already losing that stickiness we need to make women, young girls and minorities believe that they can achieve beyond their given circumstances.

Follow Giselle’s inspiring story from the beginning:

Part 1 — The Brooklyn trip

Part 2 — The playbook

Part 3 — The space race

Part 4 — The unsettling score

Part 5 — The point of no return

Part 6 — The poetry of motion

Part 7 — The keys to success

Part 8 — The stumbling block

Part 9 — The Learning Hubby

Part 10 — The next breath

Part 11 — The imperfect storm

Part 12 — The defining moment

Part 13 — The balancing act

Part 14 — The right turn on Pleasant?

Part 15 — The exploration within

Part 16 — The long way home

Part 17 — The road to empowerment

Part 18 — The new direction

Part 19 — The social club

Part 20 — The way forward

Part 21 — The momentum conundrum

Part 22 — The Pleasant Street exit

Part 23 — The stemming of the tide

Part 24 — The starting line, finally

Part 25 — The full head of steam

Part 26 — The kernels of wisdom

Part 27 — The Book of Hub

Part 28 — The great debate

Part 29 The girls are all right

Part 30 — The movement keeps moving

Part 31 — The picture of serenity?

Part 32 — The network effect

Part 33 — The original Woopreneur

Part 34 — The gift of reflection

Part 35 — The resolution revolution

Part 36 — The model students

Part 37 — The growing pains

Part 38 — The time trials

Part 39 — The parent trap

Part 40 — The stress test

Part 41 — The place to start?

Part 42 — The accidental perspective

Part 43 — The road less traveled

Part 44 — The one dedicated to mom

Part 45 — The collaboration realization

Part 46 — The business of growing up

Part 47 — The new home frame of mind

Part 48 — The look of leadership

Part 49 — The inner-city detour

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