Mentoring the Next Generation of Diverse STEM Graduates
Shalini Iyer knows that for some students, the most meaningful lessons and inspiration can happen outside school. When Iyer prepares science activities for young people in Toronto’s Jane-Finch neighbourhood, she is doing more than offering a fun after-school program. She is serving as a role model.
“I really connected with the students when we met in-person,” says Iyer. “They said ‘I want to be a scientist like you.’ Growing up, I didn’t have that.
Iyer is a university student, Let’s Talk Science volunteer and former program assistant with the San Romanoway Revitalization Association (SRRA). SRRA is a social service organization that aims to create a safer and healthier environment for children and youth in the community. Like many of the youth she worked with at the Centre, Iyer is a person of colour. When she was their age, she didn’t see many people who looked like her in certain careers. “Having that representation can really make an impact,” says Iyer.
Let’s Talk Science partnership began in 2017 thanks to the relationship and financial support of the Gordon & Ruth Gooder Charitable Foundation. Let’s Talk Science started to work with SRRA, to bring engaging STEM-based learning to youth who wouldn’t typically have access to a scientist in a classroom. Let’s Talk Science aims to expose all children and youth to hands-on STEM learning. The experiences at SRRA are designed to change youths' perception of science. “We teach them that science is everywhere, applied in real life, and is something to look forward to outside school as well,” says Iyer.
As a program assistant, Iyer helped with the after-school program that welcomes students from Kindergarten to Grade 8. Activities ranged from coding using micro:bits, to making fossils, to building a catapult. Engaging in fun, hands-on STEM activities deepens students’ understanding of science and helps them see it in the world around them. For instance, when Iyer started, she would ask questions like "Does art involve science?" Students would respond no in the beginning. She would point out things like how paint mixes or sticks to paper. After continued visits and near the end of the year, she asked the same question and the students would respond yes and be able to explain why.
Can they see their own possible future in STEM? When asked to draw a scientist, SRRA participants now frequently depict persons of colour and an equal mix of male and female figures. That shows how the program has dispelled some stereotypes associated with a job in STEM while building skills and competencies that will help these youth thrive in a complex and rapidly-changing world.