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IF/THEN Ambassadors Find Innovative Ways to Connect

if then statues
#IfThenSheCan – The Exhibit, at Dallas’s NorthPark Center, includes more than 120 ambassador statues. | IF/THEN

In September 2019, the AAAS IF/THEN Ambassadors program selected 125 women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers to serve as role models for middle school girls. As part of IF/THEN, a national initiative of Lyda Hill Philanthropies to encourage more women in STEM, ambassadors were soon starring on television and on YouTube and working with girls in museums, classrooms, and Girl Scout meetings across the United States.

Some of the ambassadors' original engagement plans were upended by COVID-19, but many of the women found inspiration in a tumultuous year. "The ambassadors have been very innovative in finding ways to continue to engage middle-school girls throughout the pandemic," said Emily Therese Cloyd, director of the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology, who heads up the ambassadors program.

As part of the program, ambassadors could apply for $10,000 She Can Change the World grants to develop a wide variety of engagement projects. Ambassadors Adele Luta, Sydney Hamilton, and Samantha Porter spent 24 hours underwater to become aquanauts and hosted live-streamed chats about their experience. Neha Murad was one of nine ambassadors who helped create video episodes for GoldieBlox's online Curiosity Camp. Dorothy Tovar told the story of how she overcame her fear of nature as part of a Story Collider podcast organized by fellow ambassador Becca Peixotto. Other ambassadors developed lending libraries of STEM toys, picture books, and card games with their grants.

Health technologist Nicole Jackson used her grant to train 20 women scientists to add and edit Wikipedia entries for women scientists, generating 1.96 million page views so far. The trainees are now training other women contributors to exponentially expand the reach of the project, she said. "When girls wonder, 'Where are the women in STEM?,' we want them to see that they're already here and they're doing great work."

Since becoming an ambassador, Jackson has connected with 1,090 students from 26 states through the educational volunteering platform Nepris, sharing her own evolving experiences in health care product development during the pandemic with students. Girls then reached out to her with questions about their own product development prototypes — along with more personal concerns, she said. "I remember the last one I did, we started talking about George Floyd. We started talking about the emotional impacts of being a Black woman leader in technology," she recalled. "They wanted to hear the truth, and I think the fact that they were bold enough to ask tells you everything you need to know about this generation," Jackson added.

Opportunities for Engagement

Gracie Ermi, a computer scientist who writes code to aid wildlife conservation, also used the Nepris program as an ambassador. One of her favorite experiences was speaking with students at her own elementary school. At that age, she was interested in science but "had no concept of what that kind of job looked like," she said, "so the goal of all the presentations I give is to be a face for this type of work."

Ambassador Neha Murad talks about applied mathematics at Curiosity Camp. | GoldieBlox

Talking with students motivates her to work harder, she said. "A lot of them are driven to make a difference, especially in environmental areas, and the questions they ask are so thoughtful."

Ermi contributed her grant money toward a book project called Secret Lives of STEM Ambassadors, in which the women innovators answer questions from girls ages nine to 14. Girls sometimes wonder if they need to give up other interests or future goals to work in STEM, she said, "but one of our goals is to show that we are multifaceted people, that we are not just the jobs that we do."

"If we want kids to be more engaged…we should never introduce ourselves as our profession," Jackson agreed. "We should introduce ourselves as the people that we are and talk about the journey that took us through the things that interested us."

Opportunities for engagement "have exploded" since she became an ambassador, said Ermi, who has given more than 60 presentations, filmed an episode of GoldieBlox's Curiosity Camp, and was a guest on the Strong Voice podcast. Professional development workshops offered by AAAS, as well as sessions at the AAAS Annual Meeting, have been especially helpful in boosting her communication skills, she noted.

AAAS-organized trainings covered topics from intellectual property law to engaging with policy-makers and were based on the ambassadors' feedback, said Cloyd. She and her colleagues also have acted as sounding boards and coaches and have supported ambassadors at ComicCon and other science and entertainment conventions. "We're bringing AAAS's expertise in science communication training but we're also able to shine a spotlight on ambassadors who have had these experiences, so that they can learn from one another," Cloyd said.

Ambassadors said the powerful peer-to-peer mentoring they get from each other is a crucial part of the program-Jackson called it "earth-shattering support." The ambassadors regularly consult each other on their own professional challenges, share engagement opportunities, and offer a rich network of expertise, participants said.

The program, originally scheduled to end in February 2021, has been extended to the end of the year to give the ambassadors more time to complete their grant projects. The ambassadors' profiles, photos, and videos are now part of the IF/THEN Collection, one of the largest digital resources dedicated to increasing access to authentic images of women in STEM.