How a Mother's Love of Cookies and Chemistry Made STEM a Core Piece of My Life

Stephanie Espy is the author of STEM Gems. A chemical engineer and graduate of MIT, UC Berkeley and Emory University, she tells the stories of 44 inspiring women in STEM to show girls and young women around the world a new set of women heroes to look up to.


My mother is, first and foremost, a rock star when it comes to baking chocolate chip cookies. She is also an environmental engineer with degrees in math and engineering. But her saving the planet isn’t the part I remember most when I was six. Today, when the buttery aroma of warm cocoa and vanilla fills my parents’ home, the scent puts me firmly inside a memory at our yellow Formica countertop, standing bare-footed on a chair in my pajamas, Mom inviting me into her world of chemistry: solid to liquid butter, dry measure versus wet measure, the transition of baking soda into carbon dioxide gas to make the cookies rise. Those days spent together in the kitchen had little to do with engineering the perfect cookie but everything to do with creating fond memories and shaping a young STEM Gem.

STEM is everywhere. From a young age, my parents championed this principle. Illustrating the ubiquity of STEM at every stage of my development had a major impact on my desire to become an engineer.  With my mother, I measured ingredients to my favorite recipes and calculated discounts at holiday sales on my favorite toys. From her, I learned about ratios, proportions, percents, fractions, and so many other applications to math – without even knowing it. My father, an electrical engineer and computer guru, introduced me to the Internet and its applications years before it became mainstream. When joined with exceptional teachers throughout my education, the trifecta of inspiration was a powerful motivating force.

As an undergraduate chemical engineering student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, I realized the power of a STEM degree—how valuable it is to be able to think critically, solve complex problems, and find solutions to the most pressing issues we face in society. STEM has afforded me so many opportunities, so many ways to make a difference. I knew I had unlimited options in nearly any industry. The world was mine.

After completing three degrees, including an MBA from Emory University, and several internships, I turned down numerous six-figure-salary job offers in corporate America. Instead, I chose to tackle an issue that has always been close to my heart: closing the gender gap in STEM. I set out to help middle and high school students become more STEM fluent—the ability to solve problems, think critically and logically, apply theory, and innovate. STEM fluency is a way of thinking and learning that empowers complete foundational knowledge of the subject at hand.  Having an early start in understanding STEM concepts was pivotal for my interest and development, and I wanted to help students at those critical ages when many begin to lose interest in math and science. I wanted to teach them about the ubiquity of STEM and the beauty in math and science like my parents and teachers did for me. And that’s how MathSP (S for Strategies and P for Problem-solving) was born. MathSP provides STEM-based academic coaching and comprehensive test-prep coaching to students in middle school, high school, and beyond.

MathSP is great for strengthening math and science skills while also instilling confidence, but it didn’t go far enough to address the STEM deficit. Helping students to connect math and science concepts to STEM careers was the missing piece. I wanted to expose students, girls and young women in particular, to career opportunities they didn’t know existed. STEM careers aren’t lauded in the media, and most girls don’t personally know someone who illustrates such options. How could young women elevate their thinking if they are not aware of the opportunities available to them? I also wanted to expose girls and young women to STEM paths that are traditionally considered male-only opportunities. This quest to deepen STEM interest, to uncover varied opportunities, and to give girls and young women female role models in STEM formed the seed of inspiration for the STEM Gems book.

In creating STEM Gems: How 44 Women Shine in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, And How You Can Too, I first brainstormed a list of careers that impact the world every day, that help people, and that make a difference. Some of the careers may be familiar to readers, but many are careers that are not as well known, especially to girls and young women. I listed amazing career opportunities that I wished I knew about when I was a tween. I thought of careers that are traditionally male-dominated but are making strides to attract more women. I included a wide range of careers that represented each of the four STEM disciplines. In the end, the 44 careers highlighted in the book include 12 in science, 10 in technology, 10 in engineering, and 12 in mathematics.

Next, I combed the Internet and STEM journals to identify women in the respective careers then contacted them one by one. The vast majority of the women were thrilled to be a part of such a powerful resource to inspire girls and young women—and their enthusiasm made me even more excited to get to work. They shared their stories, unedited, as learning from mistakes proves just as important as from accomplishments. All was on the table to empower girls and young women and to give them the tools to shine. Each interview began with their own explanation of their work in a way that simplifies and underscores the impact they make each day. They went on to answer questions that delve into inspiration and motivation. They discussed their wins and their failures, their mentors and champions, their personal role models—all in an effort to create the perfect insiders’ guide to how they became a successful STEM Gem. Girls will be able to use this road map to chart their own careers.

After the interviews were completed, many overlapping themes emerged that illustrated key components critical to the successes of the 44 STEM Gems. These themes evolved into eight how-to chapters to give young women tangible, actionable steps they can take, starting immediately, to create their unique STEM career paths. The chapters conclude with a check-list of action items to guide girls and young women toward logical next steps. Lastly, I wanted to make sure that the writing style and language for each of the 44 stories and eight chapters was appropriate for young readers. I asked a group of tween and teen girls to beta read the chapters to ensure they were written in a way that was relatable and easy to understand.

STEM Gems is the book I wish I had growing up.

The influence of my parents, teachers, and other family members from an early age encouraged my interest in STEM and, at a later age, inspired me to make an impact on the STEM world by doing my part to close the gender gap. I hope the STEM Gems book becomes that spark for young women who are not yet STEM fluent and that enduring fire for other young women to keep the spark going. The 44 women featured in the book are dynamic and amazing. Their stories captivate and inspire. They invite readers into their worlds, much like my mother did for me at that yellow countertop all those years ago. And who knows? Maybe a future STEM Gem will create the perfectly delicious, calorie-free chocolate chip cookie.

Sincerely,

Stephanie Espy
STEM Gems Author