A Need for Diversity in STEM on TV

This post originally appeared on the Graduate Women at MIT blog: http://gwamit.blogspot.com/2015/03/guest-post-emily-calandrelli-host-and.html


When I was younger, like most Americans my age, Bill Nye the Science Guy was a household name. He made science look fun and exciting. He also looked like what I thought scientists looked like: a little older, a little nerdy, and above all - white and male.

So when my production studio reached out to me about being the host of an educational science show on FOX, I was both surprised and elated. I didn’t look like Bill Nye, but they wanted me on TV talking about science and technology anyway. I had officially been offered my dream job.

At MIT, I got a Masters in Aeronautics and Astronauts and one in Technology and Policy. I studied how to communicate complicated STEM topics to a layman audience. I loved being able to educate others on the significance of a given technology and why they should care about it. Working as a producer and host of Xploration Outer Space, I’m now able to do that to an audience of 500,000 people each week.

As the host, I travel around the country and speak with experts who work on the most interesting projects in the space industry. I get to sit down with these scientists and engineers and ask them any question I like. I help them expose the most exciting aspects of their work and explain the importance of that work to the public. With my show, I’ve been given a platform to show off my passion for science and technology and enable others to do the same. 

But I don’t fit the typical stereotype of someone passionate about science, technology and space exploration. I’m young, female, and feminine. I’m not like any of the characters on the Big Bang Theory, and neither are any of my close friends. We never had anyone who looked like us on a popular show talking about science, and that likely affected our perception of the type of person who could excel in those fields.

The way that media portrays scientists and engineers can have a profound impact on how kids self-identify with potential career paths. There’s just something about having someone who looks a little bit like you talking about STEM that makes STEM seem more approachable and achievable. If a student who watches my show can identify with me in some way, it may be easier for them to see themselves in a future career in the space industry. In fact, in our first season of Xploration Outer Space our viewers were 55% female, which I thought was pretty awesome for a show based on a male-dominated industry.

To get more students excited about STEM, we need more diversity in the people in the media talking about these topics. We need more Bill Nyes and Neil deGrasse Tysons of various ages, races, and gender.

This diversity is starting to emerge naturally thanks to cheap and easy social media platforms. YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter are great avenues for creative science communicators. They may not have a “Bill Nye the Science Guy” TV show, but they exist.

At MIT I found a great diversity of people who chose to pursue STEM careers. The diversity existed in all areas: gender, race, sexuality, interests, and personalities. There is no one archetype for a scientist or engineer, despite what we’ve seen in movies and on TV.

Making STEM cool for kids is a complicated issue. But we know that minorities and women are less inclined to pursue STEM careers. We need to do a better job of introducing young students to diverse STEM-minded individuals. For a curious kid sitting in front of a TV or computer screen, having someone talking about science who looks a little bit like you can make all the difference.

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