You don’t have to be COOL to be a STEM Role Model

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Screen Shot 2013-11-22 at 12.35.35 AMI wasn’t particularly cool in high school, though I wasn’t exactly un-cool either. Successfully crossing the boundaries between the jocks, brainiacs, and the StuCo kids, I made it through mostly unscathed. Being a national champion powerlifter, ranked number 2 in my class, and winning student body President on a platform of “Change” afforded me a semi-safe haven in this liminal state between cool/un-cool. Of course, I wanted to be cool; who didn’t in high school?

That same wanting desire to be seen as cool reared it’s ugly head on my normally confident state of being today as I returned to my alma mater as a guest speaker and proposed STEM role model.

Here’s how I prepped…

I packed my bag of super cool techy devices for show and tell. I had digital micro mirror devices from my days at DLP of TI. I had a box full of wafers of all shapes and sizes, and 2 TI analog chip portfolios. I even had a poster, branded folders, and a keepsake DMD to give to the teacher. My engineering work was super cool, and I wanted to wow the crowd.

I  prepared my thoughts and spiel in advance. After all, I do public speaking as a living and not to mention, I actually develop curriculum, lead training sessions, and conduct research on and for STEM Role Models. I am supposed to be the expert on inspiring young minds to pursue a career in STEM! I went in mind with key bullet points aligned to all the key messages to which I teach others to be mindful. I just knew my story and presentation would be cool.

I was determined to look cool. I didn’t have the nicest clothes growing up, but by golly, now I have a great wardrobe. So, sporting a casual yet classy dress, tights, boots, and a jean jacket, nails just shellaced, and hair deep conditioned, I was ready to impress these high school kids.

Here’s how it went…

I open the door and walk in to the classroom that I was told to go to, toting my huge canvas bag full of show and tell devices. To my surprise, (and to theirs!) the class full of high school juniors and seniors stared at me, the teacher looked super confused, and then everyone asks who I am and why I am there. Evidently, the teacher had not gotten the memo that I would be there today. Once we got past introductions, one female student shouts out that it was a good thing I wasn’t a substitute because they would have committed mutiny and kicked me out. Then she complements me on my outfit (score!). So, no big deal. We  commence operation inspiration.

I wasn’t a minute into my talk and I completely derailed from my perfect plan. I was talking about the most ridiculous things, like I was trying to impress these charming high school students! After all, there I am, a token female representing all of the STEM careers! I had to inspire these students! I had to connect with them! I had to make them see that my life is COOL because I pursued a career in STEM, and that their life could be COOL, too. All because, STEM is COOL!

It was as if all of those wicked high school insecurities washed over me wave after wave, as I struggled to make sense standing before high school kids in my old calculus classroom. I was drowning in my words, so I know they must have been, too. I talked about my life after high school: education, travels, adventures, jobs, athletic competitions, all products of goals and dreams, balanced with resiliency to overcome challenges, and the courage to take risks. I spoke to two classes, and the second one was much different than the first, but I can’t even dare to pick a winner.

[quote]Who knows what they heard or what they will remember?[/quote]

Did I motivate and inspire a wave of engineers from LCM high school? Did I challenge stereotypes and dispel myths about STEM careers? Did I connect STEM careers to their work values? I was likely ineffective at all of these things. But…

Here is what I know to be true… 

Today, some 40 students from Orange, Texas, met me: an engineer, educator, consultant, entrepreneur, researcher, student, adventurer, powerlifter…

Today, 40 students met a woman who sat in practically the very same seat as they, some 12 years ago, and who went on to an interesting and personally rewarding career in STEM. Does everyone view my story as successful? No, and I don’t need them to, but my path is interesting, unique, it has been fun and I believe made a difference in this world along the way.

Today, 40 students met a woman who pursued a career in STEM, despite the messages in my environment that discouraged me from doing so, and the girls all agreed, they still receive the same message that STEM as a career is not for them. Seeing me, they can no longer doubt the existence of women in STEM.

You don’t have to be cool to be a role model

It didn’t matter that my presentation was unorganized, that I was scattered-brain, practically intimidated by the cool kids, and a poor example of a “STEM career expert.” At the end of the day, if one of those 40+ students heard a word I said that makes even a tiny difference in their life, it is worth my reliving high school for an afternoon.

After all, maybe I am not cool, but I can still be a role model, and you can, too.

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