Cleveland Teacher Changes Perceptions About STEM for Young Girls

“You’re the science teacher?” a fourth grader asks. “Yes” the teacher responds. “But you’re a girl.” When Carla Neely’s all-girl class of fourth graders first met her at Cleveland Metropolitan School District, it was almost like they were in disbelief from not having seen a woman in science before. Like any fourth graders, they were filled with lots of questions.

“Do the boys look at you funny?” “Do they treat you like you’re different because you’re a girl?” “What about because you’re a different color?” Before young learners can excel at STEM, they often need to see others like them to help change their perceptions and develop their own STEM identity. As Carla Neely puts it “Students can’t strive to be what they can’t see. If they want to know what’s it like to be an engineer, they need to see it.”

Through the SAE A World In Motion® (AWIM®) STEM program, Carla was able to bring one special mentor into her classroom. His name was Mr. Mike. He came every week and, by sharing his real-world experiences and perspectives, was able to help Carla teach STEM in a different way—without a book.

Mr. Mike explained there were different types of engineers and that he designed the wheels for the car. He used engineering language. He told them about engineering formulas and how Newton’s Laws of Motion applied to their AWIM JetToy builds. And when they went to their first AWIM STEM competition, Mr. Mike was there. In fact, the students spotted him before Carla did and they were incredibly excited.

Throughout the STEM program, the students also bonded as a group. Like many classrooms, there are students with different abilities—lower achievers, special needs, and enrichment. The surprising thing is how early young learners are able to not only identify their own strengths, but those of their classmates.

When Carla gave her students a chance to choose their own groups, she gave them two pieces of advice–“You can choose your best friend, but only if you’re able to work well together” and “Try to work through any disagreements before asking your teacher for help.” Because the students already knew each other, they were already familiar with who might need a little extra support or where team members could best contribute to the team design solution based on their strengths. If one student had a language deficiency, another student would step in and read to them. As Neely reminds them “Nobody is strong in everything. There will come a day when you’ll need help.”

Back to the critical importance of changing perceptions, Carla is always looking for ways to provide real-world examples of successful women in STEM. She talks with her students about women like Sonya Carey, an African American female 3D Animator who was the animator/creator of Disney’s first African American princess, Tiana, for the Princess and the Frog. She uses the book “Everyday Superheroes: Women in STEM Careers” to show her class that girls of all races and backgrounds are involved with STEM. As an African American science teacher who has a passion for STEM, she also leads by example every day–constantly inspiring her students to excel at STEM.

It should come as no surprise that Carla was recently named “District 11 Teacher of the Year” and is one of four finalists for the “2022 Ohio Teacher of the Year.” Many of her students have continued their STEM journeys in one of Cleveland’s six STEM high schools focused on areas including science and medicine, art, and architecture.

As she reflected on her time with her AWIM students, one memory immediately stood out. Their school usually didn’t get a lot of recognition but being a part of that AWIM STEM competition allowed them to see they were just as capable as everyone else. When they had doubt, they just had to remember what Mr. Mike taught them. In the end, they earned “Honorable Mention,” beaming from ear-to-ear as they stood on the podium posing with their medals and changing perceptions about their school.

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