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Women in STEM: Overcoming Dyslexia to Pursue a Career In Engineering

Posted by Gaby Isturiz on September 11, 2014 at 8:35 AM

Women in STEMThis is the second post in our Women in STEM series, as we continue to follow our passion of bringing awareness about women in legal technology. What could be better than finding this inspiration within our own team at Bellefield! This is the story of Kim Mann, Bellefield's Lead Software Architect. Kim's story has inspired us and we hope that it inspires you and all of the men and women you know. 

Sir Ken Robinson once said “You can be creative in anything - in math, science, engineering, philosophy - as much as you can in music or in painting or in dance.” Kim Mann found this to be true, however her journey in becoming a creative problem solver did not happen overnight.

Many students dislike math and few students find the subject easy to learn, which could be partially responsible for why it is so often avoided or abandoned. This could have easily been the case for Kim, who in addition to struggling with math in her early years, also faces a learning disability. She said, “ I'm dyslexic, which means my brain functions a little bit differently than what would be classified as normal."

However, Kim’s perspective on math changed when she entered high school. Throughout her earlier education, Kim was consistently penalized for not following the standard methods to solve the math problems, and she did not do well. Her 9th grade geometry teacher allowed her to answer the questions in a different way, as long as she was logically consistent.  While the traditional answer might take three steps, Kim’s answer (at least initially) took approximately 30 steps. However, this teacher  would give her full credit if she could demonstrate her logical progression through the problem. This helped Kim develop her skills, resulting in faster problem solving abilities. “Once I saw the entire path in my head, I would see the shortcut and how to get the answer in the three steps that we were taught in class,” she said.

In Kim’s case, it took just one teacher to transform her outlook on  math. As many other women in STEM have recounted their experiences, it has become clear that teachers play a critical role in how young girls view math and science. “This was the first time, in a math class, that I was permitted to think the way that I think."

For many young students, these early experiences mean the difference between a strong or a weak foundation in math. That foundation sets the stage for future decisions and success pertaining to other STEM subjects. According to Kim, it is partially responsible for the fact that many young girls are unable to overcome the challenges that they encounter in their STEM coursework. Kim witnessed this first-hand, as a tutor in high school and in college. “I was fortunate that my high school focused heavily on math, which helped me develop a solid foundation. This foundation allowed me to pursue my math degree, as well as computer science."

The other reason that women don’t overcome these early challenges? Psychology. “One of the things that I’ve noticed with middle school students, is that girls tend to do things  in packs, whereas boys tend to be more comfortable being alone.  I think that is a big reason that  we’re not able to get a group of girls to go into the harder science and math areas because, collectively, the group’s not interested enough to prioritize it,” Kim shared.

Despite early struggles and challenges, we believe that success in STEM is sweet. Kim says, “When you finally do something where you get a positive feeling, you want to pursue it more and more. When I went to college, I majored in math and later added a major in computer science.”

For Kim, pursuing a STEM career has been extremely rewarding. However, she feels that we need to do a better job of painting the picture of fulfilling possibilities that a STEM career holds. “Young girls need to understand that the stereotypical computer programmer is a dying concept.  It’s not that you are stuck in a cube, typing away all day. Young girls are not intrigued or inspired by the concept of just sitting in a cube.  For me, I often spend at least half my day interacting with other people, because a dialogue is required to find the right solution,” she said.

Those creative solutions are what drives Kim in her daily work. “Generally speaking, the STEM-based careers are looking to solve problems. STEM professionals spend their days finding solutions to the world’s largest problems. There’s a lot of creativity that can be incorporated into solving these problems, and, you are rewarded for thinking outside of the box, provided you can get into the box.  If we could better demonstrate what it means to be a programmer, a doctor, a scientist, etc, more girls might see themselves filling these roles,” she said.

How can we do a better job of encouraging girls to pursue STEM careers? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Topics: Women in STEM

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