STEM From Dance Students. Photo Credit: SFD
Proponents of arts education have, for years, preached the benefits of artistically enriched schooling and access to after-school programing. The growth witnessed in participating children, time after time, seems to produce confident, adept critical thinkers willing to expand personal horizons and more openly accept and work with peers. Yamilee Toussaint, founder and CEO of STEM From Dance, is no different from her arts education colleagues, yet the angle from which she approaches her work might be, well, to use the mathematical term, a little more obtuse.
Toussaint, a Massachusetts Institute Of Technology educated mechanical engineer, was an avid dancer for twenty-one years having grown up dancing in studios, performing in recitals, and studying different genres of dance. Even throughout college, as she found her way on a path toward a career in the STEM fields— the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics— she danced in competitive hip-hop groups, and always found dance as a way to overcome any lack of credence she had in herself.
“Dance helped me overcome self-doubt and that translated into other aspects of my life which led me to study mechanical engineering at MIT,” Toussaint said in an interview with Dance Network. “As one of two black women in the program, I quickly noticed minority girls needed more encouragement to pursue STEM college majors and careers.”
After finishing school, Toussaint “switched gears”, as she puts it, to bring more STEM access to the underserved community of East New York. Through Teach For America, whose mission pledges to enlist the most promising future leaders to grow and strengthen educational equity, Toussaint began to see that students, specifically girls, in her Brooklyn neighborhood were lacking confidence, preparation, and awareness of STEM careers.
“I founded STEM From Dance to help to increase the number of underrepresented minority girls who pursue STEM in undergraduate education.” Toussaint said.
The question of how one goes about binding the scientific world of STEM and the artistic echelon of dance, a difficult query to a practitioner of only one of the two categorically different disciplines, emerged to be a calling for Toussaint.
“We introduce different ways to enhance dance performances by integrating them with technology,” Toussaint said. “In order to create a performance like this, we follow the engineering design process to construct a technology project. A dance choreographer also follows a similar process to create dance movement; movement is created that will compliment the tech. All of the tech projects that are used to enhance our performances are programmed with code that reflect unique and creative ideas.”
Similarly to STEM From Dance which runs throughout the school year as an elective or after school program at participating schools, Toussaint created a summer camp called Girls Rise Up, working to bridge the confidence gap in minority girls in her community. The camp, which began July 9th and runs through July 20th, takes place in the Fort Green neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.
“I was inspired to launch Girls Rise Up because it would create another opportunity for girls to experience our program that we might not reach during the school year.” Toussaint said.
“A typical day at camp begins with everyone coming together in the morning with a fun group activity or listening to a guest speaker share their experience in the STEM world,” Toussaint explained. “The girls then break up into their cohorts where they focus on the planning, construction, and rehearsal of a dance-tech piece. Each cohort receives a tech lesson or time to learn and rehearse dance choreography. In between the sessions, the girls have lunch. After their last session of the day, the girls are given time to journal and reflect on their day before everyone comes back together for an ensemble rehearsal or time to share out.”
Even Toussaint’s most timid STEM students seem to eventually enjoy and embrace dancing.
“[While] the majority of the girls have been quite open and excited to start dancing at the camp, some of the girls are more interested in the STEM side and don't have much of a background in dance,” Toussaint said. “Although those girls were a bit shy about dancing in front of others, I've seen a tremendous amount of progress in their confidence due to their effort and the camp’s encouragement and support.”
STEM From Dance students. Photo Credit: SFD
Working to find the inspiration for the movement is a collaborative effort in which Toussaint joins forces with her dance staff to find the most constructive and supportive ways forward.
“I always want the dances that we teach the girls to be relevant and have a positive message; that positive message is also reflected with our song choice. I work with our dance instructors and we collaborate on storylines, themes, movement ideas and music. It's important to us that our students enjoy the movement and feel a connection to the song, so we try to incorporate contemporary movement, current dances, and popular songs.”
Toussaint explained that the biggest benefits her students get out of the program are the encouragement and support they need to visualize themselves as successful women in STEM.
“They gain self-confidence and the courage to push themselves outside of their comfort zones. They also learn that failing in the moment is okay because it provides an opportunity to learn and troubleshoot.”
Toussaint working with STEM students. Photo Credit: SFD
So, what’s next for STEM From Dance and Girls Rise Up? It seems a bright and bountiful future— especially with the guidance of their inspirational leader.
“I would love to see the camp create a buzz among girls in NYC that makes them want to get involved with SFD and pursue STEM in college. My hope is that our camp would double, even triple in size,” Toussaint said. “Arts education in conjunction with STEM education is significant… It allows students to exercise creativity, execute ideas, and build discipline which only sharpens their capacity to flourish in STEM education.”
For more on Yamilee Toussaint, STEM From Dance, and Girls Rise Up, visit . You can also follow SFD on at the handle @stemfromdance, and like their .
Michael Mahany is a writer, host, actor, and serves as the New York City Correspondent for Dance Network. Follow him on and .