September 23, 2014

Bridging the STEM Divide

By Aubtin Heydari

On Saturday Sept. 13, the Division of Animation and Digital Arts (DADA) participated in the Bridging the STEM Divide conference at the Stauffer Science Lecture Hall. Over 100 local high school students attended the event, which was focused on exposing students of color to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) both as academic disciplines and also as career paths.

This daylong conference started off with a keynote address from Dr. Clifford Johnson of the USC Physics department. Johnson, who has collaborated Animation program since 2011, said improved science literacy benefited everyone. “It is important for a stronger and more democratic society as scientific decisions that affect us all should be participated in by all,” he said.

Two workshop sessions followed the keynote, with each split into three areas: Women of Color, First Generation College Students, and STEM careers. The workshops were aimed at demystifying the STEM fields, and bridging the gap that creates massive disparities in representation for people of color in the professions they support.

Research suggests a major contributor to that disparity is public attitudes and culture. “People have a perception that STEM is not for people of color, that somehow there is maybe a lack of ability or interest in it, or both. It even makes people of color think that this is the case. It creates an environment that is hard for people of color to work in,” Johnson said. “Doing well in a subject is hard enough, doing it while people around you (maybe even your friends at school or family) think that it is not for you is even harder.”

The Bridging the STEM Divide conference, which was initially conceived by Sikivu Hutchinson of the Women's Leadership Project and the L.A. County Human Relations Commission, and Ramon Chairez of the Level Playing Field Institute (LPFI), is part of a series of similar immersion programs at USC, UCLA and UC Berkeley. The conference was also co-organized and sponsored by Rosalind Conerly of the Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs, Mar Elepano of the USC School of Cinematic Arts, Cynthia Joseph of the Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations, and the USC Neighborhood Academic Initiative.

“All of the panelists spoke of being underestimated and discriminated against in their college departments as well as in the workplace,” Hutchinson said. “Many of the panelists spoke of their experiences being the sole person of color in their professional fields/workplaces and stressed the importance of finding mentors to steer their journeys in college and careers. The Women of Color in STEM panel focused on media representations of STEM as a white male dominated field and how it discourages girls of color from pursuing STEM.”

Fighting the stereotypes facing Black and Latino youth—young women in particular—was a major focal point of the conference. The event not only provided opportunities for networking and scholarships for the students, but it also provided uplifting dialogue on workplace discrimination and how it should be challenged. Scholarly advice was coupled with emotional stories of personal experience, giving space for the students, faculty, and organizers to empower each other and bring in an end to the divide that disadvantages students of color.

Johnson said: “STEM is part of our culture - we should all contribute and enjoy it, regardless of background.”