At STEM From Dance, students learn to code stage and costume lighting along with visual effects for their performances.

Photo courtesy of Damon Plant/STEM From Dance

They're Learning STEM Skills by Dancing to Destiny’s Child, and the Results Are Great

As schools shift funding from liberal arts to technology courses, this Brooklyn program merges the two.

At the start of the L train in the upper-class Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, there are 10 city-funded Wi-Fi hubs within two blocks. When the train hits Brooklyn, two miles east, there are another six Wi-Fi hubs being installed in the hip East Williamsburg area. But the numbers start to fall as the train dives deeper into Brooklyn, where poverty is rampant. By the time it hits the neighborhoods of East New York and Brownsville, there are none.

Out here, almost a third of homes don’t have internet access — the gateway to a community’s broader participation in STEM industries and the jobs they offer. High schools, meanwhile, are under-equipped with the basic infrastructure needed for internet access and technology education. Music, dance and the arts, in contrast, are well established in the community.

This disconnect — in the midst of a national trend to move funding from the humanities to STEM — is what led Yamilée Toussaint, a mechanical engineering graduate from MIT, to start STEM From Dance, a program for high school girls that merges the local culture of dance and music with a future in learning complex science and technology concepts.

“Students who would be a natural fit for, say, a career as a coder don’t necessarily know that until they are introduced to it,” Toussaint says. “Through dance, we’re attracting them to a different world that they wouldn’t otherwise opt-in themselves.”

STEM From Dance combines art and technology to encourage young women of color to pursue jobs in science, tech, engineering and math. Photo courtesy of Damon Plant/STEM From Dance

Toussaint, a tiny woman with large hair and a soft voice, created the program five years ago. Normally it spans a full semester, but this year she increased the number of girls she can reach with a summer intensive curriculum focused on circuitry.

During the course of one week, participants practice a dance routine that they pair with lessons on building and coding circuits.

“It was hard at first,” says Chantel Harrison, a 17-year-old participant from Crown Heights, Brooklyn. “I didn’t know what it was about, honestly.”

Harrison and a couple dozen other girls are taught to wire battery-powered light circuits. They sew them into their dance costumes to create splashy light effects synced to a song’s beat. For many of them, this is their first introduction to computer science and coding.

And that is a stark reality check. In New York City, where technology often seems boundless — and where there have been huge strides to build up “Silicon Alley,” New York City’s own version of the Bay Area’s Silicon Valley — kids educated in the city’s outer borough’s face significant barriers to a future working in the tech industry.

“If we cannot allow our children to have first-class computer equipment in a first-class city, they’re not going to be prepared to be employed at a first-rate corporation,” Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams tells NationSwell. “We cannot have a digital divide in our borough and in our city.”

Both Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio have pushed for high-speed internet access and STEM course integration into the city’s high school curriculum by 2025. But in Brooklyn, a study published in December 2016 by the Brooklyn Borough President’s office found there is progress to be made: Internet access is subpar (the average rating is 3 out of 5) in the district’s schools; there are only enough tablets and laptops for 7 and 20 percent of the borough’s student population, respectively; and 70 percent of schools don’t have an established computer science curriculum.

“The mayor has a very strong goal, but the question is, are we set up to meet this goal based on current investments in schools?” says Stefan Ringel, a spokesperson for Adams. He adds that reaching the 2025 goal will require more investments in infrastructure upgrades as well as in the curriculum.

“There is a lot of talk around getting these students active in STEM education, but I’d say for our program, if we have 12 girls sign up, maybe one has actually been exposed to coding,” says Toussaint, as she watches a group of six teenagers practice a dance routine to Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor.”

“We’re not trying to make engineers or professional dancers within a week,” says Arielle Snagg, an instructor with STEM From Dance who also has a degree in neuroscience. “But we are hoping to give them an idea on how they can use technology within this art.”

Snagg, originally from Bushwick — another impoverished Brooklyn neighborhood — says she understands the plight of students who live in these parts of New York. Of those who work (and only about half the population does), just 5 percent do so within the tech and science fields. And getting more women into technology can help a labor force that is desperate for diversity, especially when it comes to women of color.

After a week in the camp, Harrison, who will be a senior at Achievement First Brooklyn High School in the fall, says she gained a new appreciation for the integration of dance and science. “And I’ve gotten better in math — I’ve even learned to love it.”

Next spring, Toussaint will see her first group of students graduate from high school. And though she hopes that many of them pursue technology in college, more than anything she wants them to enter any career with confidence.

“The point is to let [these girls] know that they can do anything, and they don’t have to do one thing,” she says. “They just have to open up their minds a bit.”