Podcast: How FIRST is Creating Equity in STEM Programs

SWE FY18 President Jonna Gerken talks with Nancy Boyer, Director of Research and Evaluation at FIRST, and some FIRST team members.

Reading Time: 8 minutes

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Hi, I’m Jonna Gerken, FY18 President of the Society of Women Engineers, and this is SWE’s Diverse podcast series. Please remember to add this podcast to your iTunes and like or follow us on social media. Visit swe.org for more details.

Joining me now is Nancy Boyer. She is Director of Research and Evaluation at FIRST.

Thanks for joining us Nancy.

Nancy, tell us about FIRST and your role at FIRST.


  • I would be happy to but first I want to thank SWE for giving me this opportunity to talk about FIRST and what we are learning about creating equity in STEM programs. I appreciate the time to talk about this important subject.
  • FIRST – For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, is a nonprofit organization, headquartered in Manchester NH serving over 450,000 youth around the world.
  • We have stem-based programs for youth spanning grades Kindergarten through 12th Our programs are designed to teach engineering and robotics skills, stem literacy, and 21st century skills such as communication, problem solving and teamwork.
  • Youth work on teams, guided by adult mentors, to accomplish a challenge which changes annually.
  • My role at FIRST is to lead our evaluation work. I assess the impact of our programs on participating youth, work with our external evaluators and manage our largest evaluation effort – our multi-year longitudinal study.
  • And I also evaluate our programs effectiveness, pilots and all of our diversity and inclusion activities. In my spare time, I also coach a robotics team. 4 years ago my daughter and I started an all girls FIRST Tech Challenge team to give girls in our community an opportunity to engage in STEM.  I brought 4 of my team members today to share some of their insights as young women interested in STEM. So let me introduce them: Alison Lambert, Maddie Boyer,  Sarah Haynes, and Sonya DeLorie.


What are you learning through your evaluation work at FIRST about reaching underrepresented/underserved youth?


  • Much of our evaluation work is determining if FIRST is effective in increasing participant’s interest and engagement in STEM. And recently we have looked closely at our diversity and inclusion work and are finding that the underrepresented and underserved youth who we are reaching through our diversity and inclusion strategies are having significant outcomes in STEM including increases in STEM interest, skills and knowledge.
  • We are also in the middle of a multi year longitudinal study being conducted by Brandeis University Center for Youth and Communities. That study is tracking students over time, and uses a comparison group of peers.  We are now in our 5th year of data collection and we are finding that FIRST has positive outcomes for all youth, regardless of race, gender, income or community.
  • And in particular, we are seeing that girls involved in FIRST are having significant gains in STEM interest, STEM knowledge, STEM identity, career interest and stem activity compared to their female peers.
  • But what is even more exciting is that we are seeing that the young women in our study who have graduated from high school are more likely to be interested in engineering and computer science majors and are taking courses in engineering and computer science at greater rates than their female peers.
  • FIRST is not only helping girls develop an interest in STEM but also further igniting that interest beyond high school and into college majors. 

To Sonya, Maddie, Allison, and Sarah –  What has your experience been like as a young woman interested in a STEM profession?

  • Alison: During my freshmen year in my engineering class I was the only girl in a class of 23 students – when I tried to speak, the boys looked at me like I shouldn’t be there. No one wanted to work with me when we worked in groups.  It was discouraging, because even the teacher didn’t do anything about this.  I got stuck with the boring stuff – the boys worked on building and designing.  Sophomore year I was able to work with girls and we were much more cohesive as a team.  This experience made me want to work harder to change the stigma around girls in stem and to not make them feel like they are going to be isolated if they choose to pursue the things they love.
  • Maddie: As a freshman I went to join a robotics team at my school and as I approached to sign up there was a group of boys who stared me down, and I felt like I didn’t belong. I decided to attend the first meeting, and there was only 1 other girl there.  I felt excluded from the conversation going on and was told to clean instead of participate with the group. I left the meeting and never returned.  But this experience inspired me to start an all girls team and get more girls involved.  And it also motivated me to do outreach with young girls to show them that they can build robots and participate in STEM.
  • Sarah: As a 3rd grader, I was heavily interested in mathematics, but was not given opportunities to pursue this interest. Later on, my school introduced a new career-focused program to explore what these careers would be like in real life. I was ecstatic to finally try something of interest to me. I signed up for all the science/math professions; however I was denied from these opportunities and instead placed into a more ‘suitable’ career of teaching, while all the boys were in my desired positions. It was not until I was homeschooled that I was finally not limited by my gender and able to study math, perform experiments, and design ideas. I was so relieved when in high school this was not the case and I joined FIRST Tech Challenge and explored my interests.
  • Sonya – I feel I have been at a disadvantage as a woman interested in stem. During my sophomore year engineering class I was the only sophomore girl. Most of the boys didn’t want to talk to me so I only had a few people to talk to unlike in my other classes where I could talk to both boys and girls. I also was unable to talk about what my dream type of motorcycle was or what favorite type of plane was with the rest of the boys and our male teacher, because I didn’t know much about motorcycles or planes. I felt socially out of the loop and isolated. Most of the girls who took engineering freshman year stopped after only one year. As one of four girls in my grade to continue with engineering until senior year I feel it was not easy for me or the other girls to feel as confident in our engineering classes as the boys.


