From the Vice President’s Desk — June 2024

Emily MortimerFrom the Executive Director's Desk, Front Page

Illuminating the Need for Belonging in STEM

Think back to a time when you felt fully seen and heard. How did it feel? How does it still make you feel? Did it feel empowering, validating, or safe? David Brooks (2023) claims, “There is one foundational skill that lies at the heart of any healthy person, family, school, community organization, or society; the ability to see someone else deeply and make them feel seen — to accurately know another person, to let them feel valued, heard, and understood.” When we are fully heard and seen as our authentic selves, we feel like we belong.

The word Belonging is gaining support across STEM and many other fields. If you have attended any of our STEM in Motion meetings, you have probably heard us talk about the Beyond100K Belonging Study we contributed to a couple of years ago, collecting stories from people’s experiences with belonging or not belonging in STEM spaces. Through all these stories, the idea of belonging rang loud and clear. Even today, talking to partners, providers, students, families, and each other, the idea of belonging emerges as a vital motivator to stay or leave a STEM space.

Numerous researchers have documented how a high sense of belonging can positively influence motivation, academic achievement, and well-being among students. Adversely, however, a low sense of belonging can impact persistence within STEM fields (Dost, 2024)

So what does all this mean? What does this look and feel like in practice? Remember back to that time when you experienced a sense of belonging by being fully seen and heard? What was it about that experience that made you feel that way? Did the person or group of people ask questions about you? Were they a good listener? Were they curious about you? Did they seem wholly interested in you as your authentic self? Perhaps, maybe, you met an illuminator.

Illuminators have an ability to see and hear others fully. They are persistently curious about other people. A key ingredient of an illuminator is curiosity. Coincidentally, a key ingredient in STEM is also curiosity. 

STEM continues to be a space that is often difficult to find a sense of belonging. This is changing, but we still have work to do. Curiosity in ourselves and others is a key way to connect, understand, and cultivate a sense of belonging, working towards becoming illuminators. 

Our partner spotlight for this month, Urban Coders Guild, provides a safe space for students interested in pursuing Coding and Computer Science (CS) in STEM to feel a sense of belonging. Mikeal Vaughn and his team make curiosity in content and cohort members a primary goal for each club and event. They ask students to be curious about their own passions in CS as they develop vital technical skills and help them develop curiosity in knowing the members of their cohort. Urban Coders Guild is essentially training the future illuminators to see others deeply and better understand themselves. What a powerful model!

Again, what does all this mean? Yes, belonging sounds great. It’s perfectly natural to want to feel like we belong. Yes, the idea of illuminators is encouraging; there are people who really can be a beacon of light for belonging fully seeing and hearing us. Wonderful. Curiosity, a basic skill for STEM and cultivating a sense of belonging. This all sounds so idealistic. However, if we want to take the next step and move from talking about how important belonging is to truly building the bridges towards everyone belonging, we need to get curious. 

Get curious about the people you see daily at home, school, work, and out in your community. Allow yourself to fully listen and see them. Listen not to confirm facts, but to affirm their humanity (Powell & Menendian, 2024). Listen and see people to better understand their perspective; see their experience through their eyes. If you are reading this newsletter there is a pretty good chance you are, to some degree, passionate about STEM. Take the curiosity you have for whatever aspect of STEM you most enjoy and employ it as a tool to see others more fully and, in turn, allow yourself to be seen. 

Belonging cannot happen without us getting curious. STEM cannot continue to innovate without diverse perspectives adding to the body of knowledge. None of this is possible without people seeing themselves as vital contributors to this work. Belonging is not simply a new buzz word; like STEM, it’s here to stay. Belonging belongs in STEM. You belong in STEM.

Are you interested in continuing the Belonging conversation? Attend our next STEM in Motion or sign up to be a volunteer or mentor. It starts with curiosity! Take the first step and see what it’s all about.

Dr. Emily Mortimer, TRSA’s VP of STEM Ecosystems