Sadly, you’ll never be Beyoncé. But do you know what you can be? A badass woman in tech who can code even better than the usual suspects in Silicon Valley.
That’s the message of STEM From Dance, a nonprofit using the power of dance to get girls—particularly teen girls of color from disadvantaged communities—into coding. It was founded in 2011 by Yamilée Toussaint, who started dancing when she was 4.
“Dance gave me a space to see that I was good at something, and a space to express myself and challenge myself,” she told Glamour. After high school, she studied mechanical engineering at MIT, where she came face to face with the gender gap in STEM: In her first mechanical engineering class she was one of two black women in a lecture hall of 200 students. After graduation she decided she wanted to do something about that.
“I was like, ‘There’s got to be some way to take what you can gain from dance—the fun, the community, the form of expression—and translate it into the STEM world,” she says. “Because the population that we work with, that’s exactly what they need to feel like STEM can be meaningful.”
There’s research to back her up: A recent study found that students majoring in STEM subjects in college reported that being involved in dance helped them with creative problem solving and collaboration.
In STEM From Dance programs, a dance instructor works with students to choreograph a dance performance that incorporates technology in some way. Sometimes the girls code computer graphics that complement the dance and are projected onto the stage; other times, the students wear costumes with programmable lights that flash or change color depending on the wearer’s movements. Instructors also use movement to teach math and science concepts.
Admittedly, most of the students come to STEM From Dance for the dancing, not the STEM. But Toussaint isn’t ashamed of using modern dance—which most of the teen girls she meets are already into—as a hook for coding. And most of the time, the girls bite: By the end of the program, many of the girls find that coding is just as fun and cool as the dance moves they’re learning. Several students have said that the program made them regret not taking coding classes in school sooner.
And that’s kind of the point: Teen girls of color can picture themselves dancing to Rhianna or Beyoncé, because Rhianna and Beyoncé look like they do. But picture themselves as coders? Not so much. STEM From Dance lets girls imagine themselves in that role, and with its supportive, Bey-loving, girl-centric environment, they learn that they have what it takes to code.
“We’re using the confidence that you can gain through dance and translating it to the STEM side,” Toussaint says.
So far, the program has been implemented in 10 schools throughout the New York City area, and touched around 400 students. It remains to be seen how many of them will be the next Steve Jobs.