Busting STEM stereotypes

Published Jan. 27, 2012

Seventeen-year-old Kyla Kolb is busting stereotypes. A senior at Lakewood High in the school's Center for Advanced Technology, she is a computer programming whiz with a 4.2 weighted grade point average.

Kyla learned recently that she won an award sponsored by Bank of America and the National Center for Women & Information Technology. The award recognizes 35 young women in high schools nationwide for their computer-related achievements, and it attempts to attract more students to so-called STEM careers, those in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Historically, males have dominated these professions.

A 2011 Microsoft study shows that the United States will have 1.2 million job openings in STEM-related fields by 2018, but we will have a shortage of qualified STEM students to fill the slots. A statistic that does not bode well is that women — including underrepresented minorities such as black women — make up only 20 percent of STEM majors.

Kyla, who is African-American, is not troubled by the gloomy numbers. The award has emboldened her to attend the University of South Florida where she intends to study engineering and computer science.

Her interest in programming started when she took a required class in the sixth grade. She said she realized that programming was the magic behind computers, and she knew that young women could master that magic.

"It never occurred to me that mostly boys programmed," she said. "My only friends who programmed were girls. It wasn't until I got to high school that I realized just how few women there are in STEM programs. This did not discourage me. It actually encouraged me to break that stereotype.

"A lot of girls who are good at STEM programs may think that it's just something for nerds and boys, which it's not. It's just that these fields require a lot of high thinking. I've casually spoken about the subject to my female classmates who love STEM programs. We see that we are a minority in the fields that we want to go into, and we embrace it."

Like other students in the St. Petersburg school's magnet program, Kyla has a rigorous schedule of Advanced Placement courses, including physics, psychology, English literature and composition, stagecraft, calculus and statistics.

Last year, based on her test scores, grades and a teacher recommendation, Kyla received a paid summer internship at MITRE Corp. in Tampa, a federally funded research and development company.

"Kyla is an excellent example of what our students can accomplish through dedication, guidance and vision," said Pete Oberg, program coordinator for Lakewood's Center for Advanced Technology. "I'm glad the staff and program have given her the opportunity for this wonderful accomplishment."

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Bank of America will give each winner $500, a laptop computer and a trip, with all expenses paid, to its annual Technology Showcase and Awards Ceremony in Charlotte, N.C. Each student will receive a plaque engraved with her name and the name of her school.

Kyla told me she did not want to give the impression that her life is all work and no play. For fun, she volunteers at St. Petersburg City Theater, hangs out with her boyfriend and her family, draws and paints, surfs the Internet, watches movies, eats sushi, creates programs, sews, listens to music and plays her bass, electric and acoustic guitars.

She said young people should not let stereotypes limit them.

"I want to encourage them to be who they want to be," she said. "I want young people to know that nerds can be cool, too."