By Lauren Koenig
What do you want to be when you grow up?
CuSTEMized founder and developer Jean Fan wants to explore the answer to that question in a revolutionary way.
A Boston based non-profit, CuSTEMized provides personalized children’s storybooks depicting children in a STEM career of their choice. Designed specifically to encourage young girls in science, technology, engineering, and math, the books use personalized avatars to present each child as the hero of a motivational tale.
The ultimate goal is to provide exposure and tangible role-models, two key ingredients for encouraging underrepresented groups to pursue careers beyond perceived expectations.
Fan recognized this firsthand when she began her PhD in Bioinformatics and Integrative Genomics at Harvard and realized that she was the only girl.
“As I got more involved in local volunteer teaching opportunities, I noticed how challenging it was for many of my female students to see themselves in STEM careers due to the lack of visible female role models in STEM and the misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding STEM as being a boy-thing,” she said.
In turn, the diverse members of CuSTEMized demonstrate that supporting women in science is not relegated to being a girl-thing either.
“We need to create constructive cultural artifacts for the youngest children who are just starting to read,” said Kamil Slowikowski, developer for the team. “We have to create images that empower children and refute the popular racist and sexist stereotypes that set the lowest possible expectations.”
CuSTEMized provides a unique function during the growing drive to diversify STEM fields.
“For a future where STEM is more inclusive of women, there are certain cultural shifts that need to occur,” said Fan. “We must be able to see STEM as a typical interest for girls the same way we currently see princesses and ponies as a typical interest… I wanted each book to be personalized using each girl’s name and appearance to create a story that’s truly about her; that says you can be a scientist or an engineer or whatever you want.”
While the CuSTEMized products allow children to directly envision themselves as future leaders, the non-profit’s volunteers serve as role models themselves.
Implementing her brainchild required stepping outside of her comfort zone to learn new skills, according to Fan.
“There was a lot I didn’t know how to do computationally going into the project. You’ll never learn all the pieces to the puzzle in school,” she said. “I am still learning about how to do things better and am improving all the time! But even if you don’t know it, you can figure it out. So that’s what I had to do when I didn’t know how to do something: teach myself and figure it out (and of course, ask for help and bring on additional team members when needed).”
One such team member, Outreach Coordinator Sayda Zelaya, was drawn to the project’s mission because she identifies with CuSTEMized target audience.
“I personally know what it’s like to grow up in an area that doesn’t have the same access to resources or opportunities in STEM. Most young girls who grow up in these circumstances never see a scientist, engineer or a mathematician, let alone one that looks like them,” she said. “As a little girl, I was always interested in learning how things were made and I was fascinated with astronomy. This is a passion that I wish developed more, but as a young immigrant child, it was difficult to see myself as a scientist. It didn’t occur to me at the time that it was very much possible to dream that big.”
Today, Zelaya serves as an advocate for social justice and connects CuSTEMized with other organizations in the Boston Area, including the Amigos School where the group distributed customized books to the first grade girls.
“Something that Jean stresses is the need to have more female scientist role models that young girls could look up to,” said Zelaya. “Do you know how transformational it could have been if I had been exposed to a Latina scientist? To actually see someone that looked like me pursuing a career that was not stereotypical to my culture? I am ok with not having had that opportunity, but I want to make sure this time around, as an adult, that I can help this wonderful effort to encourage more female scientists!”
The various perspectives at CuSTEMized provide the ideal mix to promote big dreams.
This project has inspired Slowikowski to think further about gender equality and his role in shaping policy changes.
“Sparking the interest of young people will help set them on a trajectory to success,” he said. “I see a world built by people whose main interest is maximizing profit at the expense of people and environment. I want to see a different world, where people from diverse backgrounds with various interests are empowered to lead scientific discovery and wield the powerful tools of software development and engineering.”
Plans to expand their reach include working with scientists to share content, as well as development of a new problem-solving style book, and an educational app. At time of print, support for the group’s Kickstarter is nearly at 50% of their goal.
In the meantime, for those who are passionate about STEM education, Slowikowski recommends to “Think about what it was like for you a few years ago, when you were thinking about going to college or grad school. Could you imagine images, videos, or games that would help kids to get interested in science? Make them!”
“Little girls everywhere need to see more women in STEM,” said Fan. “Whether you like it or not, you are all role models and sources of inspiration.”
And in this case, seeing truly is believing.
Please visit http://custemized.org/ for more information on how you can get involved, order free downloadable books, or purchase in-print copies.
About the Author
Lauren is a wildlife biologist currently preparing for graduate school in behavioral ecology. Since obtaining her B.A. in biology from Vanderbilt University, she worked on several wildlife research projects throughout North and South America. She is excited to work with Scientista to increase accessibility to research and expand outreach efforts geared for women in STEM. Her experience in science writing includes an internship with publisher John Wiley & Sons Inc., working as science editor for the Vanderbilt McLaughlin neurology lab, and serving on the staff of her university’s newspaper. In her free time, Lauren enjoys wildlife photography, kayaking, dance, and going to concerts.
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