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For These Black Women in STEM, Teachers’ Encouragement Went a Long Way

Ciara Sivels had her heart set on becoming a pastry chef and attending culinary school after graduation, until her high school chemistry teacher encouraged her to pursue chemical engineering after realizing how good she was at the subject.

“I was like, ‘No, I don’t even know what that is. I’m going to culinary school. I have no interest in that,’” Sivels said. Still, her chemistry teacher asked her to try the Advanced Placement chemistry class.

Sivels found that she liked chemistry and the idea of “atoms and elements and putting them together and making something new.” She connected it back to cooking and baking, because there’s a similar process of “taking all these different ingredients and coming up with something delicious.”

After high school, Sivels attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where a mentor steered her toward nuclear engineering. She got her Bachelor’s Degree in nuclear science and engineering at MIT, earned her Master’s Degree in nuclear engineering at the University of Michigan, and then became the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering at Michigan.

“Those little nuggets of wisdom that people had or [teachers and mentors] taking the time to listen and hear what I’m interested in changed my trajectory,” Sivels said. “That’s how I ended up where I am today.”

Sivels was one of the panelists at the Feb. 21 National Math and Science Initiative webinar about how to encourage diversity in science, technology, engineering, and math industries. The webinar also featured former NASA astronaut and electrical engineer Joan Higginbotham, who was the third Black woman to go into space.

STEM occupations are projected to grow by almost 11 percent by 2031, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And while there’s a high share of women in science-related healthcare jobs, they continue to be underrepresented in engineering, computer science, and physical science jobs.

Higginbotham, who mentors some high school and college students, said they’ll ask her questions about “how to handle being the only woman of color in the room” or “how to handle people thinking they’re only in the room because of a diversity initiative.”

“It breaks my heart, because 30 years later, after I dealt with that kind of nonsense, the students today are still dealing with that nonsense,” she said.

To encourage more students of color, especially girls, to go into STEM careers, Sivels and Higginbotham said it’s important to expose students to those careers as early as possible and to make those subjects fun and relevant to their everyday lives.

For students who are interested in STEM careers, Higginbotham’s advice is to “study hard and believe in themselves.”

Setbacks will happen, but “don’t let that hold you back,” Higginbotham said.

Sivels’s advice is for students “to learn to have confidence” by working on their hard skills, or job-specific knowledge, and to “sit in that confidence.”

It’s also important that students have a good support system. A 2022 Girls Who Code and Logitech survey found that parents and teachers are influential in determining whether girls will pursue a career in STEM. In Sivels’ and Higginbotham’s journeys, their support systems have been instrumental in their success.

Changing a student’s life ‘just by one little comment or suggestion’

Their advice to educators is to continue to listen, guide, and advocate for their students.

“There is a level of effort that goes into really understanding your students, but you just really never know the life that you can change just by one little comment or suggestion,” Sivels said.

For Higginbotham, her STEM teachers’ passion for the subjects “left an impression” on her, so her advice is for teachers to be “authentic” and know that students are paying attention to what they’re doing.

“It may take 20 years for them to realize it, but it will make an impression,” she said.

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