Berkeley student organizations, BUSD work to diversify STEM pipeline

As UC Berkeley STEM majors graduate, they enter a world where women have historically been and continue to be underrepresented. For many, this male-dominated landscape is all too familiar.

This academic year, 54% of undergraduate students identify as female. However, only 27% of computer science majors, 24% of mathematics majors and 23% of electrical engineering and computer science majors are female-identifying.

Campus freshman Mallika Reddy was almost deterred from enrolling at UC Berkeley because of what she had heard about the difficulty of the computer science program. However, Reddy said her support system encouraged her to give it a shot and she applied to CS Kickstart.

According to the organization’s external director, Stella Kaval, CS Kickstart is a week-long program in which female-identifying students live on campus early and explore various computer science concepts that may seem otherwise daunting.

“I would hate to think of an incoming freshman coming in and … thinking already like, ‘I don’t want to do it because it’s too hard,’ or ‘I don’t want to do it because I’ll be the minority ,’” Reddy said. “That’s really what we’re trying to prevent.”

Now the education director for CS Kickstart, Reddy gets to design the curriculum for the 2022 cohort. Reddy said she hopes to encourage students of any experience level to pursue computer science.

Campus junior Sharicka Zutshi similarly emphasized the importance of having a support system as a gender minority in STEM.

“(My mother) really wanted to be a scientist,” Zutshi said. “She exposed me to a lot of nature-oriented activities. …Having that support system was really important in getting me into STEM.”

As the former advocacy director of campus’s Society of Women Engineers, Zutshi had the opportunity to talk to policymakers about what deters women from STEM. One of the issues that repeatedly arose, Zutshi said, was either a lack of early exposure or a platform through which to pursue STEM outside of academia.

Now one of two elementary and middle school outreach coordinators, Zutshi holds monthly events for K-12 students to come to campus and conduct science experiments.

Wyn Skeels, the Berkeley Unified School District Career Technical Education, or CTE, program supervisor, is familiar with the importance of introducing STEM to students at an early age.

“By the time students come to (Berkeley High School), they often already have a mindset about who they are as a learner, where they see themselves,” Skeels said. “We really need to do earlier outreach.”

With the help of a CTE advisory committee, Skeels pinpointed sixth grade as the ideal time to begin such outreach. This year, the committee launched a districtwide STEM wheel curriculum for all sixth graders, which exposes students to coding and programming, digital media and electronics and robotics, among other topics. Wherever possible, the school district has been adamant about hiring women and people of color.

“The idea is that those students in sixth grade — in a really cool, fun, creative, collaborative way — get to experience STEM in a fun space with a structured curriculum,” Skeels said. “Our theory is that they will then choose STEM as an elective in seventh and eighth grade.”

Skeels noted that students can continue on those pathways at Berkeley High.

As a former student at Berkeley High, Shoshana O’Keefe remembers being the only female-identifying student in her computer science class. Returning as a computer science and mathematics teacher, O’Keefe wants to ensure her experience is not replicated.

O’Keefe teaches AP Computer Science Principles, which was launched by the College Board in 2016 to address the lack of diversity among those enrolled in AP Computer Science.

“Computer science is a really intimidating class. A lot of kids hear about something like that and they think it’s not for them because that’s the story that’s been told,” O’Keefe said. “This other class is like, ‘Oh, you don’t know anything about programming? Great! Come on in.’ ”

Working with Skeels to spread the word that the class is for everyone, O’Keefe has seen an increase in enrollment of female-identifying students as well as students of color.

Ellie Buehler, Berkeley High’s first Intro to Robotics Engineering teacher, shared similar sentiments regarding the removal of barriers to entry in STEM classes.

“I just made it very clear from the start of class like, ‘I don’t expect you to know how to do any of this in advance,’” Buehler said. “(Women) are just as smart, it’s just a matter of sheer confidence — if you think you can do it, you can.”

Contact Veronica Roseborough at [email protected]and follow her on Twitter at @Roseborough.

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