Kumar '19: The Future of STEM is Female

By Priyanka Kumar '19

All 100 pairs of eyes were glued on me, a tiny 16-year-old girl, who stood up from the back of the room to challenge the panel of engineers at General Electric's (GE) Robotics Leadership Summit last summer. But I'm getting ahead of myself. The story of how I ended up there begins when I was in first grade, when I became passionate about learning how the world worked and how I could make it better.

As a kid, I felt that each math or science problem was a puzzle that I had been challenged to solve. I was placed into my school's Learning Enrichment Program in first grade and still remember asking my teacher why I was the only girl. This is a sentiment I would feel all the way through middle school as I took advanced math classes, became a member of the math team, and developed my love for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). 

When I arrived at Hotchkiss during my prep year, I was grateful to have amazing math and science teachers, an opportunity to take higher-level math and science courses, and a computer science program. My advisor, Dr. Marta Eso, instructor in mathematics, recommended many math and science camps to me and pointed me in the direction of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence (AI) Laboratory Outreach Program (SAILORS), the first all-girl artificial intelligence camp in the country. I decided to apply, regardless of the fact that I knew next to nothing about coding and AI. Three months later, I found myself spending two life-changing weeks in Palo Alto, CA. The camp taught me more than how to code in Python and use AI; it taught me how important it is for girls to be aware of the opportunities they have to explore their interests in STEM. 

SAILORS encouraged me to share my knowledge with other girls like me, who had no idea opportunities like this existed. During my lower mid year, I worked with my fellow co-heads of the Student Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, faculty members, and Head of School Craig Bradley to create a more inclusive curriculum in math and science. We worked to ensure that students of all genders, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds would have access to information about programs and the funding to take advantage of them, from creating a list of summer programs to working with faculty to foster a classroom culture where everyone could succeed. We advocated for a classroom environment that would allow students to receive ongoing, constructive feedback through uniform rubrics, as well as consistent, faculty-led help sessions to help new students acclimate to Hotchkiss math and science classes. Overall, our objective was to ensure that everyone, especially people in historically marginalized groups, would be aware of the School's available resources and use them to the best of their ability. 

What struck me the most from listening to other girls talk about why they struggled in STEM was that most of them walked into class with the mindset that they simply were not good enough at math or science. This attitude prevented them from doing well in the class, because some of them believed that additional effort would not make a difference. Other girls just didn't know about the opportunities they could pursue outside of school to advance their interests. 

While I am co-captain of the math team and a member of the robotics team, I should note that I love writing and discussing history and politics. I'm president of The Hotchkiss Record and editor-in-chief of Spectrum Magazine on diversity and inclusion, which allows me to be creative and connect my love of humanities and politics back to STEM, as I did in an article about India's IT revolution for The Hotchkiss Review

So how did I end up in that room full of GE engineers? Well, the story picks up last summer, after my internship at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where I learned how to make 3D-printed skin for burn victims using bioinks from cells and collagens. My work caught the attention of the robotics director at the GE Research and Development Center in my hometown of Schenectady, NY, who then invited me to the 2017 GE Robotics Leadership Summit, where I got to meet representatives from GE, Amazon, iRobot, and various start-ups. I was one of only seven women in that room, never mind the fact that I was younger than everyone else by at least 10 years. After I had finished asking my question about why their inventions were considered ingenious compared to other start-ups, all of the engineers stared at me, wondering how a teenager had snuck into their summit. After getting over their shock, the room laughed at my daring question, and one of the panelists responded, mentioning how important it was for tech industries to attract more girls like me into their workforce. Soon after the summit, the robotics director offered me a position as a fellow for the GE R&D Center among graduate and Ph.D. students, whom I will be joining this summer. 

However, the work for me at Hotchkiss still isn't over. One of my goals is to create a Girls Who Code chapter, so more girls can have access to opportunities in STEM. I will continue to tutor my peers and local elementary-schoolers in math and science,
and I hope to teach programs in computer science for kids as my spring co-curricular. 

I encourage everyone at Hotchkiss to support girls as they attempt to overcome stereotypes in this field. I hope that every girl will carry with her the same lesson that I learned from one of the most impactful women in technology, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook: "What would you do if you weren't afraid?" I urge everyone reading this to try something new, whether it's joining the robotics team to volunteering as a tutor. We have to work together as a community so that we can all plant our STEM.

This story appeared in the winter/spring 2018 issue of Hotchkiss Magazine.