Yamilée Toussaint Beach is easily described as a polymath. Growing up on Long Island, she excelled in math and science in school, and after class dedicated herself to jazz, ballet, and modern dance.
“Pursuing engineering was just as possible for me as becoming a dancer or a writer or anything in the humanities,” she says. “I think a large part is the fact that both my parents have STEM-related (science, technology, engineering, and math) professions.” Now both retired, her father was a mechanical engineer, and her mother was a lab technician.
As she grew older, however, her outlook changed. As one of the few black women in her mechanical engineering courses at MIT, Toussaint Beach came to the stark realization that her experience had been unique. In the United States, black and Latina women are among the least represented groups in STEM occupations. After graduating from MIT, Toussaint Beach taught high school algebra through Teach for America, and witnessed firsthand how few girls of color were engaged in STEM subjects. She didn’t just want to know why. She wanted that to change.
In 2012, Toussaint Beach founded STEM from Dance, a New York-based nonprofit that offers underrepresented, often low-income girls ages 12 through 18 the opportunity to explore their own potential in STEM fields. During the program’s school residencies and summer camps, participants take a hands-on approach to hardware and coding with inspiration from their favorite pop stars. Girls program the light-up costumes and animated light shows for their own dance performances, often choreographed to music by the likes of Rihanna and Beyoncé. During the public recital at the program’s end, they get to go on stage and show off their work. As of 2018, more than 550 girls from 100 New York City schools and community-based programs had participated in STEM from Dance.
“This program is about taking something that’s been out of reach for students of color because of very clear barriers that they face,” Toussaint Beach says. “The lack of representation of girls of color is not due to ability. I do think that programs like STEM from Dance and others that exist all across the country will help us see a shift in the demographics.”
Toussaint Beach is the winner of AnitaB.org’s Educational Innovation Abie Award, which recognizes educators for developing new approaches to attracting female students to computing, engineering, and math in K-12 or undergraduate education. The award was presented last week at the annual Grace Hopper Celebration in Orlando — the world’s largest gathering of women technologists, held by AnitaB.org and sponsored in part by HP. Toussaint Beach recently spoke with the Garage about the powerful combination of engineering, dance, and opportunity in STEM from Dance.