Building kids’ STEM confidence starts at home, alum says

June 3, 2024

Ramita Anand
Ramita Anand, BSc 1998, Biology/MEd 2000

“There’s this perception that kids that are good at maths and science are nerdy or uncool,” says alum Ramita Anand. “But I try to help kids understand that all life is science and that failure is part of learning. Hypotheses may have gone wrong—so you thought this friendship was a good one, but maybe it hasn't been. Actually, what you're doing is conducting a scientific experiment throughout your life.”

Anand (BSc 1998, Biology/MEd 2000) took a turn from science into education over her time at UBC. During 20 years of teaching science and special educational needs, a common thread emerged from every school she taught in: it is crucial for children to be championed and encouraged to pursue their dreams.

In this conversation, Anand discusses her experiences as a female entrepreneur, the importance of empowering young girls in STEM, and the challenges girls face navigating adolescence. She is the founder of Elevate.RA, a company which offers educational mentoring programs for pre-adolescent girls.

You've lived and taught in Vancouver, New York, Singapore and now London, England. Do you find the challenges girls face following careers in STEM are the same worldwide?

The underlying concern around females having more visibility and representation in STEM is everywhere. The issues are ubiquitous. It's getting a lot better than it was, but we're still doing a lot of the same work to empower young girls to feel confident in pursuing those careers.

Is having a woman instructing a STEM class or being in a position of authority in a school enough to influence girls? 

Yes, because you can start to visualize yourself doing the same thing. And you start to think, ‘Oh, one day that could be me’. When you can't see it, you can't be it. When I speak to a group of young girls in schools today—even as young as five or six— they say, well, we don't do math because the boys are better at math. We don't do science because all the astronauts are men. They've got to see female astronauts to start believing that they can be an astronaut too.

What role can parents play in helping their daughters get interested in science or pursue an interest in STEM they already have?

Many schools invite me in to do talks with parents about how the brain works, and the science around neurological connections, how we build that confidence in young people. The parents, nannies, grandparents, carers, can encourage young girls to feel empowered—especially when they’re younger. It's a language change or mindset shift that can enhance a child's understanding and belief in themselves if they hear it from all areas. 

You say girls are most vulnerable between the ages of nine and 13. Why do they lose confidence then and what sort of encouragement do they need? 

Young children are not afraid or inhibited. They're ready to shine their light and be proud of what they can do, whether it's a turning a cartwheel or colouring a drawing of a butterfly. When adolescence hits there's a shift between wanting to be liked by peers more that by your parents. And when you're seeking validation from your peer group, you are self-conscious and start to worry about not looking the right part, or not having the right grades to fit into certain groups. 

The voice of the inner critic the becomes louder than the inner cheerleader. When you’re looking at going to high school and leaving your elementary school friends, that change in social circles is a big thing. Also, puberty hits young girls of that age, and it's hitting girls younger and younger, so they're having a massive change within their hormonal balance. On top of that they're going through “individuation” which is trying to work out who they are outside of their family. Working all of that out on their own can be quite overwhelming, understandably and a lot of girls can develop a defeatist mentality. They start wanting to give up on themselves, because they're not seeking the support that they need.

You're a mother and you launched Elevate.RA during the pandemic. How did you manage to get the company off the ground and grow it? 

I had just left teaching and moved to Singapore, and I hit a fork in the road—considering going back into education as a teacher or give back in a different way. I had a coach that helped me narrow my thinking down and figure out how to fill in the gap between what I've seen in schools, what I experienced as a teenager myself, and what might make a difference for girls. The pandemic gave me space, time and energy to think a lot about what I wanted to do with my science background and what I've learned. 

You host a podcast where you and your guests talk about how to empower girls. How has it been learning the podcasting ropes and developing a steady stream of content ?

My learning curve has been fantastically great. Though I love science, computing and tech has never been my strong suit. So getting my head around how to edit audio files and get sound bites and all of the fun of this has been really exciting. And it's been a really nice way to showcase to my own children that you can learn new skills, even as an adult. Self-belief is everything. You can learn whatever you want, if you believe in yourself.

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