It sounds like you have each faced barriers and challenges in pursuing your interests in these fields.  What advice do you have for other girls and adults who are in STEM fields or teachers:

  • Alison: My advice to teachers is to stop the stereotyping around who is the perfect stem student. Those without experience building or playing with LEGOs are just as capable of being successful. I played with Barbies when I was little but that doesn’t mean I don’t like math. Teachers need to play to everyone’s strength – my teacher showed me that I didn’t belong because I was a girl – he could have included me more and not seen me as a girl but as part of a larger team.
  • Maddie: Starting kids off young in STEM is the way to go. In middle school, instead of choosing the boy first, invite the girls. Sometimes having an all girls team or all girls group gives you the confidence and helps you feel successful.  I was successful because I had the opportunity to start an all girls FIRST team. We need more opportunities like FIRST where girls can feel like they belong and explore their interests.
  • Sarah: Give girls as many opportunities as possible to build skills that boys already have as a result of their exposure to STEM. One of my favorite phrases is “teach boys and girls the same”. In high school, I was able to advocate for myself, my abilities and my interests, but young girls are not able to do these things for themselves, so it is up to us and teachers to do this.
  • Sonya – I would tell students to participate in a hands-on program like FIRST in addition to the stem classes they are taking at school. FIRST has impacted my stem education tremendously. FIRST has shown me more about mechanical, electrical, and programming aspects of stem and with a group of people that are interested in the same things as me. I don’t think I would still be taking engineering classes at my school if it wasn’t for


Where does FIRST and organizations like FIRST fit with getting girls into STEM?


  • Our data suggests that by participating in FIRST girls getting excited about STEM and persisting in it. Providing access to engaging programs like FIRST is really central to bring more girls into the stem fields.
  • Programs can be successful if they use a number of key strategies that we know help to get girls engaged in STEM – for example, working on teams in a collaborative way, focusing on a real world or local problem that has some significance to them, working with a caring adult who can mentor and talk about professions, and providing a culminating experience where girls and young women can demonstrate what they have learned. These strategies are getting girls in FIRST engaged.


What advice would you give an organization, or school, to help bridge the gap of access and provide opportunities for girls in STEM?


  • I would recommend that an organization invest in diversity and inclusion. For FIRST, it’s one of our strategic pillars and we have a full time expert on staff who is developing and executing our activities in equity, diversity and inclusion.
  • I’d also recommend that schools and organizations provide adequate training in the areas of equity, diversity and inclusion. For example, at FIRST we have over 60,000 teams that are managed by coaches and mentors. We know we need to support these coaches and mentors through training to have a real impact in this area. So we have developed training modules in partnership with the National Alliance of Partnerships in Equity that focus on implicit bias, micro-messaging, recruitment for diversity, thinking about roles on teams and promoting self-efficacy to help improve equity and inclusion on teams.
  • Organizations should also keep learning what is working through evaluation. It’s important to promote and share our work and strategies. We all need to learn from each other on what is working and what isn’t so we can move closer to providing equitable experiences for girls and all youth.


Nancy, thank you so much for joining us. Nancy Boyer is the Director of Research and Evaluation at FIRST.

For SWE, I’m Jonna Gerken. Thanks for listening to this podcast.

More From FIRST

At FIRST, we’re intentional in our work to focus on girls and other underrepresented and underserved youth. Our goal is to provide greater access to our programs as well as train coaches, mentors and volunteers on how to create equity and inclusive practices on teams.  Having programs with proven impact for all youth regardless of demographic background inspires us to bring these programs to those who would benefit the most – those who may lack the accumulated skills and experiences to prepare them for coursework in STEM – and provide the confidence and self-efficacy to be successful.

Please join us in our effort to provide meaningful opportunities to girls and all youth that increase their capacity for STEM, level the playing field and ultimately inspire them to consider careers in STEM.  Let’s balance the scales of equity by increasing our own awareness of implicit bias and take intentional action to reduce the opportunity gap. Let’s stop talking about special treatment, and instead take action to ensure equity. Get connected to FIRST® and find out how together we can foster STEM learning for girls.

This content has been contributed by FIRST as as part of a promotional digital content program.

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